Tōkyō Day 2 – Nihon Kiin, Akihabara, Party at Kentarō’s

Today I had arranged to interview Antti, a 22-year old Finnish 6-dan amateur go player that’s recently been admitted as an insei by the Nihon Kiin. After walking around near Ichigaya station for a while, I went to the Kiin to meet him.
We talked for quite a while at one of the tables set up in the entrance hall, and were eventually joined by Mr. Urasoe Tomotaka, the chief of the Nihon Kiin’s overseas department. Tomotaka-san immediately turned out to be a really warm person, and he chimed in with extra information every once in a while. I’ll post the interview on the Life in 19×19 forums soon.

The real treat of the day came afterwards, when Tomotaka-san took us on a tour through the entire Nihon Kiin, even those coveted places that normally stay hidden from many visitors. And though we saw other things as well, the previous sentence can mean only one thing: Yūgen no Ma, or ‘the Room of Deep Contemplation’. This is a traditional Japanese style-room where many of the important games are played. Before entering the room there’s another hall with tatami, and when the sliding door to the actual room opened, I achieved one of my childhood dreams. (Considering how I turn into a big kid whenever go is concerned, this counts as a childhood dream.) I stepped through the doors and into the room, and didn’t know where to start taking pictures. Tomotaka-san also took some of Antti and me next to the large scroll adorning the main wall.
Something was slightly off, however, from the idealized picture I had constructed in my head, ever since I first heard of the room: the go board was missing! Tomotaka-san opened yet another sliding door and revealed a small store room packed with floor boards and bowls. He got the board that was used for many of the title matches, and placed it between the seats. Afew pictures later, my dream had come true. This was it. And then Tomotaka-san said: “Well? What are you waiting for? Sit down, play a stone.” Though hesitant at first, Antti and I both sat in the chairs reserved for the absolute best among go players, and we both played a stone. For those of you that actually care what opening move I chose to play, a ghost with a tall hat appeared and told me to make it a komoku. Who am I to disobey that kind of guidance?

Afterwards, we both went down to the playing room at the Nihon Kiin, and played some games. I got somewhat of a shock when Tomotaka-san translated my rank of KGS 6 kyu to an ambitious 1 kyu, but he whispered something about inflation and ensured me it would be fine. And he was right: I managed to win both of my games against the friendly elderly Japanese gathered in the room. There were some 30 or 40 people playing there, and none seemed to be any younger than 50, most much older than that. Though it’s true that most younger people would be at work from 14:30 to 17:00, but still, no youngsters at all, except from Antti, his opponent and myself.

Slightly tired from my games, yet extremely fulfilled, I left the Kiin at five o’clock, and went to Akihabara again to score a cell phone. I suspected it was not going to be all that it easy, but it turns out to be downright impossible. In fact, if I understood some of the various sales clerks who I asked for a cell phone correctly, it might even be illegal for a foreigner with temporary visitor status to get a cell phone here. Bummer.

But I had a huge reserve of positive thoughts from this afternoon, and went home to Kentarō’s, who had arranged a CouchSurf party. We picked up Paul, an adventurous Canadian who’s been traveling the globe for over a year and a half, and went shopping.
I spent a lot of the night talking with Paul about his travels since he left Canada a year and a half ago. He also showed us some pictures. The things that guy has seen and done are downright unbelievable. He’s just the right person to meet at the start of a trip, because I’m even more stoked than before to start my own adventure here.

Tōkyō Day 1 – Akihabara, Hirai

I boarded another train on the Ginza line, and thought dusk (the sun sets really early in Japan, around 6pm local time) would be the perfect time to take some pictures of the mad light show that is Akihabara. This is district has two well-known faces. The first is that of ‘electric town': cheap and second-hand electronics are plentiful in Akihabara’s many shops, which stay open until late at night. I need to go there tomorrow to buy a Japanese cellphone, as mine doesn’t work here (and even with a transformer, the charger doesn’t seem to like Japanese electricity).
Akihabara’s second face, and I’ll admit the one I was slightly better informed about (*cough* Japanorama *cough*), is that of otaku-heaven. For the non-Japanophiles among you, otaku are a mixture of a subculture within Japanese youth culture and several anti-social disorders. They are usually male, between the ages 15-35 and are obsessed with a fantasy world of manga (the Japanese comic book) and anime (the animated variety). They have difficulty relating to other people that don’t share their highly specialized interests, and are often characterized by a total lack of interest in women. Sound familiar? I’ll admit that I exhibit some symptoms of budding otaku-ness, though in my case it’s more of a grumpy-old-man-ness. And to answer Hannes’ question on Japanese women: there’s a seemingly inexhaustible supply of gorgeous samples walking around here.

At night I met Kentarō, my very first Couchsurfing host. And what a host he is: friendly, talkative and full of laughter. He took me to an izakaya, a traditional Japanese bar that serves a lot of snacks as well. They had a really cool system of drinking for regular customers: two people could buy a large bottle of strong liquor together, and they would write their names on it with a white marker. Because the bottle is too big to finish in one night, they would leave it there until the two of them are both available for another go. Apparently the amount of such bottles is a direct measurement of an izakaya’s success. I’d like to see this implemented in the one and only Krawietel, thank you very much.

Tōkyō Day 1 – Ueno, