Sacred Forests: Atsuta Jingu Shrine

Finally, a new post about travel! I went to Japan at the beginning of May for a 5 day weekend and while I got rained on for most of it, I still had a great time. Nagoya isn’t exactly on the top of everyone’s Japanese travel itinerary, but I have a friend working there and it was nice to combine some travel goodness with some friend hang outs. Eventually, I’ll be writing about Nagoya Castle, Tokugawa Gardens, the awesome regional foods of Nagoya, and a few other gems, but for now I give you the epitome of “forest bathing” at this old and venerable Shinto Shrine.


I only got one sunny day on my holiday and this was not it. This was a special shame because I had actually planned my more touristy activities for Monday and Tuesday to avoid the holiday/weekend crowds. I swear I checked the forecast before this plan, and it was just supposed to lightly rain one of the days.

Thinking this, I picked some indoor activities for Monday, the light rain day, and planned to split Tuesday, the partly cloudy day, between the two main outdoor attractions I was interested in. However Monday is also the day all the indoor activities like the aquarium, planetarium, and science museum are closed! I could not be less interested in car and train museums, so I decided to brave the rain and head to the forest anyway. 

A Little Bit About Shinto Shrines
Generally in Japan, anything called a “shrine”shrine icon is Shinto, while a “temple” temple icon is Buddhist. The map icons help to distinguish, and no, that’s not a Nazi swastika, it’s a traditional Buddhist symbol that is much much older than Hitler. The Shinto tales of kami (kind of like gods and spirits) are every bit as long and sordid as the Greek or Egyptian myths and involve lots of improbable births, sibling marriages, and explanations for how the world got so messed up. I do not know the whole thing as well as I know Greek gods because I wasn’t raised on a steady diet of Kojiki myths, but they show up regularly in Japanese pop culture and anime and unlike the Greek pantheon, they are still relevant and widely worshiped inside Japan to this day.

There are three sacred objects in Japan: a sword, a mirror and a jewel. The sword is enshrined here at Atsuta Jingu. It belonged to Yamato Takeru in life and was enshrined along with some of his other belongings upon his death. The main god of the shrine, Atsuta, is the god of this sword.

Atsuta Jinju is said to be about 2000 years old. In addition to housing the sacred sword, it honors 5 major deities including Amaterasu (the sun godess), Susano-o (god of the sea and storms), YamatoTakeru (12th Emporer of Japan whose death inspired the shrine), Takeinadane-no-Mikoto and Miyasuhime-no-Mikoto (the first parents of the native people of Nagoya).

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Large, old Shinto shrines are quite different from their small cousins.  I ran across a smaller shrine in Osu (above) that was about the size of a house. There are dozens tucked in wherever a sacred spot can be located. The city sort of swallows them up. Larger shrines like Meiji Jingu in Tokyo (below) and Atsuta Jingu in Nagoya are located in sacred forests. The fact that Shinto is an active faith in Japan means that these forests have been preserved and protected throughout history and urban development. Now, some of the largest cities in the world have these crazy old growth forests right inside.

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I can’t really get into a full explanation of Shinto mythology and practice here because like every aspect of human culture it is huge and complex, but I hope this gives a little insight into the significance and history of the Atsuta Jingu shrine.

Into the Woods

Going inside, each gate is marked by a gigantic toori gate, usually left natural wood brown and decorated with shide (the zigzag folded paper) and sometimes fresh cut branches. The gates are enormous, and yet in photos they don’t look large beside the trees because the trees are even bigger. People bow to the forest both upon entering and leaving. It’s not just a park in the city, it is a truly sacred space.

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Walking into one of these gates on a sunny day is somewhat daunting because the bright sunlight and city noises are suddenly absent and you find yourself mystically transported to a world of green-gold half light and birdsong. Going through the gates on a gray and rainy day felt far more sinister as the path ahead of me was swallowed in near darkness. Mists clung to the trees and the birds were silent from the rain except for the occasional cawing of huge black crows. Super spooky and it gave me a real appreciation for the origin of some of those Japanese horror stories.

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Museum of Treasures

Once inside the forest, my eyes adjusting to the low light level, and my lungs filling with the most amazing air, I began to feel better at once. The museum is near the main gate, so I decided to go there first. I found a couple of chickens hiding in the lee of the building to stay dry. They had become superstars to the other guests, city dwellers who hardly ever see farm birds in any other context than a restaurant menu. I don’t know if it was more fun to watch the birds or watch the people react to them.

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On display in the museum’s main room is what I can only assume is a replica of the sacred sword said to be enshrined there. It’s loooong. Like taller than Shaq. When I first saw it, I didn’t yet know the myth and history of the shrine, but I assumed that it must have belonged to a god simply by it’s proportions. There is also a small gift shop, and a public restroom and snack machine. Upstairs looked like a library. The museum proper is 3$ to enter and since the shrine is otherwise free (donation based), I didn’t have any problem contributing. I’m a little sad they didn’t have any English, but I enjoyed looking at the relics nonetheless.

