Myths & Tales from China 06

The Kingdom of the Sea

When westerners imagine life under the sea, it’s mostly human people with some fish attributes like fins or gills, but in many parts of Asia, the kingdoms under the waves are filled with sentient and often extremely large versions of familiar sea creatures — and dragons. Here are 3 stories about the Sea Kingdom, ruled, not by a merman King Triton or a humanoid sea god like Poseidon, but by a Great Dragon King who rules all life in the sea from his crystal palace.


Dragon King of the Boiling Sea

A long, long time ago, on the southwest side of Zhou Shan (a city in Zhejiang made soley of islands) there was a small island. On this island, under the ground, was buried a great deal of bright yellow gold, so the people all called it Jin Cang Dao or “Hidden Gold Island”. Some time later, the ever greedy and never satisfied Dragon King of the Eastern Sea learned of this news. In order to claim all of Jin Cang Island for himself, the Dragon King amassed large quantities of Dragon Princes and Dragon Grandsons and Shrimp Soldiers and Crab Generals, and launched himself at Jin Cang Island: rising tide after rising tide, breaking wave after breaking wave, a fierce torrent that overtook the sky. The trees on Jin Cang Island fell and the houses collapsed; it was an extremely miserable sight.

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On the east side of Jin Cang Island was Fang Hua Shan or “Flower Spinning Mountain”, at the top of the mountain lived the Flower Spinning Sprite. She saw the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea causing trouble for no reason at all, devastating the common people, and she felt entirely angry. She picked up her magic broom and lightly swept towards the sea surface. The water that was coming up the mountain then retreated back down with a crash. The survivors on Jin Cang Island one after another ran to Mt. Fang Hua to take refuge. The Flower Spinning Sprite changed her shape in a single shake of her body, she became a white haired, ash grey hundred year old granny, and said to everyone, “If you want to save Jin Cang, follow my lead and spin the flowers into thread. Weave the spun flowers into fishing nets and go down to the sea and defeat the Dragon King!” Everyone heard the old granny’s words: men and women, old and young, all together set about the task, united in the common effort of spinning flowers and weaving nets. They spun and they weaved, they were wholly occupied for seven times seven or forty-nine days, they wove nine times nine or eighty-one pounds of golden threaded fishing nets.

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They finished weaving the fishing nets, but who would they send to the sea to fight the Dragon King? Everyone bickered back and forth, talking about it continuously. Just then, a small chubby boy appeared suddenly out of the crowd, he smacked his chest and said, “I will go!” His fellow villagers looked and saw it was little Hai Sheng and could not help but laugh. How could a seven or eight year old child fight the Dragon King? The old granny, however, smiled and said, “Go to the sea and fight the Dragon King, there is nobility in having courage, so let little Hai Sheng go!” So saying, she took up a suit of golden threaded clothes and bade Hai Sheng to put them on. Next she passed on to Hai Sheng the secret trick to fighting the Dragon King.

Hai SHeng put on the golden threaded clothes, and his whole body immediately felt a burst of soft tickles. In accordance with the spell the granny imparted to him, he said “big”, and all at once he grew tall in height. Suddenly he became a powerful, large, inexhaustible giant. His fellow villagers stared with their eyes wide and mouths open. Hai Sheng picked up the golden threaded fishing nets and took large strides down Mt. Fang Hua, then with a plop sound, jumped into the sea.

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It’s strange to say, but wherever Hai Sheng went, the tidal waters and sea waves in that place made way for him. In actuality, the golden threaded clothes Hai Sheng was wearing were water repelling treasure clothes made by the Flower Spinning Sprite just for him. Hai Sheng took out the golden threaded nets and cast them into the sea. He said, “big”, the net flew toward the ocean in such a way that it hid the sky and covered the earth. In a short time, he started to collect the first net. He had captured Gou Manjing, the treasure guardian general for the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. As long as he had captured Gou Manjing, he would be able to get the Sea Boiling Pot; then he would have no fear that the Dragon King would not return Jin Cang Island. Hai Sheng was extremely happy, and ordered Gou Manjing to hand over the Sea Boiling Pot at once!

Gou Manjing started to struggle while still in the net. Hai Sheng shouted, “small”, and the golden threaded net instantly started to shrink. Gou Manjing was choked to within an inch of his life. He had no choice but to stop and lead Hai Sheng to the Hundred Treasure Hall of the Eastern Sea Dragon Palace to take the Sea Boiling Pot.

As soon as he had retrieved the Sea Boiling Pot, Hai Sheng then, in accordance with the Flower Spinning Spite’s instructions, set up the pot at the sea side, scooped out one ladle of Eastern Sea water, poured it into the pot, burned a roaring pile of dry firewood, and pili-pala it started to boil. Boil! BOIL! Several incense sticks burned in the time that passed; the water of the sea gave off steam. The Dragon King openly and honestly appeared on the water’s surface, behind him followed a group of hot and panting shrimp soldiers and crab generals repeatedly bowing and kowtowing and earnestly calling for their lives to be spared.

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“Ebb the tide and rest the waves, return Jin Cang to me, otherwise I will boil the Dragon King soft!” Hai Sheng said. The Dragon King hastily gave a command for the tide to retreat by three feet, and the waves to subside by thirty feet. Jin Cang Island was at last once more protruding from the sea. 

Who could have guessed, as soon as Hai Sheng picked up the pot in both hands and doused the fire, the Dragon King once again immediately rose the tide and beat the waves. One wave swept up the Sea Boiling Pot and it disappeared without a trace. “What to do?” Hai Sheng anxiously stamped his foot. The stomp was no small thing, and suddenly all the gold buried under the earth was completely brought out by Hai Sheng’s stomp, and flew one piece after another, down to the sea shallows, dropped onto the beach, and in the blink of an eye built a sparkling golden sea bank. No matter how the tide rushed forth or the waves churned over, Jin Cang stood, majestic and towering. From then on, the Dragon King does not dare come to cause trouble, the people live in peace and work happily, and Jin Cang Island, or “Hidden Gold Island” became known as Jin Tang Island, the Island of the Golden Embankment.


LongNu (Dragon Maid) Visits Guan Yin

According to legend, there is a pair of young innocents standing in attendance at Bodhisattva Guan Yin’s side. The boy is named Shan Cai (which means ‘cherish wealth’) and the girl is named Long Nu (which means ‘dragon maiden’).

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Originally, Long Nu was the daughter of the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. She was clever and bright, and the Dragon King doted on her very much.  One day, Long Nu heard that the fishing village by the seaside was having a Boat Lantern Festival, and loudly demanded to go and see the bustling scene. But the Dragon King shook his head and said, “That is no place for a Dragon Princess to go!”

Long Nu thought to herself, “You won’t let me go, I must go!” She waited with difficulty until midnight, then took advantage of the Dragon King not paying attention, and stealthily slipped out of the Crystal Palace. She transformed into a maiden from a fishing family, and entered the fishing village. The main street was unusually bustling. There were all kinds of fish lanterns in numbers beyond counting: there were Yellow Croaker Fish Lanterns, Octopus Lanterns, Squid Lanterns, and Shark Lanterns; along with Lobster Lanterns, Crab Lanterns, Scallop Lanterns and Conch Lanterns… Long Nu stared east, gazed west, and then broke into the crowd without thinking.

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At that moment, suddenly a half cup of cold tea spilled down from a loft above, and splashed impartially on Long Nu’s head. Long Nu was so scared her face went white. For in actuality, whenever she transformed into a human, if she came into contact with water then she would quickly change back into her original shape. She was afraid that changing back into her dragon shape in the middle of the crowd would cause trouble, so she ran with all her might back to the seaside, she barely made it to the beach when she transformed into a large fish. She lay on the beach completely unable to move. 

Along the beach there came two fishing lads, one lean and one plump. They saw this bright and lustrous large fish and all at once they stared distractedly. The plump boy said, “What a fish! How did it get up on the beach?” The lean boy, moving the fin to and fro, said, “Let’s take it!  We can carry it on our shoulders up to the road to sell, it will fetch a good price.” So saying, the two boys carried the big fish on their shoulders up to the road to sell it.

Meanwhile, Bodhisattva Guan Yin was sitting in meditation in the Black Bamboo Forest. She saw what had just taken place, and acting without thinking from her merciful heart, she quickly called the boy Shan Cai to go and buy the large fish and release it into the sea. Shan Cai stood upon a lotus flower and flew down from high in the clouds.

The two boys carried the fish to the main street, all the people watching the lanterns all at once gathered around, pointing and talking, however no one dared to buy the big fish. An old man said, “Boy, this fish is too big, you ought to cut it up and sell the pieces.” The plump boy though this was sound reasoning. He borrowed a hatchet, raised it high and was just about to chop. Suddenly, a small child shouted out, “Quickly, look! The big fish is crying.” The plump boy paused the hatchet and looked. The big fish was indeed crying two streams of sparkling translucent tears. At that point, a young Buddhist monk came over and blocked them, saying, “Don’t strike! Don’t strike! I will buy this fish.” Everyone who heard this roared with laughter. “Young Monk, why would you buy the fish? Maybe you’ll start eating meat again and leave the monastic life!” The young monk’s face went red, he explained nervously, “I would buy this fish in order to save its life.” So saying, he took out a silver piece and handed it to the lean boy, and had them carry the fish back to the shore and release it in the sea.

As soon as it touched the water, the fish made a big splash and swam far far away, after that it turned around and nodded to the young monk, only then did it swiftly dive into the water and vanish. What’s more, when the young Dragon Princess wasn’t seen at the Dragon Palace, everyone was thrown into confusion. The Dragon King angrily puffed his mustache and opened his eyes wide. After daybreak, the young Dragon Princess finally returned, not until then was the Dragon King’s mind at rest. However, in order to teach her a lesson, the Dragon King expelled her from the Crystal Palace. 

Long Nu was broken-hearted. Weeping endlessly she arrived at the Lotus Flower Sea; the sound of her weeping reached the Black Bamboo Forest. Bodhisattva Guan Yin heard this and knew that Long Nu had come. She instructed Shan Cai to meet Long Nu and bring her in. Shan Cai appeared before Long Nu and smiling asked, “Little Sister Long Nu, do you not remember me?” Long Nu recognized him as the young monk who had saved her and she could not help but turn her tears to laughter. She went forward and was about to bow to him. Shan Cai drew her to a halt and said, “It was Bodhisattva Guan Yin who told me to go and rescue you!”  Long Nu lifted her head to look and saw Bodhisattva Guan Yin seated on a lotus flower platform so she bowed and paid her respect. Guan Yin liked Long Nu a lot, so she kept her by her side. From that point on, Long Nu and Shan Cai lived like brother and sister in a cliff cave near to Chao Yin Cavern. That cliff cave was later called “Shan Cai Long Nu Cave”.

Long Nu served as a maid to Bodhisattva Guan Yin, but the Dragon King regretted his actions, and called for Long Nu to return to the Dragon Palace. But Long Nu was unwilling to return to the Crystal Palace that imprisoned her.

**There aren’t many pictures of this myth, although it was made into a TV drama in Taiwan, the screen shot quality is abysmal. However, Long Nu and Shan Cai are regular characters in an insanely adorable web comic called “Inhuman” about how all the old magical beings are getting along in modern China. I haven’t found a good translation, but the art alone is worth a look.

This one is from a school field trip. Shan Cai asks Long Nu what’s wrong, and she’s feeling really motion sick from the bus ride and can’t help but throw up. However, because she is a princess of the sea, she fills the bus with seawater and animals, so when they get off the bus all the human students are wet and angry, but Shan Cai says “now we have enough to make seafood hot pot!”


Ne Zha Disturbs the Sea

Once upon a time, at Chen Tang Guan there was a military officer named Li Jing (historical figure 570-649 CE). When his wife conceived her third child, he was conceived for three years and six months and still hadn’t been born. Once day, very late at night, Mrs. Li felt a burst of pain in her belly, and unexpectedly gave birth to a ball of flesh. Li Jing belived it to be some kind of evil spirit, he took out his double-edged sword and cut the ball of flesh. The ball of flesh split open and out hopped a small child. As soon as the child was out, he ran all over the place. Li Jing was very happy and gave him the name Ne Zha.

Early in the morning the next day, a Daoist came requesting to see Li Jing, he wanted to take Ne Zha as an apprentice. He was the Golden Light Cave Sage Tai Yi. He gifted Ne Zha with two treasured objects: one was the circlet Qian Kun Quan (Universal Ring), and the other was the silk cloth Hun Tian Ling (Sky Budding Sash). Li Jing happily agreed.

