Why Cherry Blossoms Are Such a Big Deal in Japan

I have known for a long time that sakura (cherry blossoms) are a really big deal in Japanese culture. I did not understand the fuss. I have seen cherry blossoms in San Francisco, and in Taiwan. They look nice, but not so much that I would throw a party just because the cherry trees are in bloom.

But there is an important different between San Francisco/Taiwan and Japan.

San Francisco and Taiwan are mostly subtropical/tropical.

Japan is mostly temperate.

I wanted to go hiking in Japan, but … ha ha … I was in Japan in winter, and I do not have the equipment/experience for hiking through deep snow. I did do some hiking in light snow, but it was something I had never done before.

There was one mountain, Karakuni-dake (in Kirishima), which I really wanted to hike, but I did not want to hike it in the snow, so I waited until just around when I thought it would be snow free.

My timing was almost exactly correct. When I hiked Karakuni-dake, there was still some ice and snow patches, but the trail itself was essential snow/ice free.

And that just happened to be the day that cherry blossoms were erupting around Kirishima. In fact, they were the first cherry blossoms I saw in Japan.

Then it clicked for me.

I have experienced winter in Japan. I did in southern Japan (with an escape to Okinawa prefecture), with modern conveniences such as indoor heating), but I also got to experience (light) snow hiking and the inconvenience of constantly having to bundle myself to go outside in Kyoto.

Japanese people deal with much more severe winters than what I experienced, and they have done so for as long as Japanese culture has existed.

Sakura are a sign of spring. Sakura are a sign that the Japanese winter is over. That is a reason to throw a party.


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If China’s Highest Priority Was to Take Over Taiwan, They Would Give Into the Hong Kong Protestors

This Forbes article says (bold added by me):

If it was merely a question of Hong Kong in isolation, perhaps Beijing would consider some of the protestors’ demands … But Beijing will not and cannot consider Hong Kong in isolation, because of the implications for separatist movements in Tibet, Xinjiang, and in a different context Taiwan, which is already a democracy but which China one day hopes to incorporate back into the Mainland and which is therefore watching events in Hong Kong very closely. The Chinese state does not believe in displaying weakness and is not about to start now.

I cannot comment on Tibet and Xinjiang, but if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were primarily concerned about annexing Taiwan, they would into the protestors demands in Hong Kong. Refusing to give into the Hong Kong protesters makes it harder to annex Taiwan.

The protesters in Hong Kong are basically asking for the Chinese Communist Party to keep the promise made when the sovereignty of Hong Kong passed to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The CCP is choosing not to honor this promise. So why should Taiwanese people expect the CCP to respect promises made to Taiwan, and how does breaking promises make it easier to annex Taiwan?

The power in Taiwan which is most inclined to accept annexation by the PRC is the Kuomintang (KMT), which is also Taiwan’s most powerful political party. Yet even Ma Ying-jeou, the chairman of the KMT (and current president of Taiwan) is officially siding with the Hong Kong protesters (Michael Turton’s cynical take on that) – short version: if the CCP is not respecting Hong Kong’s autonomy, it can’t be expected to respect Taiwan’s autonomy, which means that the KMT would not be able to hold onto power post-annexation, so why should the KMT accept annexation by the PRC?)

If the CCP were primarily concerned about annexing Taiwan, they would give into the Hong Kong protesters to show Taiwan that the PRC Can Be Nice. After all, they could stop being nice when the annexation is complete.

Taiwan is still independent of the PRC because a) they have their own military b) highly defensible geography c) the US military might get involved and c) the aftermath of a Chinese military attack on Taiwan might cause the CCP itself to lose power. I don’t think the CCP cares how many Taiwanese or Chinese would die or suffer, but they sure care about their potential downfall.

I think the CCP is most concerned with China, not Tibet, Xinjiang, or Taiwan. Most Hong Kongers (including most of the protesters) accept Chinese sovereignty, unlike Taiwanese people, so this is a conflict over governance, not sovereignty. If the CCP accepts democracy in Hong Kong, that will strengthen demands for democracy in other parts of China, and democracy could challenge the CCP’s hold on power. That is why the CCP will not give into the protesters’ demands unless it must. Not concern about Taiwan.