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My absolute favorite was an elaborate painting that depicted the history of Japan from the creation of the world by the gods through modern day. It was done as a spiral pathway that started with creation, followed the early emperors of Japan and the sacred sword being passed down until it was finally enshrined, and then further important events in the shrine’s history. I couldn’t really read the guide, but I know enough about early Japanese creation myths (presentations in Japanese class paid off eventually?) to have recognized the pictures in the center an extrapolated outward.

I was hoping to find an image or print somewhere to share, but it’s not in the brochure or on the website, which also says the relics on display are changed out monthly. It was easily the most distinctive thing in the museum. I enjoy the old ceremonial clothing, dishware and weaponry as well, but it didn’t stand out to me as unique the way that painting did.

Ookusu: Big Tree

Once finished with the museum, I headed back into the woods with my trusty travel umbrella. Different areas of the forest are further divided with more toori gates and the first one I encountered leaving the museum led me to the ookusu. It literally translates to “big camphor tree” and these big old trees are often centerpieces at shrines in Japan. Totoro lives in a camphor tree, after all. The sign next to this one says it’s over 1000 years old. Near the tree there is a chōzubachi (ritual purification water pool) and a decorative wall of empty sake barrels. Sake is used in offerings and rituals, and the empty barrels are turned into art to adorn the shrine. Usually the sake is donated to the shrine and the displaying of the empty barrels is similar to many other types of prayer where notes or paper decorations are displayed. Instead of buying a prayer paper to write on, these breweries donate sake.

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I look back at my photos now and realize there is just no way to show the context of the size of the forest in Atsuta because everything is built to god scale and you walk around feeling a little bit like a child in a grown up world the whole time. Maybe that’s intentional? Probably. It reminds me of my photos of the redwoods where all the trees are so big that they all look normal next to each other. I’m not saying that this ookusu is as big as a sequoia, but it’s still a big tree. I was holding my phone up at arms’ length and I’m still shooting up at the rope marker.

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The Honmyu

My next stop was the main shrine itself, called honmyu. Here I found several buildings surrounding a gravel courtyard. Photos of Atsuta taken here almost make it look like it’s open air rather than deep forested. It is a working shrine, so the main hall for services was lit, but closed to the public. I was pleased to be able to have a peek through the windows nonetheless. One building was a performance hall although it was empty the day I was there. I suspect that at least one of the other buildings was housing for the shrine maidens and priests.

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One building was a place to donate in exchange for a variety of charms or blessings. Lucky charms are a big part of Shinto and Japanese culture in general. There were small charms for almost everything. Additionally, there were prayer papers and wooden ornaments that individual prayers could be written on and hung around the shrine. I also saw arrows. I know that miko (shrine maidens) are famous for archery because (guilty look) the anime I watch shows them using bow and arrow to slay evil spirits. These demon breaking arrows are used to dispel evil and ward off bad luck. Absolutely nothing is in English, so I did my best to try and read the labels, but in the end I had to ask. I think I mixed up my pronunciation but the miko I asked seemed to figure it out quickly and I found a white swan for happiness. I don’t know if charms work, but I was happy to have the chance to visit the beautiful forest and that seems like a good reason to donate. Plus, whenever I hear the tiny bells jingle, I get a happy memory. Working already.

The main part of the shrine, where I believe the sacred relics to be enshrined, is not accessible to the public. We could walk up to a gate and get a lovely view of the beautiful buildings, but can go no further. Like many palaces, it’s a series of buildings and courtyards.

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The design is simple, natural and elegant made only of dark wood and a minimum of metal ornamentation. Unlike smaller shrines which are decked out in red and gold, the forest shrine was almost in camouflage to blend in to the trees around it. Despite the heavy rain that day, and the fact that it was mid-afternoon on a Monday, the forest still had a large number of visitors, and not only tourists, but locals who had come by to offer prayers and donations. Many people approached the shrine to drop coins and a formal bow.

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Spirit Houses: Jinja Shrines

In addition to the main shrine, the jingu, there are a number of smaller shrines or jinja around the forest. For some reason I thought these were usually open with an interior display of statues and gifts, but I have since gone back through my photos of other shrines and I was mistaken. All kami houses are shut up tight. These smaller shrines are also a kind of spirit house where the smaller local kami can dwell. Big global or national Kami like the goddess of the sun may have shrines all over Japan, but local kami may only have a few shrines… sometimes just one. People may pray to a specific kami because of it’s history, or because of a local or family connection.

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On the next leg of my walk I stepped off the main path to get a closer look at some of these jinja shrines. They were plain wooden tiny houses on stilts and I couldn’t make much sense of the simple signs adorning each one, so I just decided to enjoy the path when suddenly I noticed I could see my breath! I know the spring has been cooler than usual this year, but it was in the high 20s that day and for most of the day I had felt warm and a little sticky, now suddenly my breath was clouding up in front of me. I tried again, because I like to replicate results. And it happened again. I backed up down the path and it stopped happening. I moved forward, it happened again. I put a hand next to the shrine I was getting foggy breath in front of and I swear it felt colder. Just to be sure it wasn’t an effect of the shade or the wood, I tried the shrine next to it and didn’t feel any difference in the warm air on the path and that next to the shrine. I am not saying it was haunted, but … you know every time there’s a haunting in a movie the temperature suddenly drops and the characters can see their breath, so…

I did take a picture of the name of that shrine to check later, but all I can really find is that it seems to be related to water offerings. Maybe that’s why it gets excited in the rain?