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In no time at all, Ne Zha was seven years old. He was very active and energetic. One summer afternoon, the weather was especially hot, Ne Zha ran down to the riverbank and used the Hun Tian Ling dipped in water to bathe, and as he washed he also played. The Hun Tian Ling is an amazing treasure, when it was immersed in the water, all the water in the river shone red. This river was the Nine Bend River that feeds into the Eastern Sea, and as Ne Zha shook the Hun Tian Ling in the river, the Dragon Palace in the Eastern Sea began to sway. The Dragon King got a surprise and quickly called the spirit that patrolled the sea, Ye Cha to go and look. Ye Cha drilled out of the water’s surface to see one small child holding a length of red silk in the middle of bathing, and then called out, “Hey, small fry, what sort of strange thing are you using, the Dragon King’s Crystal Palace was disturbed when everything started to shake?”

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Ne Zha raised his head to look and saw ferocious looking (green faced, fierce toothed) monster, then said, “What kind of monster are you? Do you not want to cause harm or not?” Ye Cha heard that and became angry, he raised up his axe and swung it towards Ne Zha.  Ne Zha dodged out of the way, and fetched Qian Kun Quan and threw it at Ye Cha. There was a noise — deng, and Ye Cha’s head was broken and he died on the spot.

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Ne Zha saw that Qian Kun Quan was dirty, so he sat down on a stone to wash it. The Crystal Palace was unable to withstand the vibration of these two Treasures and nearly collapsed from shaking. At that time, the shrimp soldiers came to report, “Ye Cha was killed by a child!”. The Dragon King heard this and became enraged, he was just about to dispatch the troops, when the third crown prince Ao Bing Zhan stood up and said, “King Father, allow me to go and capture this small child.” and thus saying, he dispatched the shrimp soldiers and crab generals and rode the great beast Bi Shui Shou. They arrived at Nine Bend River, Ao Bing Zhan called to Ne Zha, “Where are you, you Little Goblin, you dared to go so far as to kill Ye Cha, watch out that I don’t kill you!”

“I am not a Goblin I am the son of the Chen Tang Guan army commander Li Jing, Ne Zha!” Without waiting for Ne Zha to finish speaking, Ao Bing hefted his pike and ferociously began to stab. This time Ne Zha was really angry! Ne Zha flung the silk cloth Hun Tian Ling at Ao Bing, wrapped it around Ao Bing, then gently tugged, pulling him off the beast Bi Shui Shou. Ne Zha stepped on his neck, lifted the circlet Qian Kun Quan, and tapped him lightly on the head, and his true form was revealed, he was actually a small golden dragon.  Ne Zha pulled out the dragon’s tendons, wrapped it around his waist and joyfully returned home.

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The Dragon King of the Eastern Sea heard that his third son had been killed by Ne Zha, in less than (the time of) one breath, he invited the Dragon Kings of the other three Seas to gather together in Chen Tang Guan, drop a huge rain, and prepare/intend to flood the place. Ne Zha didn’t want to involve his parents and the whole village of regular people, so he calmly picked up a double edged sword and cut his own throat. Not until that did the Dragon Kings free Chen Tang Guan.

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Ne Zha’s soul left his flesh body, and slowly, flutteringly it floated down to Golden Light Cave, and met his Master Sage Tai Yi. Sage Tai Yi plucked several lotus roots from within the lotus pond, arranged them in the shape of a human, and slowly said, “Ne Zha, Lotus Flower Reincarnation!” Ne Zha’s soul leaned over the lotus roots, and before long, the lotus flower slowly blossomed. A small child stretched and stood up and was exactly the same as the original Ne Zha. Ne Zha knelt at Sage Tai Yi’s feet, and spoke sincerely, “Thank you Master, you have given me a second life, from now on I won’t wantonly fight with people anymore.” Sage Tai Yi smiled and nodded. He took out two Wind and Fire Wheels and a Fire Point Spear, and gave them to Ne Zha. Ne Zha then remained with Sage Tai Yi and followed his teachings.

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Later, when Ne Zha came down the mountain, he became the officer who would lead ahead of all the troops of arms master Jiangzi Ya under King Wu (historical figure 1046-1043), beheading goblins and driving out devils, establishing outstanding military service. He also performed many great deeds for the common people, and so the people all loved him.

**This is such a beloved story in China that it has been made into a popular animated movie which is where all these images come from. It’s in Chinese, but now you know the story you can watch the video if you like:

Myths & Tales from China 05

The Sea, the Sun, and the Moon

These tales tell stories of the natural world. Although the sea, the sun and the moon were created at the time Pangu broke out of his giant egg and formed the world, during the time of pre-history, mythological early humans and demi-gods were able to interact with these monoliths of nature in a way we no longer can.


Jing Wei Fills the Sea

Yan Di had a little girl named Nu Wa*. She grew up very beautiful as well as bright and clever. One day, Nu Wa was playing alone by the seaside, and saw a small boat moored by the beach. Full of curiosity, she got into the little boat and rowed out to the depths of the Sea. As she went farther and farther off shore, a fierce wind made the sea waves rise higher and higher. Suddenly, a great wave as big as a small mountain crashed down and swallowed up Nu Wa and her little boat.

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A long time passed, Nu Wa was aware that as she slowly rose up from the depths of the ocean her body had changed. Her two arms had become a pair of bird wings; her two legs had turned into a pair of slender bird claws; her red lips had become a hard, white bird beak; the flower petals on her head turned into a beautiful crest of feathers; and her once pink dress became black feathers. She emerged from the surface of the Sea, and with great effort, flew into the air. She had changed into a bird!

Nu Wa cried brokenhearted and her crying voice sounded like the sad calls of a little bird. She lowered her head and saw the rolling waves of the Sea, and thought that she could never go back to her warm home. She hated the vile Sea, and made up her mind to fill it.

The spared no effort and flew to the mountain top, took a stone in her beak, and flew back to the Sea where she threw it in. The tiny stone vanished in the blink of an eye. Then she carried back a twig and threw it in, but it disappeared too. She cried out in despair “Jing Wei! Jing Wei!”. When the people heard her, they named her the Jing Wei Bird.

Every day she flew back and forth between the tall mountains and the wide ocean, flying and flying, carrying and carrying, throwing and throwing, trip after trip, piece after piece. Many years passed, she was very busy, and threw countless twigs and stones into the Sea. Even thought the Sea was still the Sea, she never gave up on her great quest to fill it. 

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People felt sorry for Jing Wei, and they admired Jing Wei. They called her “Yuan Qin”, which means ‘bird who is wronged’, “Shi Niao”, which means ‘bird who has pledged a vow, “Zhi Niao”, which means ‘bird who has ambition’, and “Di Nu Qiao”, which means ‘bird who is the Emperor’s Daughter’. And by the East China Sea is a special place that is still called “Jing Wei Shi Shui Chu”, the place where Jing Wei vowed to fill the Sea.

*note: this is NOT the same Nuwa as the half serpent goddess that created humans, the daughter in the story is 娃, the goddess is 女娲, so in Chinese it is obviously different.


Kuafu Chases the Sun

Once upon a time, there lived a tribe of giants in the North called the Kuafu Tribe, and their chief was called Kuafu. In those days, the earth was desolate, poisonous snakes and ferocious beasts rampaged all over the place, and life was hard for ordinary people. Just to survive, Kuafu had to lead his people in a fight against a flood of vicious creatures every day.

One year, there was a terrible drought. The fiery Sun baked the farm crops on the earth and dried up the water in the riverbeds. Soon, the people could not go on living. Upon seeing this situation, Kuafu became both angry and worried. He vowed he would catch the sun and make it obey the commands of his people.

Early one morning, when the sun had just shown half its face, Kuafu took a step, stretching his two long legs, and from the East China Sea he set off towards the Sun. The Sun quickly rose up into the air. Kuafu chased it from the ground like a strong wind; he ran ninety thousand miles in the blink of an eye, and grew closer and closer to the Sun. The red-hot Sun sprayed roasting flames down on to Kuafu’s head, he felt his throat becoming drier and drier, but he was afraid the Sun would slip away, so he went on without stopping. They arrived at Yu Gu, and Kuafu was about to capture the sun when dazzling rays of light shot forth, causing Kuafu to faint. When he woke up, the Sun was already far into the Western Sky.

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Kuafu once again pounded his feet and once again set out. However, the closer he got to the Sun, the brighter the Sun’s rays became. He felt all the water in his whole body evaporating dry, soon he would die of thirst. Under the setting sun, the ripples of the Yellow River and the Wei River shone like crystal. Kuafu leaned down and drank mightily, and the waters of the Yellow River were entirely sucked up into his stomach. He also drank down the water of the Wei River in one gulp, but he still felt incredibly thirsty. So he planned to go north to a big pond and drink the water there. But he was too thirsty, and too tired. Halfway through he could not hold on any more and fell with a mighty boom.

After Kuafu died, his body turned into a great mountain, which everyone today calls “Mt. Kuafu”.


Hou Yi Shoots the Suns

In the Eastern side of the Ocean there was a place called Tang’gu. In this place there grew a giant tree called Fu Sang, and atop this tree there lived ten brothers who were all Suns. Every day they would send one brother to work in the sky, and the rest would go play in the sea.  The next day a different one would go out. For thousands of years the ten Suns all stuck to this plan; they followed the scheduled order and each carried out his own duty.

However, one day the youngest Sun brother thought that going on every single day like that was just too boring, so he persuaded his older brothers that the next day they should all go out of the valley together and play in the sky all day. The next day, the Celestial Jade Rooster crowed and the Sun brothers all ran out as fast as they could. But while this was happening, the people across the whole world were suffering a calamity. The ground was like fire, the surface of the earth had baked and split open into thin cracks, farm crops and tree leaves were roasted to a crisp, and water in the rivers all dried up.

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The people had no choice but to hide indoors and try their best to drink water, but there was not enough, and many people fell unconscious from thirst. It was terrible. Even the poisonous snakes and ferocious beasts were too hot to move. They became extremely violent natured, and they came out of the ancient woods of the deep mountains to eat and torment the people.

The Emperor of the Human World, Yao Di, could do nothing but worry, and the people all prayed for the Emperor of Heaven, Tian Di to save them. Tian Di was alarmed. He summoned the mythic Archer Hou Yi to come to the Heavenly Court where he bestowed upon him a bow and ten arrows. He then bade him go to the human world and get rid of the poisonous snakes and ferocious beasts, and while he was at it, to put a stop to the ten Sun’s mischief.

Hou Yi descended to the material world; he saw he was in a yellow and withered place with more animals dying of starvation and more people dying of thirst than he could count. He was both shocked and grieved. He raised his head and saw the ten Suns playing by opening their mouths and spitting out flames. He was immediately filled with rage toward Heaven. He nocked an arrow in his bow and cast a murderous look to frighten them away. But the Suns were not afraid and kept on spitting flames. Hou Yi was very angry. He took aim at one of the Suns and –woosh—let the arrow fly.

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All that could be seen was a giant fiery ball falling –hua-la-la—out of the sky and down to earth. The people ran over to take a look and it turned out to be a three legged golden crow. The remaining nine Suns became frightened and ran away screaming in all directions. Hou Yi loosed another two arrows, and there were only seven Suns remaining in the sky. For fear that the remaining Suns would continue to wreak havoc, the people cried out with one voice to shoot them all down. He fired the Celestial arrows one after another into the air, and the Suns fell one after another to the ground.

Very soon, the weather became cool again, and the people began to cheer joufully. Then, Yao Di suddenly realized: the human world could not exist without the Sun, otherwise all living things and people would have no way to live, so he selected one person to sneak up to Hou Yi’s quiver and take out one arrow.

After shooting down nine of the Suns, Hou Yi wanted to shoot down the very last Sun, but he discovered his arrows were already all used up, and he had no choice but to stop. The one remaining Sun did not dare to make more trouble. Three hundred and sixty-five days a year, every day he obediently rose in the East and set in the West, working diligently. The earth was quickly restored and was once more full of life.

The common people were very grateful to Hou Yi and surrounded him with praise. However, because Hou Yi had killed the Emperor’s own nine sons, Tian Di became very angry, and banished him to the mortal world.


Chang’e Journeys to the Moon

The mythical Archer Hou Yi felled the nine Suns and saved everyone, but he had committed a crime against Tian Di, the Emperor of Heaven, so he and his wife Chang’e were banished to the mortal world. Honest and kindhearted Hou Yi decided that in the mortal world he would do even more good works for the sake of the ordinary people, but Chang’e could not get used to how difficult life was in the human world, so she complained to Hou Yi nearly every day.

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Hou Yi understood his wife’s frustration very well, and he also felt a little bit guilty. He heard tell that in the West, on Mt. Kunlun, the Queen Mother of the West, Xi Wangmu had a potion of immortality, so he crossed mountains and waded rivers to get to Kunlun Mountain, to ask the Queen Mother for this potion. However, all that remained of the potion was one small pearl, Xi Wangmu said, “If each of you takes but half of this potion of immortality, then you can both live a very long time without growing old; however, if only one takes it, that one will become an immortal and fly back to Heaven.”