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The Most Fascinating Part of Chinese

Mandarin is not my favorite language. I consider it neither the most beautiful nor the most interesting language I have ever studied. The only reason that I am better at Mandarin than any of my other non-native languages is that it has been a lot more useful, and thus I have had way more practice.

However, there is one thing I find fascinating about Mandarin and the other Chinese languages, something which I have found in no other language – the vocabulary. Mandarin/Chinese relatively rarely borrows vocabulary from other languages, yet it is a modern language.

For example, the Japanese word for ‘camping’ is … ‘kyampingu’. The Mandarin word is ‘lùyíng’. One is related to the English word, the other is not. The Japanese word for ‘campground’ is ‘kyampu-jo’, which comebines Japanized English and Chinese. There is also another rarely used word for camping in Japanese – 野營 – which I am guessing it is a loan word from Chinese.

This is something I ran into over and over again in Japan … when I looked up a word, I often found that the word was borrowed from either English or Chinese. The vocabulary from proto-Japanese sources were generally either really common words (such as ‘taberu’ – ‘to eat’) or things very specific to Japanese society. However, in Mandarin, they describe nearly everything using vocabulary coined within the Sinophonia. For example, even though the Internet was not invented by Chinese speakers, they have their own word for it – ‘wǎnglù’. Not only did they coin their own word, they use the logic of the Chinese language to coin additional terms, such as ‘shàngwǎng’ which means ‘get online’.

When you borrow words from another language, to some extent you are importing the thinking of that other language. Granted, all loan words have to be adapted for the new language in some way – ‘kyampingu’ is not identical to ‘camping’ – but I feel it is easier to get into another way of thinking if the word is totally different than if the word is similar and I have to figure out the semantic differences.

When I hear people talking in indigenous Formosan languages, I sometimes suddenly actually understand something they are saying because they are using words borrowed from Mandarin (for example, the Yami word for ‘United States of America’ sounds like the Mandarin name). This is even more true with Korean, which has borrowed tons of words from Chinese. When reading a novel by a Rukai person set in ancient Taiwan (before any Chinese speakers were around), I was struck at how Sinitic it feels. It is probably inevitable that any work written in natural Chinese, even if set in a totally non-Chinese setting, will reflect certain aspects of Chinese culture simply because it is being described with Chinese words.

Granted, Chinese does have a few words borrowed from other languages – here is an article about English loanwords in Mandarin – but it would be difficult for me to come up with a long list. This article about Arabic words in Mandarin shows how, while some Arabic words (such as ‘yīmǎmù’ – ‘imam’) do get into Mandarin, Mandarin prefers to “translate the concept rather than instruct people in how to pronounce foreign syllables.”

There are ancient languages where I can get away from English/Indo-European lexicons – but I do not think any modern language can so thoroughly immerse me in a different lexicon as Chinese can.


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Religious-Social Allergy Triumphs Over Compulsory Baby-Making

This is for the October 2014 Carnival of Aces

Judaism in its more traditional forms (such as Orthodox Judaism) is a ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (i.e. you must make babies) religion. It does not necessarily mean that one needs to have as many children as possible, but one needs to have at least two. That means that people who follow more traditional forms of Judaism are required to have at least a minimal amount of PIV sex (artificial insemination? I don’t know). On top of that, marriage is so strongly encouraged that it is almost a requirement. Though marital rape is forbidden, withholding sex from a spouse (particularly a wife) long-term is considered to be bad, and could lead to divorce. On the other hand, menstruating Orthodox Jewish women are required to abstain from sex for about two weeks every month. Furthermore, sex should only happen in joy, so for people who are sex-repulsed and can never experience joy during sex … well, I do not know what rabbis would make of that.

I was raised in a secular environment, and I only attended Jewish ceremonies occasionally. My father is not a Jew. All of my living Jewish relatives are either non-religious or have converted to another religion. Eventually, I became an atheist.

Some older people in my Jewish family grew up in an Orthodox Jewish environment. They have a very charged relationship with the religion.