Paper Cranes

After a delicious and filling lunch (which you can read more about in the food post) I felt well equipped to explore the rest of the grounds. I checked a few maps to try and guess which paths I hadn’t walked down yet. All the signs were Japanese only, and referenced the proper name of each building in the compound, so I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d been to and what I’d missed without the map reference.

As I wandered down another wide road, shrouded in tall dark trees, Nagoya’s oldest stone bridge and megalithic 8m high, 400 year-old stone lanterns (said to be one of the three most significant in all Japan), I found a few more of the jinja shrines along the way. Most of them were brown and unadorned, but a few had splashes of color.

20180507_133742At first I didn’t know what they were. I only saw the bright colors from a distance and was drawn closer with curiosity. As I examined the strings of color, it became clear that these were chains of paper cranes folded and strung together in a way that most Westerners are familiar with from the story of Sadako and the 1,000 paper cranes.

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It was so stunning to me to see string after string of brightly patterned paper, neatly and identically folded into shape. The rain had soaked them thoroughly but the paper held together well and the water made the colors pop even more. This one smaller shrine received more attention than any but the largest center shrine, so naturally I was very curious. It’s called Kusu no mae Shrine and is described on the website as “god of amnesty” The sign goes on to mention both Izanami and Izanagi, who created the world and gave birth to the islands of Japan. The website says: “It is commonly called “God of Koyasu” or “Ogunsama”, it cures various diseases” courtesy of Chrome’s auto translate.

A Whole Other Shrine, What?

I was perfectly content playing “find the shrine” in the forest. It was beautiful, the trees kept most of the rain off, and it smelled absolutely amazing to breathe the air there. Thinking I’d almost walked every trail there was to walk, I suddenly turned the corner into a whole ‘nother shrine complex! The same courtyard surrounded by multiple buildings. A slightly smaller charms/gifts shop with similar items. And a nearly identical unapproachable series of dark wooden buildings with delicate gold trim. I thought at first I might have wandered around to the back side of the same area I’d seen before, but the map confirms it is a totally different shrine called Kamichikama.

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Trying to discover the meaning of this led me on a wild Google chase that resulted in me visiting the actual Japanese website for the Atsuta Jingu shrine. Previously I’d only been reading the made for English speaking tourists site. The native one is WAY bigger. It’s tricky to translate religious stuff and ceremonial language, but I found the map with building names and basic function (so much better than the English one) and Kamichikama is a Bodhisattva of wisdom. I can’t find his name anywhere but Trip Advisor in reference to this particular place when I search it in English, but Shinto has a LOT of local deities and honored persons, so it could be that he only exists at this one place and that is not weird.

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I poked around the Japanese version of the website after discovering the insane difference in the level of details. Google translate is not great, but it does give me a little more information than … nothing… I am not going to try to translate the whole site and detail every little shrine I found, but if you’re curious, the information is out there. There are a LOT of shrines inside this forest and they are all devoted to a specific kami  or sometimes historical event that is remembered. People regularly come to them to pray and make offerings. Some people seemed to treat it a little like a wishing well, while others had deeper reverence. The practice of Shinto may have changed over the centuries in Japan, but it is definitely alive, well, and a major part of the everyday lives of the Japanese people.

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Sadly, the low lighting and high humidity played merry heck with my camera and there are not enough good shots of the shrine to be worthy of a solo Facebook album, but I will put together a trip compilation album before the end of the series. Speaking of which… I’m not actually finished writing the rough draft of whole this trip yet… still. At my last school, I had 1-2 hours when I was stuck at my desk with nothing to do but write, but here I have to carve out time because there is no “desk warming”. It’s so tempting to just leave the office behind and go for a walk or take a nap. Plus, I’ve spent a lot of my spare computer hours nailing down plans for the summer holiday European trip which is going to be so awesome. I’ll do my best to get the rest of the Nagoya stories out before the end of the semester? As always, thanks for reading!

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Letters from China (Queen’s Village 2007)

In October of 2007 I was invited to visit a small village near the university where I was teaching. This remains on of the most unique experiences I’ve had while living and traveling abroad. I was able to see parts of China that foreigners simply don’t visit. I was welcomed into their homes, and allowed not only to observe their way of life, but live it myself for a couple of days. I don’t where Queen is right now, and I don’t even know the name of her hometown, but I hope that she and they are doing well and can understand the impact they had on my life as an early traveler.