After Hou Yi brought the potion back home, he talked it over with Chang’e and they decided to each take half the potion and live together forever in the human world as loving husband and wife.

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One evening, Hou Yi had not yet returned from outside; Chang’e gazed into the sky and felt lonely. She began to reminisce about the carefree times when they lived as immortals and wanted to return alone to the Temple in Heaven. Just as she thought this, there came the distant sound of horses hoof beats. Hou Yi was returning home. 

She made up her mind and quickly took out the little pearl that was the potion of immortality and swallowed it in one mouthful. Before long, she slowly began to rise from the floor. Hou Yi looked up and saw Chang’e flying away. Anxiously he cried out, “Chang’e! Don’t leave me!” Chang’e heard his cries and felt a sour pain in her heart, and as she continued floating off, she turned her head to watch Hou Yi. 

Very soon, she arrived at the gates of Heaven. Many immortals were gathered around and talking non-stop. They all said she had betrayed Hou Yi and that she was a brazen woman. Chang’e felt too ashamed to return to the Temple in Heaven again, so she turned around and flew on to the Moon instead. She did not realize that the Guang Han Gong, the Temple of the Moon would be so cold and lonely. There was only a little Jade Rabbit and a Toad. qqr0003694465pr6474

Chang’e was very lonely, and she could not help but think of her loving life together with Hou Yi in the human world and feel regret. Now, she can do nothing but stand under the laurel tree by the Moon Palace and gaze upon the distant human world.

Fall in Korea

During my first two years in Korea, I took almost every opportunity to go to a festival or event. In large part, it was because as an EPIK teacher, I had very short holidays, so I spent my weekends seeking fun. Now that I have great big holidays, I find I’m saving my money for those long trips abroad. Plus, it is a bit repetitive to go to the same festivals and events each year. This year, my favorite tour group, Enjoy Korea, changed up the line-up on their fall foliage trip, so instead of going to the DMZ and Seoraksan, we would visit a famous penis park, a coastal railway, and Seoraksan- a mountain that’s quite large enough to visit twice and see totally different sights. I decided to sign up, and as luck would have it, some other ladies I know from around the country also signed up so we got to hang out together. Although it was a lot of riding in buses, the weather was everything we could have asked for, and I had a lovely time.


Haesingdang Penis Park (해신당 공원)

It is a constant source of curiosity and amusement among the foreigners that in such a conservative country as Korea there are multiple overtly sexual and outright pornographic sculpture parks. I visited the famous Love Land on Jeju Island a few years ago, and so I was curious to see the similarities and differences with that very modern invention and what was ostensibly a more historical park at Haesingdang.

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The legend of Haesingdang has some inconsistencies, but basically there was a young maiden who’s fiancee (new husband? she’s supposed to be a virgin, though so they can’t have been married long) is a fisherman and through a series of unfortunate events he ends up leaving her on a large rock rather far from the shore (perhaps to harvest the edible seaweed?) while he takes the boat to fish, promising to return for her at the end of the day. However, a horrible storm arises and he is unable to fetch her and she drowns.  The next day, there are no fish to be had, nor any the day after that. The people believed that the spirit of the drowned maiden was ruining the fishing.

Here’s where it gets extra confusing. There’s a group of three statues up on the hill overlooking the ocean that are supposed to be a part of the legend. The are very… um… priapic. I’m unclear as to whether they were masturbating into the sea, or simply showing this poor virgin girl what a good dick looks like. Many versions of the myth also state that it was a man urinating into the ocean that caused the spirit to be appeased and the fish to return, and anyone who knows the function of a prostate knows you can’t urinate when you’re .. um.

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All the legends agree that it was the sight of a penis that made this virgin maiden relent and bring back the fish… I guess she was really horny? I don’t really know. Since then, the locals carved several wooden phalluses to put along the seashore and twice a year they have a religious festival to show big wooden penises to the maiden in the sea.

It’s really hard to get any hard data about this park or the statues in it. It’s likely that the myth and the rituals are hundreds of years old, but given the near total destruction of everything in that region during the Korean War, it is highly unlikely that those are genuine historical statues. More than likely they are modern reproductions and best guesses combined with truly modern art pieces like the golden penis on the stairs that was made in 2006, and a row of new statues that seems to be growing one penis a year down the path (the latest one was dated 2019).

Most of the museum looks like it was either made in the 70s or by someone aesthetically stuck there. The fishing village museum included a series of arrows leading nowhere past some large fake aquariums (plastic fish, no water) and a large diorama of a historical fishing village, plus some interactive video games and “fishing” toys.

There are plenty of photo ops where you can sit on a giant penis, or sit on a bench and look like a large erect penis and hanging balls are sprouting from between your legs. There’s a small temple dedicated to the maiden who drowned in the legend. And there’s about 50 or so wooden carvings of exaggerated penis shapes, or people with penises for heads, or penis totem poles. A star attraction is the 12 zodiac animals in penis pillars.

Aside from the overwhelming collection of dick, there is a stunning view of the sea from the top of the stairs which is in my opinion, one of the best parts of the whole park. You can actually see the rock from the legend in this photo. There’s a statue of the maiden on the rock you can see with binoculars.

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Normally conservative and reserved Koreans take these kind of parks as a place to cut loose. Although no one did anything inappropriate like public exposure, there’s plenty of lewd gestures and old ladies laughing while their husbands look a bit uncomfortable. It’s not all bad for the guys, though, they get to pose next to unrealistic dicks and dream.

Yonghwa Coastal Rail Bike (삼척 해양레일바이크)

Also known as Samcheok Costal Rail Bike, it’s the same thing because there is only one rail bike in all of Korea.

“the one and only coastal rail bike in Korea and it runs on 5.4km-long double tracks through beautiful rocks and special type of pine trees called Gomsol (Bear Pine)”

I love the coast. Sandy beaches, rocky shores, sweeping cliffs, I don’t care I love it all. So when I heard this trip was going to include a leisurely hour long rail bike up the coast, I was pretty stoked. Now, I won’t say that this wasn’t hilarious fun, but if you’re expecting an hour of beautiful ocean views you will be disappointed.

A rail bike is basically a little car that is mounted on rail tracks and powered by pedaling. Thankfully, these cars had real seats and we were not mounted on bicycle style seating. Myself and the other short person had a very hard time both sitting and reaching the pedals, but with 4 people working on it, and some motorized assistance, the trip is not especially exerting.

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The beach that we left from (Yonghwa) is quite pretty, but it is dominated by the rail bike station, and by the time we pedaled out of the building we only had a few moments of beach before we were leaving it behind. The beautiful view of the sweeping coastline is also partially obscured by those special pine trees and a fence. I had hopes that with the better part of an hour still to go, we would get more sea views, but the next part of the ride took us into a tunnel.

There was some distinctly Korean attempt to make the tunnels more interesting by adding colored lights and some neon underwater scenes, all set to strange 80s music in English. I think it would have been ok for a short tunnel, but it soon became droning and repetitive. My peaceful, sunny, seaside bike ride had turned into some hellscape of neon, concrete and bad club music. I didn’t even think about taking video at the time, so I’m borrowing my friend’s which is unforgivably shot vertical… sorry! I did at least replace the horrible 80s music with something less aggressive.

I know there’s probably no way we could have stayed outside in the mountainous terrain, but I feel like there is much more they could have done to make the tunnel more enjoyable. I was so relieved when it ended… only to have us go into a second tunnel! In the end, I’d say we spent at least 1/3 of the “coastal” ride underground.

Another 1/3 was spent outside with little to no view of the sea. We saw some cute pensions (a kind of Korean hotel), and a few resort attractions, and even a large sculpture of a battleship covered in some found art objects (I was moving to fast for a decent pic). The woods were randomly dotted with the leftover remains of the summer glamping (glam+camping) season, a few heavy machines, and a LOT of debris.

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I know we had like 3 typhoons in three weeks and the coast did get a bit messed up, but it really seemed like zero effort had been made to collect the rubbish. There was a brief stop at a little “rest area” after the tunnels and the beach there was pretty and clean, but we had only a few minutes to enjoy it before we were rushed back to the rail bikes and sent on our way.

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Although you and your group pedal yourselves, there’s not any wiggle room to slow down to see nice things or speed up to get past boring things because it seemed like 50 cars were on the tracks at the same time and although we’d been told to keep 10m between cars, it was often closer to 2. On the plus side, when we passed a group coming the other way, it was a lot of fun because they were excited to see a large group of foreigners and we got lots of greetings, big smiles, and high fives in passing.

Overall, I’d say it’s a fun but silly way to spend an hour, and not a calm bike by the sea. As long as you go into it knowing what you’ll get, it’s worth it.

Seorak Mountain and the Fall Foliage

Also known as Seoraksan, san simply means “mountain”, Seorak is one of the premier places in Korea to take in the fall foliage. It’s pretty far north, and close enough to the sea that you can see the ocean from the peak on a clear day. Plus, it’s elevated. This means that the conditions for beautiful leaf colors are really promising. It’s a little like driving up to Connecticut for Americans.

I went once three years ago and had a gray drizzly day which made the leaf colors really pop, but made the sweeping views pretty much a misty, uh, mystery… I also struggled a lot with the ajuma and ajoshi (Korean’s of a certain age) who all showed up in their special hiking clothes and walking sticks and charged up the path like it was a race to the top. I personally wanted to meander and enjoy the trees, take some pictures, admire the little details. They wanted to walk. Quickly. I was elbowed so frequently that it made it almost impossible to enjoy anything, let alone obtain any sense of serenity. I was almost knocked off the mountain (down a steep ravine) and when I slipped and fell on some wet rocks, people just shoved past me instead of giving me room to stand up or heaven forbid, helping. I did not want a repeat of this experience this year.

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I am spoiled by the PNW mountain hikes which are quiet and often very private. I love forest bathing in Japan, and the peaceful mountainside temples. There is a temple at Seoraksan, but it’s a bit tricky to find. On my first visit, I managed to get a ticket to ride the cable car up and from the crowded platform, I followed a small trail with signs I recognized from the Chinese characters up and around to a small temple. There was no one else around, and I finally got some of the peace and serenity I was looking for. I was very much looking forward to visiting that place again.

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This year, we had amazing weather. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and it was just warm enough not to need a jacket but not hot enough to make us sweat. Upon arrival, we charged straight for the cable car ticket office only to find that everything was sold out until 3pm. Our bus was leaving at 4, and we couldn’t reasonably expect to get up and get back unless we rushed, which was counterproductive to my reason for going -eg to relax and meditate in that beautiful temple. I suppose we could have tried to race up for the chance to see the clear weather view, but neither my friend nor I were particularly interested in stress or speed that day.

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I think that the park is gorgeous in any weather, but I’m glad I got to see it in the sun. I’d like the chance to hike it one day, but clearly the fall foliage isn’t the right time for me. It makes me think of the mountains I climbed in China, Tai Shan and Hua Shan. There were certainly other people climbing those days, and I was inevitably the slowest, but the Chinese were so much more relaxed about going around me, some liked to stop for a chat or a photo, but even those in a hurry didn’t run me down. It’s been a recurring issue for me in Korea that I feel like the frog in Frogger any time I’m anywhere crowded. I really don’t think it’s only crowds as other large cities, even mega cities like Beijing and Tokyo do not have these problems. It can make it a struggle to go to an event here knowing that being shoved around all day will definitely be part of it.

My goal for this trip was to try and find the part of the park that wasn’t going to make me play elbow dodge-em. We decided to stick to the less popular paths that wandered the foot of the mountains and just to enjoy ourselves and take a million photos. It was lovely. There were still a lot of people on the “boring” trails, but with only one or two hiking-gear clad racing groups it was easy to step aside and let them by. The rest of the people on our path seemed to share my idea that it was a lovely day for a stroll. Plus the walkways were smooth and wide, so there was plenty of space to go around / step aside and no risk of being knocked off a steep slope!

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I got to spend a long time with the giant Buddha and even go to the small temple beneath it which had not been open the first time I visited. It wasn’t quite the same as my mountain peak temple, but it was nice to soak in the beautiful chanting and just still my breath and mind for a while. There was a monk inside performing a ceremony. It seemed like visitors could donate to the temple to have a prayer recited for them. I hadn’t realized it while I was above ground, but the chanting we were hearing all around the statue wasn’t a recording. It was the monk below chanting live. If you’ve never had a chance to hear a Korean Buddhist chanting, here’s a sample:

Most of the colors were higher up the mountains, we could see them from where we were, but still declined to hike up. Instead, I scampered off the path after the lone red tree or orange branch and ended up with a lot of close up photos. The effect of the sunlight streaming through the colored leaves was so stunning that I really didn’t mind that being my primary subject.