For Israeli Jews (religous or not) the Great Baby Race between the Jews and the Arabs adds tremendous pressure to make babies. Last year, I met an Israeli man (though he comes from a Jewish background, he refuses to identify as a Jew) who moved to Taiwan and plans to stay there. One of the main reasons is that he is committed to staying childfree, which makes interacting with other Israelis … difficult.

When my mother left Israel, she was an unmarried, childless, 30+ year old woman, and she says that she felt there was no place in Israeli society for someone like her. This was a major reason she moved to the United States.

My unmarried, 30+ year old Israeli cousins have also moved to the United States … and my family expects that, even if they do not stay in the USA, they will never move back to Israel.

Okay, too much Israel talk, back to Judaism!

My older relatives who had a much more religious upbringing sometimes react against it by emphasizing that we (the younger people) don’t have to live by the principles that they were raised with – including the one about making babies. I cannot recall a single instance of any of my Jewish relatives even suggesting that I would have children, and when they do comment, it is some form of ‘you don’t have to have children’. Furthermore, they have never suggested that I marry, or even get a boyfriend. It is actually the non-Jewish side of my family which is more inclined to suggest (though always subtly) that I may get a boyfriend/husband and have babies.

My grandfather decided he did not want to marry or have babies, and had rejected at least one marriage offer. Then my grandmother had an unplanned pregnancy, which is how my grandfather got a wife and babies anyway. He grew up in a very religious household, became an atheist at a young age, and ran away from home multiple times because of clashes with his family. Perhaps my grandfather only rejected marriage and babies because he had an extremely unstable life, but based on what I know of my grandfather’s personality, I strongly suspect he was also rebelling against his upbringing.

So … how do I sum all that up? Both Judaism as a religion and Israeli society push compulsory baby-making, which is a form of compulsory (hetero)sexuality, not to mention that Judaism pushes marriage (and a certain level of sex within marriage) independent of procreation. However, my Jewish/Israeli family has an allergic reaction to this, and thus emphasizes that marriage / baby-making / sex are *NOT* compulsory. Even though my family does not openly accept asexuality, I feel pretty comfortable with being asexual in this context, and perhaps this is why I never experienced the sense of being ‘broken’ that many aces experience.


Bonus: Some Information on What My Family Is Like

My grandfather had diabetes for decades. But he loved sweets, and eating sweets was obviously more important than listening to his doctors. And because he had sweets to eat, he wasn’t interested in dying yet. When my family told the doctors about what he was eating, they did not believe us because they said, if he was eating so much sugar, he couldn’t possibly still be alive.

I’ve heard that, towards the end of my grandfather’s life, he had a conversation like this with my mom:

Granfather: Don’t bother coming to my funeral.
Mother: Fine, I won’t.

My mother did not attend my grandfather’s funeral.


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It is my birthday. What does that mean?

This post was written on my birthday *but will not be published on my birthday* (i.e. October 3 is not my birthday).

Today is my birthday. I mentioned this to a Norwegian woman, and she wished me a happy birthday. My parents also sent me an email. Those are the only times today people wished me a happy birthday.

I am still travelling, and I just arrived in a city where I have never been before and where I know nobody. They have no clue that it is my birthday.

Something inside me says that I *have* to do something special because it is my birthday – that is part of why I am writing this post.

But … why can’t my birthday be a day like any other day? That is what today felt like. It was not bad, but it was not special either.

And I think expecting birthdays to be especially good can be counterproductive. If this were an ordinary day, I would be satisfied, but part of my feels like I should have had a ‘better’ birthday.

I think a bit of my inner disappointment stems from the fact that this is a reminder of how atomized and solitary my life is. It has been that way pretty much since I left California. Sure, I have friends in Taiwan, but during my years there I never established myself socially the way I had been in California (though perhaps, aside from cultural barriers, it would be unrealistic to replace 20+ years of a social life in just three years). One of my highest priorities when I stop travelling is to renew old social ties and form new ones.