Oct 26, 2007 at 3:36pm

This weekend (Oct. 19-21) I went to a small farming village at the invitation of one of my students. Her English name is Queen. She is a sophomore (second year at university). She is 20 years old, and she is one of only 4 people in her generation from her village to go to college. She is also the first person in her family to pursue higher education. Her older brother didn’t even go to high school, and is now the only veterinarian for the whole area. Her family farm grows mainly corn which brings in about 1000$ USD per year. Her family grows its own vegetables and fruits in their yards, things like potatoes, turnips, cabbage, apples, pears, grapes and a kind of date called a jujube, mostly foods that can be stored, dried, pickled etc. There is only one store in the village to buy other goods, and most people simply eat what they produce or buy from each other what they need. They also have their own goats for milk and chickens for eggs, and one of her grandmothers even has bees for honey (they sent me home with coke bottle full).

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The Plumbing

The village does not have indoor plumbing, and while this may seem entertaining in an outhouse kind of way, they also don’t have running water indoors. There is a spigot in the yard that only works for one hour a day, since the government is restricting the water in the name of conservation. The northeast of China is very dry. So her family has to collect all the water they will use for the day during that hour. They collect it in a large basin and several buckets, and if they run out there is no way to get more. This means any cooking, washing or drinking they want to do requires them to get a measured amount of water from the daily store to use, heat it over a wood stove (more on that later), use for whatever purpose and then carry it out (no drains in the house either) to dump in the yard (don’t waste water that can help the crops).

In the summer they have a building in the yard they can take showers in (see picture below, its the building next to the doghouse), but since there is no way to heat the water for the shower, they don’t take showers in the winter, but rather heat up some water and use a basin to wash their hands, face and feet. There is a hotel in the village (apparently owned by one of her cousins, it specializes in offering city folk a real rural experience: Dude Ranch Chinese style), and every so often they go there to use the hot water showers in the winter, but it’s a special occasion.

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The lack of indoor plumbing extends to toilets as well, in the northwest corner of the yard (the least auspicious area in accordance with feng shui, I kid you not, and so the best place for a toilet). The building is brick (left), and the toilet is a rectangular hole in the ground (right), no porcelain here, that drains into a hole beside the building where the waste is collected for use as fertilizer. We stayed in two different houses the two nights I was there, and the first (her mother’s) had a nice clean toilet area, which I have a picture of, and the second (one of her grandmother’s) was pretty gross, covered in fecal matter and obviously not regularly cleaned (I have spared the world this image and have no photos of it).

The Electricity

There is some, but like the water it is limited. There is power for the lights, and they have TVs, satellite dishes, DVD players etc that they can run. Some of them also have a few electric cooking devices, like a rice cooker or hot plate. However, there are no stoves and no electric heating. The houses have large glass windows that collect and focus sunlight during the winter. People live on the sunny side of the house in the winter and move to the shady side in the summer, so the houses are built in mirror images. The main beds are made of brick. They run from one wall to the other and basically act as a horizontal chimney carrying heat from the wood stove to the real chimney in the outer wall. The bed stays very warm this way, and the whole family gathers in this room in the evening to eat dinner, watch TV, play cards etc where its warm. I was given this room to sleep in as the honored guest, and the family all slept together in another room. The stoves are fire, the fuel is whatever they can find, sticks and twigs from the orchard trees, dried chaff and stalks from the corn or other crops, etc.

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The climate in the northeast of China is very dry and very cold. It’s not the Gobi desert or anything, but it is very dry. The natural vegetation and the rock formations are very similar to the scrub-lands of southwest America, but its not as warm. If you could take a small rural town from the poorest part of Mississippi or Louisiana and move it out of the wetlands into the arid high plateaus of Arizona you might have an idea of what this place was like.

The Journey

We left Yanjiao about 1030 am. We took the 930 bus to the main terminal at Dawanglu, which is in the southeast corner of Beijing, out around the 3rd ring road¹. This is my normal route into Beijing and it takes about 40 minutes. We picked up some breakfast there, something a little like an egg mcmuffin, but fried. Then we got on the subway to go to Jishuitan, which is on the northwest corner of the second line (also the second ring road). This took about 30 minutes. Then we walked over to the bus station, passing one of the many old city gates, and got on the 919 to go to Yan Qiao. The mountains are apparently called the Yan Mountains, so many of the small towns start with “Yan”.

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We passed by many sites of the Great Wall, including Badaling, which is the most famous, and we paused for a brief rest stop and I think to change drivers, and I took some more photos of the wall.

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After about an hour and a half we arrived at the town, we took a little ride around the town square and went to the park.

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Then we flagged down a private cab (a guy with a van who doesn’t work for any taxi company) and my student negotiated a price for him to drive us to her village. The driver initially offered to take us for 13 Yuan, but later changed his mind, charging us only 3 and telling Queen to “take good care of the foreigner”. It took us about another 20-30 minutes to get to her village gate. As long as we remained in the Beijing zone, the roads were good, but as soon as we crossed the border into Hebei province, the roads became a mess of potholes and bad roadwork.

¹Beijing is an autonomous zone, a city without a province, like Washington D.C. is a city without a state. The city is zoned by the “ring roads“, which are just what they sound like. I only knew 5 at the time, apparently there are 7 now. It basically tells you how far from the city center you are.

Queen’s Family Home

We were dropped off at the gate and walked from there to her mother’s home. The streets within the village were more like dirt alleys, filled with rubble and trash. The homes were fairly old, most having an outer wall, a large yard used as a vegetable garden and a reasonably large home, which often housed 3 generations.