We came upon a clearing near the river about the time we were ready for a break. I sat down on the rocks overlooking a beautiful little valley view and just enjoyed life for a while, the trees made a perfect picture frame for the mountains beyond. When I had a bit of energy back, we climbed a little down to into the river bed. My friend actually went out on a huge rock in the middle of the river for photos, but I settled with a rock that was a bit closer to shore.

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Next we explored the large (aka main) temple in the park. It had beautiful carvings of flowers on the buildings and bright blue ceramic tiles on the roofs. I think that my best overall landscape photo of the day came from a small grassy knoll just behind the temple compound. Bonus, I got to refill my water cup at the sacred mineral spring! Along the way, I also found several balanced rock towers left by previous tourists, any number of glittering spiderwebs, a few really beautiful spiders that hadn’t given up for the fall yet (they hibernate in the cold, I think because I never see them), and even a stray mushroom patch.

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We walked a short way past the main temple toward the base of another arduous uphill hike. We had no intention of going up, but we thought it might be nice to walk along and see what else was on ground level. I’m glad I did because we found the Legend of Ulsanbawi Rock. The hike we were avoiding would have taken us up to this famous rock, but we could see it pretty well from the ground that day.

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According to the legend, a looooong time ago, the gods ordered all of the rocks to gather together to create the 12,000 peaks of Geumgangsan. Also sometimes spelled “Kumgang”, this is the most famous mountain in North Korea. Obviously the myth predates the 38th parallel. However, it’s only about 50km (30 miles) north of Seoraksan. Ulsanbawi was a very large and heavy rock, travelling from Ulsan, about 350km (217 miles) from Kumgang. He had only got as far as Seoraksan when it became dark and he laid down to have a rest. The next day when he awoke, he learned that Kumgang was all finished being made, and he was no longer needed there. However, he was too ashamed and embarrassed to return home to Ulsan, so he curled up on Seoraksan and has remained there until this day.

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On the way back from our low ground view point of Ulsanbawi, we found yet another small temple, and passed a number of beautiful bridges criss-crossing the rivers. Lunch was only slightly challenging as we looked for a keto-option. I had hoped for the famous seafood pajeon for myself, but there was such a large back order at the restaurant, they said it would take over 30 minutes. I ate bibimbap instead, and it was still delicious sitting on the patio staring out at the mountains as a backdrop.

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We rushed to grab more last minute photos of the park entrance we had raced by on our arrival (hoping to get those cable car tickets), and made it back to our tour buses with about 1 minute to spare. It wasn’t an action packed adventure, but it was almost everything I could have hoped for. I was still a little sad about the cable car situation, but I saw so many other beautiful things, and I didn’t get run into by a speeding ajuma even once.

Myths & Tales from China 04

Last time we read about Shen’nong dedicating his life to identifying all the plants in the world to help humanity grow and thrive. Now Shen’nong has won the title of Flame Emporer and changed his name to Yan Di. He must fight for the fate of his kingdom against a newcomer, Huang Di. Make no mistake, the outcome of this battle will determine the history of all China!


Huang Di Battles Chi You

Around at the same time as Flame Emporer Yan Di there was another ruler called Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor. Because he was born on the shore of the Ji waters and lived on Xuan Yuan Hill, he used Ji for his family name and Xuan Yuan as his given name, so he is also called Yuan Huang Di. While they fought over territory, the tribes of Huang Di and Yan Di had three great battles at Banquan near Zhuolu (in Hebei). In the end, Yan Di was defeated; he retreated to the South and ruled there.

There was a Tribal Chief under Yan Di’s command with a cruel and warlike nature named Chi You. Under his command were eighty-one brothers. Each one had the head of a man and the body of a beast. They had copper heads and iron foreheads, and four eyes and six arms each. They were not only good at making weapons, but their magical power was also very strong. Chi You often tried to persuade Yan Di to face Huang Di again in battle and take back the land they had lost. However, Yan Di did not have the heart to make the common people suffer such calamity so he did not listen to Chi You’s suggestions. Chi You became angry; he ordered his people to craft a large number of weapons, and to gather Feng Bo (wind god), Yu Shi (rain god), and the Kuafu Tribes-people and go immediately to challenge Huang Di.

Huang Di had a kind nature, and was unwilling to fight. He pleaded with Chi You for a truce, but Chi You didn’t listen at all and attacked the border again and again. Having no other choice, Huang Di personally led his soldiers into battle and prepared to fight Chi You.

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Huang Di first ordered his Great General, the Dragon Ying Long to attack. Ying Long could fly and spray water from his mouth. When he entered the battle, he flew up into the air, then, occupying the high ground, he sprayed water. In the blink of an eye, a huge flood surged forth and crashed in great waves towards Chi You. Chi You quickly sent out Feng Bo and Yu Shi. Feng Bo blew up a fierce wind that filled the sky, Yu Shi gathered up all the water that Ying Long sprayed and sent it crashing back down on Huang Di’s own troops. Ying Long could only spray water, he couldn’t collect it, so as a result of this attack, Huang Di was defeated and had to surrender.

Before long, Huang Di once again lined up his troops to fight Chi You. Huang Di lead his soldiers from the front, rushing into Chi You’s lines. This time, Chi You used magic. He spat out billows of smoke and fog so that Huang Di and his troops were completely covered. Huang Di’s men could not tell one direction from another. Trapped this way in the smoke and fog, they could not get out to fight again. At this critical moment, Huang Di looked up and saw the Big Dipper in the sky and was inspired. That same night he quickly made a device that would face Southward no matter what. Then he was able to lead his army out and rejoin the fight.

In order to inspire his army to their full strength, Huang Di decided to use the beat of an army drum to raise morale. He heard that in the East China Sea there was a floating mountain, and on this mountain lived a beast called Kui, the one legged demon of the mountain, whose howling voice was like a peal of thunder. Huang Di sent some men to go and capture Kui and use its hide to make the drum. Huang Di further sent people to go and capture the Thunder Beast of Thunder Pond and take his big bones to make a drumstick. When this Kui-hide drum was struck, its trembling sound would reach five hundred miles, and several hits in a row could make the sound reach three thousand and eight hundred miles. Huang Di also used eighty cow-hide drums, and greatly roused his army’s strength. In order to completely defeat Chi You, Huang Di called specially on his daughter Nu Ba to help fight. Nu Ba is the goddess of drought; she specializes in collecting clouds and stopping rain.

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Huang Di gathered his troops, and once more entered into battle with Chi You. Both armies were poised for battle when Huang Di gave the order to beat the war drums. Immediately the sound shook Heaven and Earth. When Huang Di’s soldiers heard the drums, their courage doubled, but Chi You’s soldiers were frightened by the sound and their spirits sank. Chi You saw the circumstances were grave, so together with his own 81 brothers they began to unleash their magic powers, and fought ferociously in front of the troops. 

Huang Di saw that Chi You truly could not be dealt with in this way, so he had Ying Long spew forth water. Chi You had no way to defend against it and was knocked off his horse by the blast. He hastily dispatched Feng Bo and Yu Shi to fire up a campaign of fierce wind and torrential rain right in the middle of Huang Di’s forces. The face of the earth was suddenly flooded, the situation was desperate. Just then, Nu Ba entered the battle. She cast a spell, and from her body radiated a wave of heat. Wherever she went, the wind stopped and the rain vanished; her head was like a scorching sun. Feng Bo and Yu Shi had no strategy left, and ran away in a great hurry. Huang Di lead his troops forward into a huge battle. Chi You was defeated and ran away.

Chi You could fly through the air, and also could run so fast over sheer cliffs and rock faces that it was just like flying. Huang Di seemed unable to capture him. He chased Chi You into the middle of Jizhou. There, Huang Di had a sudden insight, and ordered his men to beat the Kui-hide drum with all their might nine times in a row. Chi You’s spirits sank immediately. He could no longer move and was captured by Huang Di.

Huang Di ordered his men to put a wooden collar and shackles on Chi You, and then let them cut off his head. After Chi You died, his shackled body was thrown onto a desolate mountain top, where it transformed into a grove of maple trees. Each leaf was covered with the spots, just like the blood spattered on the collar and shackles.

After Huang Di defeated Chi You, the vassals all venerated him as the Emperor, son of Heaven. Huang Di lead the common people, turned wild lands into farmland, settled the lands of Central China, and established the foundation of the Cathay peoples.


NOTES:

Cathay may refer to all of China, or simply the northern parts of China.

Huang Di is also known as the Yellow Emperor and is credited with being the first true Emperor of China (there is no historical evidence he existed, but he is mythologized as a human and not a god). He is credited with inventing most of the trappings of complex civilization including writing, mathematics, and astronomy.


Xing Tian Dances the Ganqi

Among Yan Di’s troops was a man called Xing Tian. He greatly revered Yan Di and followed him everywhere. Xing Tian and Chi You were alike. After Yan Di retreated to the South he tried his best to persuade Yan Di to send the army for revenge; however, Yan Di remained unmoved. When Chi You was fighting Huang Di in the North, Yan Di would not allow Xing Tian to help him, and Xing Tian became very depressed.

Later, Xing Tian heard that Chi You was defeated and had his head cut off. He was unable to hold back the grief in his heart and decided to kill Huang Di in order to avenge all of Yan Di’s people. He secretly left Yan Di. In his left hand he carried a shield and in his right hand he wielded a broad ax, then he ran like the wind to Xuan Yuan Hill. The whole way, he crashed through the mountain passes set up by Huang Di one after another and went straight to launch an attack on the front gate of Huang Di’s palace.

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When Huang Di heard that Xing Tian had broken through his mountain passes one after another and was rushing in to kill them all, he was very surprised. He picked up his double edged sword at once and went out to personally face Xing Tian in single combat. Just as he came out of the palace gate, Xing Tian’s broad ax rushed down at him, Huang Di barely dodged to avoid it. Xian Tian hurled insults at Huang Di while ferociously brandishing his broad ax. Huang Di also brandished his sword back. They clashed sword against ax high in the clouds, back and forth, fighting with all their might, fighting so hard that black clouds rolled forth making a dusky patch between Heaven and Earth.

They fought for three days and three night and still could not determine a winner. Huang Di gradually began to weaken, but Xing Tian was young and vigorous, and while brandishing his broad ax, the more he fought, the braver he became. Huang Di knew that this kind of bravado could be a disadvantage, so when he saw an opening, he sliced his sword at Xing Tian’s neck. There was a snapping sound — Ka Cha! — and Xing Tian’s head was chopped off, fell to the ground and bounced up three feet, then rolled — gu-lu-lu — to the foot of the mountain.

Xing Tian felt the base of his neck where his head no longer was and panicked. He crouched down and felt around on the ground with his hands. As a result, the trees that reached into the sky and the towering rocks were swept aside by his giant hands. They all snapped off and shattered one after another, filling the air with smoke and dust and sending fragments in all directions.

When Huang Di saw that Xing Tian had lost his head but had not died he stared dumbstruck. He worried that Xing Tian would find his head and reattach it to his neck, so he raised up his sword and split open Changyang Mountain with all his might. With a loud rumbling sound –hong-long-long — Changyang Mountain was split in two, Xing Tian’s head rolled — gu-lu-lu — into the opening, and the big mountain immediately closed back up.

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Xing Tian stopped and crouched there blankly. He knew his own head was already buried in the mountain and could not be brought out again. But he was not resigned to defeat in this manner, he felt angry beyond compare, and suddenly erupted in astonishing power. He sprang up fiercely, used the two nipples on his chest for eyes and his bellybutton for a mouth, gripped his broad ax and raised his shield, and proceeded to slash wildly at the air.

Who knows how long this went on before Xing Tian finally used up all his energy and collapsed like a mountain, his hands still tightly gripping his ax and shield. Huang Di was so moved by his loyalty and perseverance that he commanded that Xing Tian would be buried under Changyang Mountain.


Chinese onomatopoeia or 象声词 (xiàng shēng cí):

You may have noticed some sound effects in the last story. I didn’t make them up, they came that way in the original text. If you’re curious –

咔嚓一 ka chaaaa!
gu-lu-lu
隆隆 hong-long-long

Myths & Tales from China 03

As the Gods withdraw from creating the earth, the age of great heros begins. Demi-gods and great sages who challenge the gods and the natural world to bring specialized knowledge of technology and medicine to improve the lives of humanity, lifting us from stone aged hunter-gatherers into the metal-working, agrarian societies that lead to greater civilizations and achievements.


The Story of Fuxi

A very long time ago, there was a country called Huaxu. The people who lived there were happy and long lived. Their lives were not that different from the Daoist Immortals. One day, a beautiful young Huaxu maiden was out strolling in the forest near Thunder Lake when she unwittingly wandered into the domain of god of Thunder. She saw a giant footprint on the ground and she was very curious. She held out her foot next to the giant print to see the difference in size. The instant she set her own foot into the giant footprint, the air was filled with the rumbling sound of thunder, and giant passed over her head then disappeared in a flash.