My father had a big birthday party for his 40th birthday. He decided that would be his last birthday party. Nowadays, he thinks it is good when he can pass a birthday without a single person wishing him a happy birthday, but somehow someone always remembers that it is his birthday and mentions it to him. He says that he does not want to be reminded of how old he is, but now I wonder … does he also not want to be reminded about how socially isolated he is now? Not that he is totally socially isolated – he has my mom, myself, his brother, the neighbors, and the online communities he participates in – yet if he tried to hold a party as big as his 40th birthday party, he would have trouble getting the same number of guests. He does not seem to mind the way his social life is … but maybe he just does not show his dissatisfaction.

Maybe I should try having a big birthday party next year to gauge the state of my social life.


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Where Do I Live?

While travelling around Japan, I had to write down my ‘home’ address practically every time I checked into accommodation, as well as most instances when I had to fill out paperwork. While I did not have to write down my ‘home’ address quite as often during my two-month return trip to Taiwan or my two-week trip to Hong Kong, it was something which still came up (such as when applying for hiking permits).

The only address I could fill out was my parents’ address in San Francisco, since that is the only physical address which is a reliable means of reaching me. Filling out my address in Taoyuan would be pointless since I no longer rent that apartment.

It got especially bizarre when a post office in Naha insisted that I write both a ‘to’ and a ‘from’ address, and said that the ‘from’ address should be ‘my’ address. I pointed out that the ‘to’ address was in fact ‘my’ address and that it makes no sense for the ‘to’ and ‘from’ addresses to be identical. I eventually persuaded them to let me list the post office as the ‘from’ address.

People often ask me where I am from, and I reply ‘San Francisco’, and sometimes they reply ‘oh, what do you do in San Francisco?’

Well, ever since I have started this blog, I have not even been in North America, let alone that address in San Francisco.

Even though that is the address I use for paperwork, I do not live there right now, nor in Taoyuan. So where do I live? Wherever I am at the moment.

In a way, I am a drifter now, albeit with the privilege of a ‘permanent’ address, which sets me apart from many other drifters.

And why is having a ‘permanent’ address so special? I suspect that, among other things, by having an ‘address’ (albeit one where I have not been physically present for years), I can prove I am an addressed person, rather than one of those other people. And this can be a tool of oppression – for example, homeless people trying to go to state universities sometimes have trouble proving that they are eligible for in-state tuition because they do not have an address.

I suppose that the place where I sleep – wherever it is – is also my home, albeit temporarily. I am turning quite a few corners of Northeast Asia into my home in this manner. Right now, I am editing this post in Bifuka.

And I am learning not to get too attached to my ‘home’. I can thank a place for being my ‘home’, and let it go, knowing that there are other ‘homes’ for me in the world. I feel quite comfortable with having said goodbye to Taoyuan, and I suspect that, should I ever need to say goodbye to San Francisco forever, it would be possible to do it in a peaceful way (assuming the circumstances of the departure were peaceful).


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A Second Trip to Japan


I recently finished by second trip to Japan. I visited the following places

The Prefecture Where I Stayed for More Than One Month:

The Prefectures Where I Stayed for 7 Nights:
Nagano (Chubu)

Prefectures Where I Stayed for 4 Nights:
Osaka (Kansai)
Toyama (Hokuriku)

Prefectures Where I Stayed for 3 Nights:
Aomori (Tohoku)
Yamagata (Tohoku)
Gifu (Chubu)
Niigata (Tohoku)
Tokushima (Shikoku)

Prefectures Where I Stayed for 2 Nights:
Akita (Tohoku)
Kyoto (Kansai)
Ehime (Shikoku)

Prefectures Where I Stayed for 1 Night:
Iwate (Tohoku)
Miyagi (Tohoku)
Ishikawa (Hokuriku)
Aichi (Chubu)
Hyogo (Tohoku)
Kagawa (Shikoku)
Yamaguchi (Chugoku)

Prefectures Which I Visited But Did Not Stay Overnight:
Shiga (Kansai)
Okayama (Chugoku)

Here is I made a map showing which prefectures I visited during my first trip to Japan and this second trip to Japan: blue = first trip, red = second trip, and purple = both trips (and this map does not show Okinawa – I visited during my first trip)


So, what were the highlights of my second trip to Japan?