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Queen was very eager to show off the brick bed I described earlier, which was in the main bedroom.

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There were bright posters in many rooms which I was told are renewed at the spring festival and symbolize good fortune and fertility. I also took a look at the kitchens (both) to see the wood stoves that fed heat into the beds.

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Her mother was quite gracious. I was offered grapes and jujubes (the fruit not the candy, it’s a little like a date, but drier) from their garden as well as tea to drink. After a while, Queen wanted to wander over to her Grandmother’s house (for the sake of argument, since I honestly lost track of relatives, we’l just call this one Grandmother 1). It was a short walk, during which I was stared at by everyone we passed. Her grandmother, grandfather, aunt and uncle greeted us and I was plied with apples and haw fruit from their garden. Haw is a small red fruit with soft tart flesh; you might be able to find some candy or tea of that flavor in an Asian import store.

The people in Queen’s village don’t speak “putonghua” the common standard Mandarin Chinese, but rather a local dialect that I couldn’t understand at all. However, she’s a good student and was able to act as a translator for her family and me.

After a visit there, we headed back to her mother’s, stopping at the general store on the way back to pick up some snacks and packaged meat (kind of like Spam, but not in a can). Her mother prepared a nice dinner for us. We had sweet potato and rice porridge, a dish of potatoes and turnips, some candied almonds, and some mild pickled peppers her grandmother had sent back with us. Everything we ate except the meat was grown in her family’s gardens. Oh, and there was fresh goat’s milk from the goats in the back yard as well as a kind of strong clear alcohol that her mother soaked fruit in to make a tasty drink. I swear I ate until I was stuffed and her mother complained that I didn’t eat anything!

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Two of her young cousins came over after dinner and we all sat on the brick bed chatting and watching TV. Queen made her cousins speak slowly in putonghua to see if I could translate for myself. This seemed to amuse them for a while. I saw a beautiful show on TV of a troupe of dancers, all deaf and mute, doing a tribute to Guan Yin. They lined up behind one another and made elaborate patterns with their arms to imitate the multi armed statues of the goddess.

When it was time for bed, they set me up with plenty of blankets, made sure I had food and water in case I got hungry or thirsty in the middle of the night, and left a bucket so I wouldn’t have to brave the freezing outdoors to get to the outhouse.

Despite the bitter cold outside, the bed stayed warm, if terribly hard. I slept fairly well, though I woke up a little stiff. Breakfast was more fresh goats milk, some steamed eggs (which by the way had green shells, a nice pale sea-foam green, which I can only attribute to the breed of chicken, since I know the eggs were fresh since the chickens were also in the backyard)…anyway, this means I ate green eggs and spam for breakfast, I told Queen about Dr. Seuss and recited what I could remember of the poem which she seemed very interested in. There was also a nice pickled cabbage dish, almonds leftover from dinner and possibly some other things, it kind of blurs together.

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Local Schools

After breakfast we took a walk to the local schools. Queen told me that very few of the students finish middle school. The classes are too crowded and all the good teachers have left for better jobs. Many of the boys wander the streets during the day rather than going to school. Their parents don’t want them to get outside jobs at that age, but don’t make them go to class. When they grow up they will be manual laborers, working in the fields or building roads, earning only a few hundred Yuan a month.

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The children in the school were excited to see me, I may not have mentioned, but I was the first foreigner to ever visit this village. Queen herself was bursting with pride to be walking beside me and translating for me. The head of the kindergarten wanted to take pictures of me in his school, I hesitate to imagine that soon there will be pictures of me proudly displayed there, although I did nothing more than walk through it.

It was so strange to see all those bright and curious faces and know that most of them would never leave the 50 mile radius of their increasingly poor and dry county; would never see the world; would never even finish a basic education, and that for many of them, the few minutes that I was in their school was the only time they might ever see someone from another country not on TV.

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We returned to her mother’s house where an uncle picked us up in his truck to drive us to grandmother 2’s house a ways away. I will continue the story in another post, since there’s a character limit here. Tune in next time for the continuation of the Village Excusion!

Oct 26, 2007 at 3:57pm

When we left off, an uncle picked us up in his truck to drive us to grandmother 2’s house a ways away. I do believe that the truck had no shocks at all, the roads were bumpy beyond belief, and sometimes there wasn’t a road, at least not what we would call one. There were certainly no traffic laws, and people simply drove wherever they could.

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This turned out to be quite a distance. On the way we drove past an interstate under construction, where I was informed that the government had taken up farmland to build a highway for the Olympics. We also passed a large metal statue of a hand holding a wine bottle, seemingly in triumph, a tribute to the wine of the region, which I have still never tried.

The Other Grandparents

Grandmother 2 lived in an older and less orderly village. The amenities were a good deal dirtier. The number of times I silently thanked my mother for teaching me how to be a gracious guest were countless. The yard was sort of a garden, and of course there were goats, fruit trees and even some beehives, well boxes of bees anyway.