The Huaxu maiden took fright and ran back. She didn’t expect that after that day her belly would begin to get bigger, but ten months later she gave birth to an adorable baby boy. She named him Fuxi.

From the time he was little, Fuxi was smart and talented. Once he chopped down a small paulowina tree, trimmed it, and strung it with fifty strings. He called it a Se Harp and when he began to play it, it made melodious sounds that were very beautiful to hear. 

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One day, while Fuxi was playing music, a peal of thunder arrived from far away. He raised his head and thought to himself, “I have heard it said that my father is the god of Thunder that lives in Heaven. I too should go to Heaven and see him. Yes! Some people say that there is a tree called Jian Mu in the Southeast, it is extremely high and large, only if I climb that can I reach the Heavenly Court of the Immortal gods!” Thus, Fuxi took his Se Harp and departed Huaxu to begin his search for Jian Mu.

Fuxi headed out towards the Southeast. The more he walked, the more desolate it became. One day, he saw a group of starving people hitting a bison in order to kill it for food. They pulled the meat off a piece at a time, dripping with blood, and stuffed it into their mouths and ate it. Seeing them act this way, Fuxi was extremely astonished.

When he arrived at the banks of Blackwater River, Fuxi saw a person standing in the river grabbing at fish. When a small fish passed by, the person immediately pounced on it, but actually pouncing on thin air they were swept into the torrent and were carried away by the water in the blink of an eye. Fuxi saw this and felt very sad.

Fuxi walked and watched, walked and watched until he met the goddess Sunu. He then went up and asked, “Excuse me, but may I ask, do you know the way to Jian Mu which leads up to Heaven?” She answered his question with one of her own, “Are you so unsatisfied staying upon the Earth? What are you doing looking for Jian Mu?” Fuxi answered, “In order to go up to Heaven! In Heaven waits my father, the god of Thunder!”

“Very well, I will tell you where to find Jian Mu, but remember, when you climb up Jian Mu, you must on no account turn and look down!” When Sunu finished speaking, she pointed her finger. Fuxi followed her pointing finger and as expected, he saw a giant tree, unmatched in size by any other, growing straight into the sky. It was surely Jian Mu.

In order to show his gratitude, Fuxi loosed the Se Harp from his back and gave it to Sunu. After that, he began to climb Jian Mu. This was a very strange tree, the bark was very smooth and difficult to climb. Fuxi didn’t dare to be even a little bit careless, and slowly, slowly pulled himself up. Meanwhile, Sunu sat down under the tree and used the Se Harp to play some music. The sound that traveled up to Fuxi’s ears was very soulful, like it was expressing all the woes of the mortal world. He listened and listened and was soon distracted. Not paying attention, he slipped a long way down the tree.

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Fuxi quickly pulled himself back together and continued climbing upward. At the very moment he climbed to the highest branch of Jian Mu, the music Sunu was playing echoed through the skies, forlorn and filled with sorrow.  Fuxi was afraid; he forgot the warning of Sunu and turned his head to look back downwards. This time he was ruined. He felt nothing but the sky and earth spinning, and all of a sudden he fell down.

Fuxi, bearing his pain, began to get up from the ground. He yelled out, “Sunu!”, but she was nowhere to be seen. At that moment, the waves in Blackwater River rose suddenly and issued forth a rare and mythic creature. The creature said, “You have fallen from Heaven. It was not Sunu that caused you to be distracted, but your own reluctance to leave the mortal world!” When Fuxi heard this he was quite amazed, and decided not to climb Jian Mu again.

Thus, he came into the East, and there he established a kingdom. He taught the people how to hunt, how to domesticate wild animals, how to use string to weave nets, and he taught the people to use the nets to catch fish and birds. Ever since then, people have not had to go hungry and their lives are much better than they were before.


Shen’nong Tries All the Plants

In ancient times the five crops and the weeds all grew together, medicinal plants and all the flowers bloomed in one place. No one could clearly distinguish which plants could be eaten or which ones could be used to treat illness. The common people were dependent on hunting for their livelihood, but the more they hunted the birds that flew the air, the fewer they became; and the more they hunted the beasts that walked on the ground, the rarer they became. People often went hungry. And if someone got a rash or got sick, then there was no way to treat them, and people could only look on helplessly and wait for the them to die.

The tribe’s chief, Shen’nong considered the situation of the suffering of ordinary people and he felt pain in his heart and mind. He decided to find crops that could sate hunger and herbs that could be sued to treat illness for his people. He lead several of his subjects, setting off from Mt. Li and walking towards the Northwest. They walked and walked, they walked for seven times seven or forty-nine days. They arrived at a place where the peaks of high mountains met and canyons ran into one another. Growing atop the mountains were strange plants and unusual grasses that they could smell even from very far away. Shen’nong was extremely happy and led his people into a canyon until they reached the foot of a large mountain.

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This mountain stuck straight up into the sky, and all four sides were steep cliffs. The cliffs were overgrown with moss, and rivulets of water slid down them. He saw without a ladder to heaven they could not ascend. His subjects pleaded with him to let it be, to return home with haste. Shen’nong resolutely shook his head. He looked up and down the high mountain, carefully sizing it up then thought hard. Suddenly he spotted several golden monkeys following along high old hanging vines and moving horizontally between the cliffs and climbing the trees that grew there. Shen’nong had an idea!  He called for his people to come then had them chop wood, cut vines, and build a shelf frame that leaned against the cliffs. Every day they built another layer no matter if it was windy and rainy, or snowing and freezing, they never stopped working. They built constantly for one year until they reached the mountain top.

Shen’nong carefully, cautiously climbed up the wooden frame up the mountain. Wow! The top of the mountain was truly a world of flowers and grasses, Shen’nong was very excited. He called to his people to guard against attacks from wolves, tigers, panthers or other animals. He himself picked flowers and plants and put them in his mouth to taste them. By day, he led his people around the mountain top tasting plants; by night, the people lit a bonfire, and he would sit by the fire and record in detail his discoveries of the day: which ones are bitter and which sweet, which ones can sate hunger and which can cure illness. He wrote it all down clearly and distinctly.

Once, he put a very strange looking plant into his mouth and began to chew, immediately he became dizzy and fell to the ground. His subjects rushed to help him up. He was at once aware that he was poisoned, but he was already unable to speak. He could only feebly point at the bright red reishi mushroom ahead and then point to his own mouth. One subject understood his meaning, and quickly fed him the reishi mushroom. After Shen’nong ate the reishi, he felt instantly refreshed, and the poisoned miasma melted away all at once. He quickly told his people to record the poisonous plant, as well the healing reishi. Even though this time they averted disaster, his subjects worried that this way of tasting everything would sooner or later be dangerous, so they begged him to go back down the mountain. But as before, he resolutely shook his head.

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When he finished tasting all the plants on one mountain, Shen’nong went on to another mountain to keep tasting, until his footprints were stamped all over the mountain range. Finally, he tasted wheat, rice, millet, corn and a whole bunch of edible beans and later these became known as “the five crops”. He also tasted three hundred and sixty-five types of medicinal herbs and wrote “Bencai Jing”, the classical book of Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine.

Years flew by in the blink of an eye, Shen’nong was about to carry the herbs he had picked and the seeds he had gathered down the mountain when he discovered that the wooden frames they had built had grown roots. During the long days, they had unexpectedly grown into a sea of trees. While Shen’nong was trying to figure out how to get down the mountain, a flock of red-crested cranes flew by in midair and carried him and the subjects at his side up into the Heavenly Court. In later years, people will come to give Shen’nong the title of Flame Emperor Yan Di. 

Myths & Tales from China 02

Welcome back to the ancient pre-history mythology of the Middle Kingdom! In our first installment, Pangu created the earth and heavens from a giant cosmic egg and Nuwa – the half serpent goddess – created mankind from droplets of mud to ease her loneliness. However, much like the Greek myths focus on the Titans and Gods a while before the age of man begins, so too does the Chinese pantheon get up to some tricks before humans get to start running the world.


Gong’gong Attacks Mt. Buzhou

Gong’gong is the god of water, in charge of the seas, the great rivers, the lakes and the ponds. He is the son of the fire god Zhurong, and grew up looking like Nuwa with the head and torso of a man and the body of a snake. He had an irritable disposition. Often while strolling through the Court of Heaven, everywhere he went, he found the other gods annoying. Sometimes, on pretext of going on an inspection tour of his territorial waters, he would even go to the Human world and stir up trouble.

The person that Gong’gong was least able to get along with was is own father, fire god Zhurong. Zhurong often rode in a cloud chariot pulled by two dragons when watching everything. He also had a very irritable disposition, and furthermore, he couldn’t stand to see his son Gong’gong’s behavior and actions.

One day, father and son began to quarrel over who knows what, back and forth, the more they quarreled, the more terrible it became. Afterwards, Gong’gong went so far as to pull out his axe and take a swing at his father. Zhurang angrily picked up a weapon to face him.

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The two of them tread upon the clouds, sword against axe. The fighting was exceptionally fierce; three days and three nights passed with no clear winner. Gradually, Gong’gong little by little was unable to hold his own, and he retreated to the human world. He arrived below Mt. Buzhou, and in a moment would be defeated by Zhurong.

Unexpectedly, Gong’gong fell to the ground and immediately collected and blended the waters of the rivers, lakes and oceans, and with a strength that could topple mountains or overturn seas, he pressed them all down upon Zhurong. Zhurong glanced up, immediately spouted spirit fire, and roasted Gong’gong. Some of the great waters doused part of the raging inferno, but the fire was truly too big, and the waters of the seas and rivers got cooked up hot. Gong’gong got a little nervous, and Zhurong spouted flames even more fiercely and the waters of the seas and lakes cooked until they began to boil. If this cooking goes on, all the water on the earth will be cooked dry!

Gong’gong’s defeat had come. Zhurong rode his dragon chariot back. Gong’gong’s belly was full of anger he had nowhere to vent, so then he flew into the air and rammed ferociously, head first into Mt. Buzhou, wanting to die. There was only heard a huge sound that shook heaven, Mt. Buzhou was cut off at the middle, and the mountain began to crumble and collapse with a rumble-rumble, but Gong’gong wasn’t damaged in the slightest.

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Mt. Buzhou pierces straight into the skies. Originally, it served as one of the pillars that support Heaven, so when it was struck like this by Gong’gong and suddenly broke, it caused the appearance of Heaven and Earth to change. The sky collapsed in one corner, exposing a black hole, the Sun, Moon and Stars all changed places, at the same time slipped toward the northwest. The earth was crisscrossed with cracks, floodwaters overflowed and fires spread, and the people we caught up in this catastrophe…

Nu Wa Mends Heaven

Gong’gong had angrily struck Mt. Buzhou and knocked it over, causing a huge hole to appear in the Western sky. The earth of ancient China had suddenly split open in long stretches of deep ravines, flaming infernos burned on without dying, vast floods flowed without rest, and ferocious wild animals came out of the forests and attacked the good and honest people.

When Nuwa saw the children she had created with her own hands suffering disaster, she became extremely flustered, and resolved to repair the hole in Heaven. She searched everywhere for something that could be used to repair Heaven. One day, she came to a river’s edge and discovered that the river contained many multicolored stones which were astonishingly beautiful.

Therefore, she dug out a giant furnace in the earth and set a huge frame for a pot beyond compare on the surface. Afterward she selected several of the multicolored stones from the river and placed them into the pot. She lit a spirit fire and slowly simmered them for seven times seven or forty-nine days. Finally the pot of stones boiled until it was all thick like congee. Nuwa then used these melted stones of all five colors to mend the hole in Heaven, and brilliant multi-colored sunset hued clouds appeared in the Northwest. 

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Nuwa smiled gratefully. But very soon she became anxious again, Mt. Buzhou had crumbled, and now the Northwest corner of the sky had nothing to hold it up, what if there was another collapse, that could still happen! Thus, she went into the Eastern Sea, grabbed a turtle that was bigger than a mountain, took its four legs and put one at each of the four corners of the earth, supporting the four sides of heaven and earth.

However, the disaster had not come to an end, there was still a black dragon going out and causing trouble every day, hurting and eating people everywhere, damaging crops, doing many bad deeds. The people hated and feared him. After Nuwa heard this, she went into the water, captured the black dragon and lifted up her jeweled sword to kill him. Afraid, the black dragon quickly begged for forgiveness. Nuwa thought and then said, “Alright then. You go to a river in the North and there you must guard the waters for the benefit of the people!” The black dragon thanked Nuwa and flew away.

The disaster was finally over. Nuwa’s children on Earth, the men plowing and the women weaving, working at sunrise and resting at sunset, were living happy lives. Later generations of people praised Nuwa for her accomplishments, creating humankind and repairing Heaven, and affectionately refer to her as Mother Nuwa.