Favorite Flower: Komakusa (you can see a photo in this post)
Favorite Show: Tough choice. I keep on changing my mind, so I will make this a three-way tie for 1st place between Live Doom in Niseko, Earth Celebration / Umi by the Kodo Drummers, and Elisabeth by the Takarazuka Revue.
Favorite Mountain: Rishiri-Fuji
Favorite Serving of Matcha Tea: At the teahouse at Hikone Castle – they serve one of the best traditional desserts I have had in Japan
Favorite Castle: Matsumoto Castle. It is worth staying overnight in Matsumoto just to see the castle at night.
Favorite Garden: Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu
Favorite City: Hida-Takayama (Gifu)
Favorite Place That Nobody Has Heard of: Bifuka, Hokkaido
Favorite Island: Rebun Island
Favorite Bird: Much as I adore the Rock Ptarmigan, my favorite bird is the ever-graceful Red-Crowned Crane (seen in this post)
Favorite Village: Ainokura (Toyama) (yeah, it is touristy, but it still brims with charm)
Favorite Religious Place: Haguro-san (Dewa Sanzan)
Favorite Buddhist Temple: Risshaku-ji (Yamadera)
Favorite Shinto/Shugendo Shrine: Ishizuchi Shrine, which also happens to be near the highest point in western Japan, and that mountain put up a good fight to get the ‘favorite mountain’ listing.
Favorite Journey by Public Transit (land): Tateyama-Kurobe Alpen Route
Favorite Journey by Public Transit (sea): Riding the Hamayuu, a ship operated by Kampu Ferry.
Favorite Onsen: Noboribetsu Onsen (see this post)
Favorite Lake: Tazawa-ko (Akita)
Favorite Wetlands: the alpine wetlands on the slopes of Hakkoda-san

Overall, my favorite region of Japan is Hokkaido.

Now, as you can see in the map, my first trip focused on Kansai, Chugoku, Kyushu, and (not in the map) the islands south of Kyushu. Overall that trip was a good, engaging experience, but I was happy to leave Japan when it was over. During my first trip, I found a country largely devoid of beauty, except in the islands south of Kyushu and a few isolated spots here and there. I also found an overwhelmingly beaten tourist path running right along the shinkansen line from Kyoto to Kagoshima, though the foreign tourists are thinner in places such as Okayama, and even in the tourist-dense parts of Kansai it is not that hard to get away from the tourists (want to get away from tourists in Kyoto? Then visit a church run by a Christian sect which originated in Kyoto). And I did go to places such as Yoron Island, Wakayama, and Shimane, which are most certainly not on the super-beaten track.

Why the distaste for the super-beaten path? Well, sometimes I like the beaten path, but I feel that once a place is so overrun with foreign tourists that I hear way more Mandarin/English than Japanese being spoken, it makes it harder to connect to Japan, and I came to Japan for *Japan*.

Well, in the second trip, I got well off the track for foreign tourists (though I still managed to encounter plenty of other foreign tourists) and I often was asked “How did you know about this place?”

It made all of the difference. In Tohoku, in the mountains of central Honshu and central Shikoku, and especially in Hokkaido, I discovered just how many beautiful mountains, rivers, lakes, flowers and forests Japan has. I also got a much better sense of just how much cultural/regional variation there is in Japan during this trip. I also got to interact a lot more with Japanese people. In Hokkaido, I spent very little time visiting temples (and the temples in Hokkaido feel different from other Japanese temples), I did not have much traditional Japanese food, and I did not visit a single castle, but got a feel for Hokkaido’s own culture (hint: a lot of talented musicians live in Hokkaido). When I returned to Honshu, I found myself drinking a lot more tea, seeing a bunch of castles, and visiting a lot more temples and shrines- but ones which are quite different from the famous temples/shrines of Kyoto and Nara. And I also went into the Kita Alps, which, to someone who is used to hiking in Taiwan, is a major “what? WHAT!” (what? hot baths in mountain shelters? WHAT! THEY LET PEOPLE HOLD A HIGH-ALTITUDE RACE IN THE MIDDLE OF A TYPHOON!)

After this second trip, I was not happy to leave Japan. I was excited about my next destination (if you look carefully at this post, you can figure out where it is), but I was not happy about leaving Japan. I was a little sad.


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