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We walked around the village a bit, saw the main streets and the aqueduct which also doubles as a washing machine.

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Then her cousin came to pick us up and take us to some of the “sights”. There was a stage that the Beijing (Peiking) Opera apparently performs on during the spring festival.

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Is That a Town or a Film Set?

We went next to an old ruined village near the lake that has become a popular site for film directors. Apparently about half the ruin is authentic and the other half has been built over time by various film crews. I walked over a very rickety bridge, and was reassured that in the film, soldiers had run over it, but given what I know about film, this is not actually reassuring.

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Hostessing: Chinese Grandmother Style

We returned to her grandmother 2’s house, and the family picked up a chicken to serve with dinner, another nod to the guest of honor, as meat does not usually feature in their diet very much. A small swarm of relatives joined us, and I was ushered in to eat, at first alone, but I expressed they should join me; Queen said they were too shy to, but got them in anyway. They were also constantly pressing food on me, since both before and after dinner they made sure there were always snacks of fruit and bread nearby, and at dinner they constantly urged me to eat more.

They were also constantly worried I was too cold. They were amazed that I could use chopsticks. They were worried that Queen wouldn’t think of things I might need. They were generally very kind if somewhat fussy hosts.

After dinner, we gathered again on the brick bed, the kids worked on homework, I got a chance to look at some of their books. A few more people came and went, including her brother. As I became sleepy, they decided to evacuate to let me sleep. Queen told me that her family thought it might be rude to leave me to sleep alone, since the custom there is for the family to sleep together for warmth, but thankfully she was able to assure them that I would not be offended.

Again, they made sure I had food, tea, blankets and a bucket before leaving, and I headed into a fitful night’s sleep, punctuated by a nocturnal goat and a lonely puppy. I had no idea up until this point that goats were the least bit nocturnal, nor was I aware that any animal not in some kind of serious distress could make noise that constantly for that long.

A Sunday Morning Stroll

I gave up on sleeping around 7am, got dressed and found a corner of the garden to brush my teeth in (remember, no sinks), had a cup of tea and headed out for a pre-breakfast stroll thru the village. On the way we passed a sign, which I was told was put there by the government to entreat people not to follow Falun Gong, and those of you who have talked to me at all in the last 3 years know that this has been a bit of an interest of mine¹, so I was unable to resist the temptation to engage in conversation when I discovered that all the tales I had read of Chinese propaganda were true.

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They were told that FLG followers committed suicide and killed people. She was angry that the US wouldn’t turn over Li Hongzhi (the leader) to the Chinese government, and simply seemed to have a block on the idea that the facts might have been distorted. I tried to explain the concept of independent studies, and that thus far the Chinese had not allowed us to conduct one. I told her that FLG practitioners in other countries were peaceful (if a little noisy), and she was amazed there were practitioners in other countries, which just goes to highlight the lack of information available, since in America, one only has to do a google search to find thousands of mentions in the news².

She also told me that prior to the ban, her mother had been a member, though they had renounced it when the government turned against it. All in all, it was illuminating. It took me a long time to convince her that I didn’t like or agree with Li or FLG, but that I respected their right to believe as they wanted. She argued that China had plenty of religious choices; I said 5 is not plenty. She said more religions cause more conflict, I said, no, pluralism decreases violence. It was interesting.

Anywho. There was a lovely breakfast, egg fried rice, more veggies and a kind of spicy mutton stew. Afterward we set out to climb the small mountain behind the house. There was a ladder going partway up the wall in the back, from which you could reach the road at the base of the mountain, and I was much mocked for not wanting to climb the wall, steep and without secure footing as it was, so we walked around.

The mountain had some goat trails, but for the main part, we picked our way upwards thru steep shifting gravel and spiky scrub plants. The view from the top, however, was expansive. It’s hard to tell from the photos, but you could make out the main mountain range, the lake and the railroad. Queen told me that when she was a little girl she could often see the Great Wall on those mountains clearly, but the pollution has now become such that you can only occasionally see the mountains at all.

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¹When this was written, I had only just finished my MA and my thesis was on the Falun Gong. The upshot is that any of my friends who held still for more than a minute over the last 18 months had been regaled with my research findings. Short version: it’s a cult based in Qi Gong practice (like Tai Chi) started in China in the 90’s, first embraced by the government, but banned in ’99. The leader lives in New York and directs his followers from there. Most people around the world who practice it are only aware of the exercise aspect, not too many people read far enough to get to the aliens with bone noses, the demons who want our bodies, and the leader’s determined efforts to take down the Communist government of China. It’s a major controversy in China. Followers are imprisoned, allegedly tortured and possibly even used as unwilling organ donors for transplant tourism. It’s a mess. You can start with Wikipedia, but the rabbit hole is deep.

²Still. I just looked and there are news articles as recent as a few days old. It looks like the controversy is still on.

Getting Back

Her cousin came back to get us, and drove us to a place where we could catch a ride back to the bus stop. This ride included driving on the still under construction highway, battling non-paved roads and trying to get around construction crews. We stuffed into a van with 8 other people and wended our way on the back roads to avoid the traffic jam caused by the fact that due to some visiting dignitaries in Beijing, trucks were not allowed into the city (makes a motorcade block seem like nothing).