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This statue in Yucheng is of Nuwa repairing the sky and it is one of many similar around China.

Myths & Tales from China 01

Have you ever wanted to know about the myths and legends of another culture? How are they similar or different from your own? What are the stories that everyone knows as well as we Westerners know Noah’s Ark or Little Red Riding Hood? Well, now’s your chance to find out. In one of my language learning fits, I purchased some children’s fairy-tale books on a trip to China and spent many restless, dictionary-filled hours translating them into English. 

Please keep in mind, I didn’t write these, I’ve only translated them.  It’s a little sad to think about now, because I did all this work at a time before Google Translate. Just for giggles, I plugged the Chinese in to the translator and, to be honest, I was expecting word salad, but it came out pretty smoothly. This is my translation, not Google’s, but it really puts my efforts as a language learner and teacher into perspective that Google 2019 did in 0.3 seconds what took me several hours in 2010.

Once upon a time, I dreamed of turning it into a kind of bi-lingual children’s book series with mini language lessons, but the publishing just isn’t happening. Oh, why lie, I haven’t even tried. So, here it is — blogger style.


Pangu Splits the Sky and Earth

In a far distant age, a time immemorial, the Universe was like a huge egg the like of which had never been seen before nor since.  From the pitch blackness inside was born the ancestor of all mankind, Pangu. 

After sleeping inside the Egg for 18,000 years, Pangu finally awakened. He opened his eyes and looked all around, but he could see nothing besides the darkness. All over his body, from head to foot, he felt hot and dry. He wanted to stretch out his muscles, but he was so tightly caught up in the Egg that he couldn’t even move an inch. Just breathing was becoming more and more difficult.

Pangu became very angry. Effortlessly, he took hold of the ax at his side and brandished it at the darkness before his eyes, chopping it in two — Crash! After a burst of deafening sound, the pieces of Primordial Chaos gradually began to separate. Those parts which were clear and light slowly rose upward and became the Sky. Those parts that were murky and heavy sank down little by little and became the Earth. All around, it became brighter and brighter. Pangu suddenly felt clear and refreshed.

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Sky and Earth were separated, but Pangu was worried that they could still rejoin. Therefore, he spread both his feet apart and raised both his hands, and pushed against the Sky. Every day the Sky rose  by ten feet, and every day the Earth sank by ten feet, and Pangu grew bigger and taller along with them.

No one knows how many years passed, until finally the Sky could not go any higher nor could the Earth go any deeper. By this time, Pangu had exhaused all the strength in his body. He let out a long sigh, lay down on the Earth, and closed his eyes. This great hero died, but his body did not fade away at all. His left eye became the Sun, his right eye became the Moon, and his hair became the Stars. His four limbs and body became the Five Sacred Mountains, his blood became the rivers and lakes, his skin became ten thousand miles of fertile land, and his bones became the trees and flowers. His teeth became the rocks and metals, his marrow became bright pearls, his sweat became the rain and dew, and his last breath became the wind and clouds.

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Pangu used his life and his whole body to create a beautiful world, and set aside a vast and limitless treasure for future generations.


Nuwa Creates Mankind

Pangu had established the Sky and the Earth and used his body to make the Sun, Moon and Stars, as well as the Mountains, Rivers, Grasses and Trees. The murky air that remained between Earth and Sky slowly transformed into the Insects, Fish, Birds and Beasts, bringing life into the deathly still World.

One day, the goddess Nuwa who had the head and torso of a woman, but the body of a snake, was traveling along this lush and verdant open country. She looked all around: up and down the mountain range, along the swiftly flowing rivers, at the plants striving for splendor, at the hundreds of birds singing as they flew through the sky, at the beasts galloping across the ground, at the fish frolicking in the water, and at the tiny insects jumping in the grass. Ordinarily, it would be said that the World was already quite beautiful, but overall she felt a kind of loneliness she couldn’t express.

At a loss, she sat beside a pond and looked at her own reflection in the still water. Suddenly, a leaf floated down into the pond, and the stillness of the water was full of ripples that made her reflection start to sway and rock. She suddenly realized why she wasn’t happy: there was no other kind of creature like her in the world. She thought about this, then immediately swept up some clay from the bank of the pond. Next, using her own reflection as a guide, she began to shape it. She kneaded and kneaded the clay, and when she was done it was a very small thing that looked more or less like herself. It also had five senses and seven qiao, as well as two hands and two feet. After she finished her work, she placed the thing on the ground where it unexpectedly came to life. Nuwa was truly happy and she shaped many more. She called these tiny things “Humans”

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The humans gathered around Nuwa, cheering and frolicking for joy; they were extremely lively. Nuwa’s lonely heart all at once became nice and warm. She thought she would make everywhere in the World have Humans, so she shaped one, and another one. But after all, the world is so big. She worked for ages, until both hands were numb from the work, but the little humans she shaped were still too few upon the face of the big Earth. She thought that going about it this way would never work. Just then, she broke off a handy nearby vine, extended it into the quagmire, dipping it in the mud, then shook it towards the dry ground. The result was that the little drops of mud each became a tiny person that looked just like the ones she had shaped using her hands. This was not only faster, but created more at once. Nuwa saw this new method was quite effective, and she sprinkled the mud with increasing energy until the whole of the Earth was full of people. 

Nuwa then made it so Men and Women could get married and raise children so that humankind would continue on from that time to this.

Nagoya Castle: Now with 10% more Ninja!

If there is one famous place that exemplifies Nagoya, it is the sprawling grounds of the reconstructed Nagoya Castle. I couldn’t possibly visit Japan’s fourth largest city without spending some time at it’s most famous historical monument! I was hoping to get a sunny day and take some sweeping landscape photos of this majestic structure, but the weather was not on my side. Even without the sun, Nagoya Castle was beautiful, fun and educational to visit. Plus, there were Ninjas!


I woke up Tuesday to the sodden realization that the weather forecast had changed again, and the rain was not going to stop until I was back in Korea. It wasn’t as bad as Monday, however, mostly cloud cover and the occasional sprinkle. I had forgotten my umbrella at the katsu restaurant the night before, but I wasn’t worried since umbrellas are for sale in every subway station and convenience store (right next to a huge steaming pile of foreshadowing).

Golden Bus or Subway?

I looked into the possibility of doing the Golden Tour Bus day pass. The Me-Guru is a kind of hop on hop off bus that runs around the most popular places in Nagoya. You can get a Me-Guru day pass for 500 yen which is great if you are planning to hit up several tourist hot spots in one day. Unfortunately for me, there wasn’t a stop anywhere near my friend’s house, so I was going to have to take the subway at least 2 times (out and back) making the 500 yen ticket less attractive to me. If the Me-Guru isn’t getting you where you want to go, you can also get a city day pass for subways for 740 yen, or subway bus combo for 850 yen.

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Photo Credit: Nagoya Station.com

The main attraction of the Me-Guru Golden Bus is that it drops you very close to tourist attractions that might otherwise be a hefty walk from the nearest regular bus or subway stop. Atsuta Jingu is very central and easy to access, but the Nagoya Castle and Tokugawa Gardens are rather out of the way. Lucky for me, the Me-Guru bus also offers single ride tickets for 210 yen which you can buy on the bus just like any other city bus. I would recommend the Me-Guru day pass if you happen to be staying anywhere near one of the bus’s stops, however I opted to take the subway (270 yen trip) to Nagoya Castle, then the Me-Guru to Tokugawa (210 yen), and finally the subway again (270 yen) back to my ersatz home base for a grand total of 750 yen.

I mention all this because it’s acutely important to figure out transit in Japan before you go unless you are made of money and time. Since most of us aren’t… Data plans and mobile WiFi hot spots are expensive and not really necessary given the proliferation of free WiFi, but it does mean you can’t to a Google search any time anywhere, you have to find the WiFi first. I like to research my routes over breakfast and take screenshots of the map and directions to reference later when I’m out of WiFi range. So, Tuesday morning, while I was enjoying my “morning service” again, I pulled up a million maps to see where I would go and how far I would have to walk/wait between each one. The public transit options between the Castle and the garden are dreadful. Hence the one stop Me-Guru ride.

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If you don’t plan ahead, you may not know where the next bus stop/subway station you need is (it might not be the one you came out of or the closest one may not go where you want to go). You could find yourself walking farther than you want, which doesn’t sound like much, but we tracked our walking on Sunday and got almost 10 km in one day of aimless tourist meandering. It adds up fast, and while I don’t mind walking for health or enjoyment, I don’t want to waste vacation time and energy walking extra to the bus stop when I could be using it to walk through something cool! Plus, if you suddenly find yourself knackered from unexpected heat, humidity, and ridiculous amounts of walking (this happens to me at least once per vacation), taking a taxi back to your hotel in Japan could cost 50-100$, that’s US dollars, folks. Taxis are EXPENSIVE in Japan. Ubers are not better.

Let Them Eat Gold

From the nearest subway station, the walk into the Castle compound is down a little restaurant corridor that sells everything from Nagoya specialties to the Castle’s very own gold plated ice cream. Yes, gold plated ice cream. It’s not actually very expensive, and it’s highly Instagramable, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy one as I have recently been complaining about the out-of-touch rich people in America eating gold plated tacos while children can’t get fed in school… soooooooo…. no gold ice cream for me.

The ice cream isn’t trying to be Richie Rich, it’s actually meant to imitate the golden tiger-fish that is the symbol of the castle. During my post vacation research phase, I got curious about how they could afford to sell these golden ice creams for 6-9$ a pop, and I discovered that you can buy edible gold sheets for surprisingly cheap. One seller on Amazon is selling 10 sheets for 7$. The gold taco I was upset about? 25,000$… US….At 0.70 per sheet, it may be silly to eat a golden ice cream cone, but it’s not actually Louis XVI levels of decadence and class warfare. Eat the rich.

Fire Bombing Damage

Nagoya Castle is the number one tourist stop in Nagoya and it’s not even finished! Almost everything you see there was destroyed by Americans in WW2 during the fire bombings. A fact the informative signs will not let you forget since everything you read will tell you how the original was destroyed and whether what you’re looking at is a transplant or a reconstruction.

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Traveling around Asia, you inevitably see signs like this because nearly every temple, castle and historical site has been sacked during one war or another. In China and Korea, you find things that were destroyed by the Japanese. In Japan, you find things that were destroyed by the Americans.

The castle and grounds were still heavily under construction during my visit, but I’m told with some degree of excitement by the locals that the reconstruction should be finished this (2018) summer.

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Hommaru Palace

The first sight that greeted me walking in the gate was the tower of Hommaru Palace. The tower is done in a similar style to the main castle, but is much smaller. Once you get around the corner and over the moat, there is a beautiful brand new palace. According to the literature I was given to take home, the Nagoya Castle was declared a National Treasure back in 1930, but sadly destroyed in the 1945 air raids… ok they don’t call out America by name, but we all know. The palace compound has been undergoing reconstruction on and off since 1959, but the Hommaru palace reconstruction only started in 2009!20180508_134013

I am not an architecture buff, but I do enjoy a beautiful building. I especially appreciate that Nagoyans decided to use all traditional materials and craft techniques to remake the structure. It doesn’t just look like the original, it preserves the artistry and history of Japanese culture — not only the woodwork, but also the fittings, metalwork, and paintings. There was an intense research project designed to microscopically and chemically analyze the original scraps that survived the fire bombing (have we mentioned that recently, because Nagoya Castle does not want you to forget) so that the paintings could be replicated as authentically as possible.

Despite the chronic reminders of our history of conflict, the restoration process is fairly interesting. If you want to see more details, they’ve got a lovely website.

As I approached the palace proper, there was a group of Japanese businessmen having a chat in front of a very photogenic area. However, my faith in Japanese politeness was rewarded. As soon as one noticed me holding my camera (phone) nearby, they gestured to the others to move out of the way and we all smiled and bowed to each other before I went on to take the photo. So much politeness!

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Following the path, I noticed an area where a few other visitors were lining up and entering the building so I paused to check it out. The staff were sooooo excited to share with me. They showed me a little video of how to tour the building correctly (no touching, no flash photos, etc) and explained the character in costume stopping all the bad behavior on screen was the father of the famous king who had ruled from this palace and a famous general.

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I was asked to wear my backpack on my front to avoid bumping anything, and all of us were asked to remove our shoes before going inside. Slippers were available, of course, and there were free shoe lockers as well. For an extra 100yen, an audio tour of the palace was availble in several languages. I thought about getting the English one, but it was taking the staff 10+ minutes to set up the couple at the front of the line, and I wasn’t second in line. I decided to risk moving on less informed.

The palace itself is bright and open. Although the day was cloudy, the inside of the palace somehow still managed to feel sunny with the warm wood halls, paper windows, and gold accents. Drifting sock footed through the hallways, I felt a sense of what visiting the royal palace might be like. Everything was hushed and clean. The halls were made of the same pale wood on all 4 sides creating an effect of being inside a tree. Every few meters, the interior hall wall would open up into an opulent room. The 3 visible walls inside each room were covered with the ornate and painstaking replicas of the Edo period paintings.

In practice, each of the rooms would have had a specific ceremonially significant purpose. A room for receiving guests of a certain social standing or another. A room for dining, one for tea, one for drinking sake and listening to music. One room had a fire pit built gracefully into the floor and a hidden vent in the ceiling to carry the smoke of roasting meat and fish up and out. The low wooden bars are just to keep people from walking into it, not an actual part of the function. Indoor fire pit is now added to my list of things I want in my imaginary dream house of the future.

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The palace doesn’t take long to explore and it’s included in the park entry fee. I highly recommend a walk through. On my way out, I ran into the very helpful staffer again. It turns out she had lived in America a while ago and was happy to practice English with me (although I don’t think she really needed “practice”) She told me some more about the restoration process and said I really needed to come back after the construction was complete to see it at it’s best. It made me happy that the people working there take so much pride and interest in the history and culture of the site. Enthusiasm is highly contagious and just talking with her made me more excited to be there.

Surprise! Ninjas!

Just after leaving Hommaru, the path turns a slight corner and suddenly there’s the first real view of the Castle proper. This was the real moment I was sad about the weather. Nagoya Castle is elevated, and huge, so any photo will have plenty of sky in the background. My cloudy, rainy day resulted in a very plain light gray sky instead of a fluffy cloud filled azure backdrop. Is it cheating to use filters?

Did I mention there are ambulatory ninja on the castle grounds? It’s part of a cultural and historical show. According to the ninja website, two words I never thought I would string together in a non-hyperbolic fashion, there are performances every weekend, but weekdays are listed as “hospitality”, a kind of meet and greet.  I was there on a Tuesday, so I only met the two posing for photos and promoting their future shows.

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No Nagoya Castle for Me

Sadly, the castle was closed for the finishing touches of construction, so I couldn’t go inside, but I’ve heard there’s an excellent view from the top. Looking at other people’s photos online, it seems the decoration style is very similar to that of Hommaru palace. The only truly distinctive thing I missed out on seems to be the huge Shachihoko (the tiger fish) that you can sit on and pose with, and the tall geometric stairwell. Next time.

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photo credit: Matcha Magazine

Since the castle proper and some of the other areas were closed off for construction, I was encouraged to wander a little off the beaten path. In addition to stopping for teeny tiny flowers which earned me some very strange looks. (Why is she looking at the grass when the castle is right there?) I also wandered off into a little forest grove filled with large, semi-flat stones. It was not cordoned off, but also not really connected to the main walkway either. After some assistance from the Google oracle, it seems I discovered a stone tomb of unique historical properties.

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I’m still unclear if it’s an original or a replica given the whole bombing debacle, and I don’t know why it was over there all by itself in an extremely unmaintained state in the middle of what were otherwise meticulously maintained grounds. The only informative sign was in Japanese and it mostly focused on the description of the architectural style, geography and time period with no mention as to its context near the castle. Still, it was pretty, and from inside the trees, I got some fun new perspective angles on the castle itself that don’t look identical to every other tourist shot on the web, so yay!

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A large chunk of the grounds were completely blocked off during my visit. I found a few more interesting goodies like ancient gates and the working tea house where you can stop and have a traditional cup of matcha green tea and a sweet. Of course the souvenir shop would never be closed for construction, but I found the gardens to be a bit lackluster, as though they had not been tended to yet this year, so even though they were not blocked off, they weren’t exactly visitor ready.

Samurai and Shachihoko

20180508_131428On my way back toward the main gates, I happened to run into the Samurai. Ninjas AND Samurai. It’s like cosplay meets museum, so very Japanese. Much like the ninja, the Samurai pace the palace grounds daily for photo ops and perform shows on weekends and holidays. My desire to avoid weekend/holiday crowds may have backfired here, but the guys I met were pretty cool nonetheless.

The last important sight before my path led me outward was the Shachihoko – the fish tiger. What’s up with that? Well, it’s a mythological creature that is half fish (specifically a carp) and half tiger. The Japanese characters that make up the name of the creature is also a combination of “fish” and “tiger”. 鯱 (shachi) = 魚 (sakana, fish)+ 虎 (tora, tiger) Some argue that the fish is really an orca because “shachi” also translates as “orca” in Japanese.  I love language.

It’s often put on temples and palaces to ward off fires, but in Nagoya it has become the special symbol of Nagoya Castle due to the two large golden Shachihoko on the roof. Most of the souvenirs, or omiyage, of the castle involve this magical creature in some way, and of course, so does the golden ice cream.

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I do hope that I’ll have the opportunity to return to Nagoya again after the construction is complete. I would not only enjoy seeing the inside of the Castle proper, I suspect I would greatly enjoy the gardens and side buildings that were inaccessible during my visit. What little I could see through the scaffolding looked intriguing. Plus, next time I won’t feel guilty about trying that glittery frozen treat now that I know more about the edible gold market.

Due to the weather, there is no accompanying photo album to this trip, but I hope you’re enjoying the Instagram photos in the mean time. As always, thanks for reading ❤

Oh, and the umbrella foreshadowing? I’m afraid you’ll have to read the next post to find out about that adventure. 🙂

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!

Hello Bohol: Chocolate Hills & Tarsiers

Two of the most famous sites in Bohol are the Chocolate Hills and the adorable miniature primates, the tarsiers. No trip to the island is complete without a stop to see these unique wonders. In this post, I explore not only the famous hills, and two different tarsier sanctuaries, but also a few nearby stops like the mahogany forest, and one of the many adventure parks. As a bonus, I’ve included some native pre-Catholic mythology about the hills and the tiny monkeys.


Bilar Manmade Forest

Monday (day 3) was the longest drive of the trip, all the way from the southern tip of Panglao to the Chocolate Hills in the center of Bohol. We rode through rice fields, palm jungles, and tiny villages where dogs and chickens meandered freely and residents laid the recently harvested rice on plastic sheets on the side of the road to dry.

As the road turned inland, it passed suddenly into a strange and out of place landscape. Everything in Bohol is tropical: beaches, mangroves, jungles, rice fields. All at once we were in a temperate zone forest of mahogany trees. The sunlight was cut more than half, and the air was cool and dim. We pulled over to marvel at the view, and I realized that we must be in the Manmade Mahogany Forest.

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The Bilar Manmade Mahogany Forest is listed as a stop on many Bohol tours, and I saw on the map that it was on the road to the Chocolate Hills, so I planned to see it on the same day. I have since learned that there is no park-like infrastructure at all. The forest is simply planted around the road, and even the tour groups just pull over on the side like we did to look around and take pictures. I suppose there’s nothing stopping someone from walking up into the woods and hiking around, but there are no trails or interpretive signs. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful forest, and I enjoyed the drive through it in both directions.

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Later, I learned that part of the reason this forest is so silent and peaceful compared with the buzzing, squawking jungle around it is that the local birds and insects have not adopted the non-native mahogany trees as a habitat. The trees were planted as a way to reforest the island after some slash and burn farming tactics, and now there is a bit of a controversy from Filipino biodiversity specialists about the best way to keep doing that. As stunning as the forest is, it does explain why it felt so alien in comparison with the rest of the landscape, and highlights the reasons why environmentalism is about more than just planting trees.

Chocolate Hills

20171002_103406.jpgAfter 2 and a half hours of driving, we finally made it to the Chocolate Hills Lookout (sometimes called the Chocolate Hills Complex). There was a line of cars and vans stopping at something on the way, but they all looked like tourist groups and there were no clear signs, so we just drove around them and on up to the parking lot at the top. Motorbikes always have a separate parking area from cars here, so we pulled in and were asked for our tickets… which we didn’t have. I’m not sure if that was what we should have done in that long line of cars or not, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone, we just gave an attendant the money for the parking and tickets and she returned with our passes and receipt. We left the bikes there, and although we had to leave them unlocked, the lot was watched so we weren’t too worried.

The Chocolate Hills are a unique geographical formation found nowhere else on earth. There are well over 1,000 of these mounds in this one area of Bohol and none elsewhere in the world. The hills are soft, conical mounds covered in grass that dies and turns brown in the dry season making them look like chocolate kisses and giving them their flavorful name. No one knows how the mounds were formed, but everyone agrees it is a natural rather than manmade phenomenon.

Once Upon a Time

The mythology of the Chocolate Hills is a bit richer than the geology. There are three main myths to explain the hills among the people of Bohol. I have paraphrased them here for you.

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1) Long long ago when the land was always either baking dry, or slippery with mud and only the harvest time had green growth, there was a fight between two giants. No one seems to remember what the fight was about, only that it started to rain, and they soon began to hurl huge balls of mud at one another. The fight went on for days until both giants were exhausted. Some say they were so worn out from fighting, they simply lay down and died, but others more optimistically say that once they were worn out, the giants also forgot what they had been fighting about and resolved to be friends, leaving the field of battle strewn with their giant mud balls which became the hills.

2) Also long long ago, a giant named Arogo fell in love with a mortal woman named Aloya. In some versions, they marry and live together, but in all versions Aloya falls desperately ill and dies, leaving Arogo in terrible grief. For his love and loss of Aloya, he cried giant’s tears and where they fell, they became the hills.

3) This legend is a great deal more scatalogical, but it seems to be a favorite among children, as such stories often are. One day, a long time ago, a giant water buffalo wandered Bohol eating all the crops. The people became frustrated and so they laid a trap, piling all the spoiled food where the water buffalo could not help but see it. However, once he consumed the spoiled food, he had terrible stomach pains and… well… you can imagine what happened next? When the buffalo’s business dried out, there were the hills.

Getting the High Ground

20171002_105544.jpgWhen going to view the Chocolate Hills, there are two main scenic points, the one I went to, and another on the opposite side called Sagbayan Peak. The descriptions I’d read online make Sagbayan seem like a great place to go with kids, with a water park and giant animal sculptures and other places to play, but after a 2.5 hour drive to the Complex in Carmen, I opted not to drive to Sagbayan as well. There are other places to get a view, and there are some ATV rental places you can do an off road drive in the area, but it seems like the best way to be sure of getting a nice look is to go to one of these two peaks for a high ground advantage.

The Carmen location where I went had ample motorbike parking, and a little building with a restaurant, snack shop, restrooms and some souvenir stands, and a little off to one side, a giant staircase leading up to the highest peak for the best view. First, I took a circuit of the main building, looking out at the vistas below and peering casually at the souvenir stalls. I have given up souvenirs with my nomadic lifestyle and rely almost exclusively on photos and this blog to help me remember my travels with fondness, but I still like to see what’s on offer. Every now and then I find something I will actually use or wear.

20171002_104853.jpgOnce we completed the survey of the base level, we headed over to the stairs. I’m not a champion stair climber, but there were lots of places to stop, and a few side paths for extra sights. It’s not too much of a climb for all that it’s the tallest of the hills. Part way up is the turn off to see the “Our Lady of Lourdes” Grotto. The Philippines are mostly Catholic, a holdover from the Spanish colonization. There are churches and shrines everywhere, but I don’t mind too much as Catholic art tends to be beautiful, and no one was trying to convert me.

20171002_105639.jpgI took about a million pictures of beautiful flowers and the shifting view on our way to the top. And when I finally reached the peak,  took obligatory selfies from the viewing platform. I also went to find the not-actually-famous-at-all well with a a bell to ring the bell and make a wish. There was also a cute little backdrop on one side for people who like to pose with man-made scenery. I liked it despite or perhaps because of it’s total kitsch, but I’m glad it was off to one side and not covering the whole viewing platform.

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Why Do They Call It the ‘Rainy Season’

Standing atop this highest peak and taking in the view and the breeze, I noticed some dark clouds moving toward us. The weather in Bohol is still a mystery to me. October was supposed to be the “rainy season” and yet I’d only seen lightning from a long distance (and that close to the equator you can see a long way), our skies had been sunny.

20171002_111127-PANO.jpg Even as the week continued, we experienced very little rain. I am told that the rainy season is short but  has strong showers every day, and the hotel hostess did say that the weather was a little unusually dry for my visit, so maybe I just got lucky? Anyway, not wanting to be caught on the very top of the highest peak around if a thunderstorm hit,  we began to descend the stairs.

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On the way down, there was a family looking at something off to the side of the path and I stopped to see what it was. It turned out to be a little salamander! The diversity of wildlife, plant animal, insect, fungi, in Bohol is just stunning, but so much of it is tiny. It’s just proof that seeing the best things means being open to looking.

During the ensuing downpour, we got some lunch in the restaurant. I’ve included this meal experience in the food post, so I’m not going to describe it here, but I will say I was pleasantly surprised.