The rest of the trip back was uneventful. I would like to add, however, that throughout the whole weekend, Queen and I had a number of very deep discussions on the differences between China and America. I not only learned a great deal, as she was pleased to tell me the history and conditions of the many places and people we saw, but I was deeply impressed with her mind. It was obvious that even though she had been taught how to feel about certain things by the message of the party, that did not stop her from thinking about other things once they were presented to her.

*(please take a moment to go and look at the photo album, as this is an environment most people will never see in person or even in a National Geographic. My photos may not be travel magazine quality, but this village is off the map, and only seems only to be known to the families who live there. I store my albums on Facebook because the free storage space is limited on WordPress.)

Reflections *(2007)

All in all, the trip had a profound affect on me. What I saw, what I learned, there is nothing to compare with it in all my other experiences and I hope I will never forget it. I know its impossible to relay the depth of the experience, there is nothing you can read or even see in a photograph that compares to being there, but I hope that in some way this sharing of my experience has impacted some of you as well.

That I am living in a country where less than 100 miles from a city that rivals New York there is such amazing poverty, devastatingly poor education and tragically low standards of living is so mind blowing I still don’t think I get it, and this wasn’t anywhere NEAR the poorest part of China. And yet, despite these conditions, the people are kind to foreigners, proud of their achievements and their nation, and hopeful for the future of their children and it was able to produce this girl I met, who is brilliant and motivated. And not only does this girl have the desire and ability to go to college, to get a master’s degree and even to study overseas, her greatest ambition is not to flee to a big city and a high salary job, but to return to her village after all that and help the next generation to produce more people like her.

There is so much I could not include here, and already its 6 pages long, so I’m stopping, but I’ll be putting up the pen pal lists soon, and all I can say is that I encourage you to meet one of these students, not just to enrich their lives, but to enrich your own, because they are amazing.


Reflections 2017

It was and still is one of the best experiences. It opened my eyes to things going on not only in China, but around the world and in my own country too. It’s so easy for people in the cities (or in moderately well-off rural areas) to forget that millions or even billions of people on Earth still live in these conditions or worse. I have seen people around the world struggling to make a living, struggling to get an education, struggling to make a better life for the generation after them. And yet, most of those people have been the kindest and most generous. 

As much as I love gaping at the wonders of nature, or history, or even of the modern world, nothing in my travels can ever compare to the simple experience of sharing time with another person, whether it is an hour, a day, or a year. I never want to give up seeking out the wonders of the world, but I never want to forget that one of those wonders is human beings themselves.

Letters From China (Playing Tourist 2007)

In October, I’d gotten into the swing of my teaching schedule, and the oppressive heat of the summer began fading into autumn coolness, affording me the chance to spend more time exploring Beijing and other nearby sights. I took some trips on my own, and others under the supervision of the school which made arrangements to take the English teachers to the Great Wall. In the original letters, I put thumbnail links of every photo, but in this re-posting, the majority of the pictures are in the Fabcebook albums. Enjoy!


Oct 4, 2007 at 8:04pm

Another round of pictures.

The first place we went was the Lama Temple, the largest Buddhist Temple in Beijing, and home of the world’s largest standing wooden Buddha statue. Last time I was here (2005), I was running low on memory space, so I only got about 6 pics, but yesterday I got tons, so hopefully you’ll enjoy.

First we have the main gate, the guardian lions and a couple of monks grabbing a snack.

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Next there is a secondary gate, a detailed map and history of the temple (you can actually read it if you zoom in), a nice bell, me next to another lion and one of the many buildings around, this one houses the statue that follows.

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And now we see the Turtle and carvings that are in building just above.

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Next is me with a prayer wheel, a kite trapped in a tree, a little girl throwing a coin for luck, a temple replica, and me with some more statuary.

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Some nice trees, roof spirits, and a giant lotus statue thingy.

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More lovely architecture, and in the last two you can see part of the city in the background. It amuses me to see the incongruity.

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This next line is one you need to read and look at to appreciate. These six statues are large, they go in order from smallest up, and each one is further into the temple complex. The first is about 5 or 6 feet high. You can see the roof in the next two, and its a vaulted ceiling, so these are 10-12 feet or so. The fourth is over 15 feet high, the fifth is at least 2 stories high, and the last, being the largest wooden buddha in the world stands about 4 stories high. There’s not much in each photo to present scale, the flowers and other decorations are to scale with the statues so they are ginourmous too.

And some parting shots on our way out.

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After a hour or so of wandering around the temple, we headed over to the lake district, flopped on the first soft seat I’ve been on since I got here at Club Obiwan and enjoyed some tasty fresh fruit smoothies. After the rest, we headed off for a walk around the lake, punctuated by the occasional pit stop for lunch and a happy hour mojito.

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On our way back to the bus station we spotted what we think was a gate house left over from when the old city wall was there.

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And after a long day in the city, we took a bus with standing room only back to our home in Yanjiao to be greeted by the evening piles of garbage left behind by passing citizens and collected by duly employed street sweepers.