Just Another Adventure Park

With full bellies and sunny skies, we hopped back on our bikes to descend to our next stop. The parking lot attendants asked us where we were headed and advised us to be extra careful because the roads would be slippery. It seemed everywhere we went, the local people were quick to watch out for our safety and well-being.

12274756_10154324072564838_1412251690201222453_n.jpgOne of the many things I found online about Bohol was the prevalence of adventure parks. We have these in Korea too, and for some reason I still haven’t ziplined. The Chocolate Hills Adventure Park advertised a kind of zip bike, where you pedal a special bike (with a safety harness) along a zip line between two chocolate peaks. I have nothing against ziplining, it just doesn’t seem like a great way to actually see anything, so I keep putting it off in favor of taking in sights until I manage to find one in a place I’ve thoroughly explored. But this bike thing seemed unique and slow enough to get a great view with plenty of time to look around and admire the scenery instead of zipping through it.

I found the park at the end of my first, but not last, bumpy dirt road. I decided that driving on that road was the first test for any ambitious adrenaline junkie, after all, if you couldn’t navigate a dirt and rock road with uneven levels, shifting gravel, and post rain mud puddles, how could you possibly do the real adventure at the park? You can’t buy tickets to the individual rides at the front but must pay a 60p entrance fee, although they did offer to hold our helmets at the ticket office while we were inside.

20171002_145050.jpgI read online that the park had a weight limit, but we decided try anyway and see how much they actually meant it and how much was just a liability disclaimer. It turned out to be sort of both. We were each a few kilos over the weight limit, but instead of telling us straight up “no”, the staff advised us to head on up to the zip bike area and try on the harness with the safety guide to see if it would fit anyway. In retrospect, I’m not sure if this was their way of shifting the responsibility or not. I think if we’d been WAY over the limit they would have turned us away, but since we were close?

20171002_145135.jpgWe headed further in, following signs to the zip bike and were led to a steep stone stairway with the sign “fitness test starts here” at the bottom. I theorized that anyone who couldn’t climb the stairs to the starting point wasn’t fit enough for the activity, and we began the ascent. Whatever your opinions of stairs are, know that the jungle makes it harder. Humidity. Nonetheless, we persevered and made it to the top and were rewarded with a breathtaking view and a less than stellar ride attendant. I do try to give people the benefit of the doube, and maybe she was annoyed with her coworker on the radio or something else we couldn’t even see and not with us at all, but it was clear she was annoyed with something.

20171002_134923.jpgWe waited on the viewing platform, and I have to say that even though we’d just come from the tallest peak in the hills, the Adventure Park’s view was stunning. I don’t think I would have gone there only for the view, but it was certainly a nice perk. We also watched a few more tourists take the bikes out and back on the lines from the tower above us to the hill next door. The attendant at first told us that we had to wait due to lightning (the storm that had just passed us?), but then we saw people riding anyway? I’m not sure what was the deal there. I also accidentally got doused in ants trying to take a picture of the hanging trellis flowers. The ants really liked the flowers too, and when I bumped into one, they transferred from the petals to me. Thankfully, they were just small black ones, and I was able to brush them off with no bites, but it reminded me to keep an eye out for what I touch or lean on in the jungle.

Finally enough riders returned that the safety guide was able to have us try on the harnesses for size. I thought it fit. It went over my thighs and around my waist, and while there wasn’t much slack, I was starting to feel optimistic when the safety guy shook his head sadly. Although his English was not as good as the attendant’s, his attitude toward us was much kinder, and he seemed genuinely sad to have to break the news. Although the park employees were not speaking to each other in English, I finally figured out the problem was not merely the harness fitting, but where the straps landed on our bodies, especially our legs. It was disappointing, but understanding the reason wasn’t just fatphobia helped me to accept the results.

On the way back down the stairs, I enjoyed seeking out tiny treasures along the trail. Little bitty flowers, fluttering butterflies, a wee fuzzy caterpillar, an odd sideways snail and a mini mushroom. I love taking photos of tiny things sooo much.

Park for the Less Adventurous

There are a lot of opportunities to visit butterfly enclosures on Bohol as well. Initially, I planned to see the conservatory nearby, but the adventure park had their own and we were already there. It’s impossible not to compare, but I may have been spoiled by the one in Kuala Lumpur.

20171002_143134.jpgIf you’re going to the Adventure Park anyway, go ahead and visit their butterflies, but don’t go out of your way for this display. We were accompanied by a guide who had been trained to take lots of pictures for us (with our phones, they weren’t trying to sell them back to us or anything, but Asian tourists especially love appearing in their own travel photos in a way I never will) and move people through. She showed us a display on the life-cycle of a butterfly, and we got to hold a caterpillar. Then we walked through a path in a netted off part of the forest. We only saw a couple butterflies and at one point our guide threw a rock in an attempt to get on up on the top net to fly. We quickly stopped her from continuing that and said we were fine with the way things were. She said the butterflies were inactive because of the rain, but I felt like I’d seen half a dozen just climbing down the stairs from the zip bike.

There was a dead butterfly on the side of the trail which she picked up and repositioned so we could take photos. It was a little macabre, but I could tell she had been instructed to make sure that the visitors had as many photo opportunities as possible. On the way out, we posed behind butterfly wings in transparent cases to create a “trick photo” of ourselves as butterflies. It was, like many other things here, quite kitschy, but harmless fun. I’d definitely prefer a trick photo to mistreatment of living butterflies.

The experience was strange. It was small and a little dingy, and I think designed by someone who had heard tourists loved butterflies but didn’t really know how to do a butterfly garden. We never did go to the main conservatory down the road, but from everything I read on Trip Advisor, it’s almost exactly the same from the holding of the caterpillar to the trick photo at the end. I’m not saying don’t go. It’s super cheap and you might see more butterflies than we did. However, I saw a million beautiful butterflies in the wild, just wandering around Bohol and watching the flowers.

20171002_144552.jpgAfter the butterfly enclosure, we were guided over to the suspension bridge which is included in the park entrance fee already. This kind of bridge through the canopy is another very common tourist must do in Bohol, available at multiple locations. Even though I may not deliberately go looking for the silliest touristy things to do, I’m hardly going to turn it down if it’s right there in front of me. We had fun, and got a nice view of the park from the air before descending the stairs on the far side and heading back to the bikes.

Tarsier Conservation Area

20171002_164035.jpgFollowing a delightful and refreshing stop for some locally sourced buffalo milk ice cream, we headed back down the main road where were would be able to find the Tarsier Conservation Area (not to be confused with the “Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary”). Bohol is also famous as the home of the world’s smallest primate, the tarsier. There are two tarsier spots near the Chocolate Hills, and it was worth it to me to visit both, since I was already planning other road trips near each one. I’ll say now, if you can only do one, do the Sanctuary, but seeing both was nice.

The Conservation Area has a bad rap online for being too zoo-like, and I’ve seen some of the zoos in Asia, so I was wary of going at first. I had visions of tarsiers in tiny cages where people could take close up photos, or worse of them being passed from patron to patron as the reptiles so often are. I was pleasantly surprised to find no such thing going on. Make no mistake, the tarsiers here are captive, not wild, and they are part of a breeding program to restore the native population. But their everyday environment is nowhere near what I feared.

Visitors were encouraged to follow a concrete path through the enclosed forest. I saw a lot of paths that were blocked off with temporary barriers or signs which makes me think that sometimes the walking path changes when the critters need to move. There were park staff positioned along the path to help us spot the tiny tarsiers in the trees. Although photos are allowed, there is a no flash and no selfie stick rule, as well as signs all around reminding patrons to keep quiet for the little sleepy monkeys. Tarsiers are nocturnal, and so visiting hours are also sleeping hours. Each one was clinging to his or her tree under a clearly man-made roof of leaves and branches.

20171002_162736.jpgI can’t be sure if they are placed at these viewing stations or if the park simply made attractive bowers in good places and hoped. I did see one little guy hanging out in a not great viewing spot with no guide to point him out, so at least a few must be slightly rogue. We were also told they are territorial, and tend to stay in or near one tree as adults.

While it is clear that this park is an animal enclosure, a zoo for one species, I felt that it was still a pretty decent life for the critters who, while yes, had to be ogled by tourists, were at least kept a reasonable distance from the path and protected from invasive hands and cameras.

20171002_163905Whether we like it or not, tourism is the main reason species like these will survive. In fact, the growing interest in ecotourism is a big part of what’s paying for conservation in developing countries. It can be hard to draw the line between exploitation and preservation, but I think the Conservatory is leaning on the right side. Of course, the park dumps you back into a souvenir shop between the exit and the parking lot which was full of tarsier themed everything, and one shelf of wooden phallus ashtrays for no discernible reason at all.

Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary

20171006_093344.jpgSeveral days later on my way to a lunch cruise on the Loboc river, I started out extra early to make time for the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary to see how it compared to the Conservation Area. I tried to get there as close to opening as possible to beat the crowds of tourists, and I think I very well may have been the first customer of the day since cashiers had to be found, then change had to be found. It’s not an expensive tour, but like every little adventure in Bohol, it does cost a small amount to go in. I got a personal guide who walked me through a kind of netting air lock into the forest beyond.

20171006_093938While the Conservation center had been paved paths with guides stationed at each Tarsier, the Sanctuary was much more a natural jungle with mud paths through the trees. I doubt I would have gotten lost in the small area behind the building, but I certainly wouldn’t have seen as many tarsiers without my guide. The Sanctuary is closed in, but the fence and netting are very unobtrusive, designed more to keep predators out than to restrict the tarsiers. I also felt like the tarsier perches here were probably man made to encourage the critters to good viewing sites, and to make sure they were visible from the paths while being sheltered from the sun. However, where the Conservatory perches were obviously man-made, the Sanctuary perches looked far more natural, drawing less attention to themselves and who knows, maybe being more comfortable.

20171006_094314My guide quietly and confidently led me through the tangle of muddy paths, stopping every few minutes to point out a tiny sleeping primate. I was surprised at how close they were to the path after my experience at the Conservation center. While I’d been hard pressed to get any decent photos at the Conservation center, I had merely to hold up my phone to be close enough for great detail here at the sanctuary. I was worried about disturbing the little critters, so I tried to keep a reasonable distance, although more than once they were close enough for me to have reached out and touched, I know that would have been dangerous and damaging for them, so I resisted the urge. My guide was in no rush, and was happy to stand by while I got a good look at each one, and until I was satisfied with my photos. I can’t say I always had a good photo before I decided to move on, since I was keenly aware that simply by watching me back, I was keeping them awake and didn’t want to become a source of greater stress. I probably stayed at each spot between 2-5 minutes before moving on.

20171006_094405The Sanctuary jungle was also the hottest thing I did on this vacation. The trees were so close together and the netting caught the breezes, so even at 9:30 am it was sweltering hot and I was drenched in sweat the whole time. It was entirely worth it.

Tarsier Mythology and Preservation

20171006_094201.jpgIt was so peacefully quiet and there were no other visitors in the park so I felt very special getting to have this beautiful jungle and adorable creatures all to myself. I talked to them in soft reassuring tones like I was trying to sooth a scared kitten, and I have no idea if that was effective at all or just my own human oddness, but it was so obvious that they were watching me back, I couldn’t help but wonder how many myths of goblins or fairies these peculiarly shaped animals inspired. Their eyes are so large in comparison with their heads and yet the gaze is penetrating. Their hands are smaller than a newborn, but their fingers long and deft with large pads at the tips like a lizard or a frog.

In the west, these creatures have inspired fictional characters like Yoda, Gizmo (the Mowgwai), and the very popular Furbies. But in the Philippines, a deep superstition that pre-dates the Spanish colonization (and has never been fully eradicated by Catholic conversion) holds that forest spirits who dwell in the Balete Tree keep the Tarsier as beloved pets. Although there are very few of these trees left, the superstition has not wholly passed out of practice, and some of the early conservationists mentioned this myth in concerns over the mass capture and killing of the Tarsier that until recently had become normal in Bohol.

Thankfully, they are now a protected species, no longer for sale in every market, and where they are on display to the public, their environment is protected from two and four legged predators while raising money for increased preservation efforts.

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Feel free to check out the full albums of the Chocolate Hills and the adorable tarsiers over on my Facebook page 🙂


It’s December in “real time” here in Korea and I’m mostly occupying my time with end of year chores and dentistry. Looking over my photos, it’s clear I didn’t do nearly as much exploring inside Korea as my first year, and so I’m looking into some winter festivals that I missed out on before. And although January is our holiday time, I may be postponing my next out of country trip depending on what my next contract holds. While things are up in the air, I’m going to be a bit of a money saving homebody, but I have no doubt that some kind of adventure will come my way soon. Until then, I’ll keep publishing the Bohol stories and the China throwbacks. Thanks for reading! ❤