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*(See the full day’s photos in the Facebook album)

Oct 15, 2007 at 10:20pm

The school took us on a little field trip to Huangyaguan, which is a section of the Great Wall near Tianjin. It was initially built in Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 C.E.) and later renovated and lengthened in Sui Dynasty (581-618 C.E.) and again during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644C.E.) The Great Wall is not actually one continous wall, its built in several sections, and over time those sections have been repaired or lost so its seriously broken up nowadays, this section is about 26 miles long here.

It is regarded as an ‘Impregnable Pass’ in Tianjin. This section is the longest restored section of the Great Wall with a length of about 3337 yards. The city at the base also contains some gardens and a museum which will be in the second post.

We went up the shorter of the two sides, and it was still quite a climb. You can see the other side in the background of many pictures, and I urge you to realize that it went all the way over the mountain and down the other side.

Anywho. We left at 9am, preparing for the 2 hr drive, and it turned out to be three, since we were stalled by a police blockade which was stopping overloaded trucks. The traffic backed up to the point that there were 5 lanes of driving on a two lane road. We passed thru many very rural spots which I almost regret not taking pictures of, but its a little scary.

When we arrived at the wall, we had lunch before beginning out climb, fairly plain local food, including what appeared to be a whole chicken chopped up in a bowl, anyway I found feet.

We started our climb in the rain, and the school cordinators rented umbrellas for us.

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The beginning of the climb was easy enough, mild stairs and long flats. A nice view of the gardens below, one of which you see here, other’s you’ll see in the second post. We made it to the first watchtower with little trouble.

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Leaving the watchtower, the climb started getting more steep. There was a pretty harsh incline and some pretty scary stairs. And of course, endless gift stands. Some of the views are looking forward, some are looking back to give perspective on how far we’ve come and how far we have still to go. I’m pretty sure you still can’t see our final destination in these pics.

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I continue to impress upon you the steepness of these stairs, we’re going up a mountain here, and the Chinese take a very direct route to the top of a mountain, straight up. In this series, we made it to the second tower, or really I should say I made it, as I was rather slower than the rest of the group and paused often to take pictures.

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On the way to the last tower of this section, the construction of the wall changes a bit, becoming much less even and alot more multicolored. The sun finally started coming out and I captured a fantastic example of a tourist leaving thier mark on the wall… I felt only slightly mollified that they were Spanish.

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There was more up, but it got considerably rockier and there were no more towers, so most of the group settled for stopping here. I went up a bit more for some more photo ops from the top.

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We then began our descent, and since the sun came out, I took a bunch more pictures, I tried not to include duplicates.

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I hope you enjoyed, and again, I encourage you to take the time to look at the full size pics by clicking on them, as there are sooo many lovely details that can’t be seen in the thumbnails.

Coming soon: Great Wall Part II, in which there will be pictures and descriptions of the unique gardens at the base.

(full album on Facebook)

Oct 16, 2007 at 2:47pm

Guancheng (Pass City) is the center of the Huangyaguan section. Guancheng was itself a perfect defensive project and it is also where Bagua Village (The Eight Diagrams Village) is situated. Bagua Village was built in the Ming Dynasty according to the Eight Diagrams created by Fuxi (an ancient tribal leader).

In the reparation during the 1980s, more tourist sites were built at the foot of the Huangyaguan Great Wall in Bagua Village, including Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum and the Stele Forest. Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum is the first Great Wall museum in China.

We went thru the maze at Bagua, the Museum, as well as the stele garden (yes that’s how its spelled), saw a lovely miniature wall garden and the longevity garden.

The first pictures are of the bagua maze, there’s a lovely yinyang on the floor at the center, and later on in the museum section, you can see a model of it as well.

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Next is the Stele Garden and the miniature Wall. I didn’t take pictures of the poetry on the walls, since none of you can read it, I figured we’d all rather see the wall.

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Next we have the museum itself, not terribly impressive, but i’ve noticed that Chinese museums tend to lack the flair we’re used to in the states. I mostly took landscape photos, since the displays were not to interesting, but I did take a couple of the model of the city so you can see the basic layout. And a neat door knocker.

32museum6.jpgLastly is the Longevity Garden, which you can see in the second layout model above. It has a nice waterfall, and a reflecting pool in the shape of what may appear to be a swastika, but it really a sacred symbol of Buddhism. And while I’ve seen this figure in a statue before, I’m still not sure who it is, other than it seems to be someone important in Buddhist history.

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Hope you enjoyed! I think my next major trip will be to the home village of one of my students this coming weekend, which should be a real adventure.

(full album on Facebook)


The Lama Temple was a revisit for me, but the Wall at Huangyaguan was a new experience. In both cases, the art, architecture and history of China were still new to me. This is not to say that I do not still enjoy them, but I find that once I’ve gotten past the big tourist bucket list, there is so much left to see. When I compare this to my trip in 2012, or even my explorations more recently, I can see the seeds of my tourism habit forming in this place: a blend of bucket list and local flavor. A good reminder as I head off to explore a new land for the Chuseok holiday this year.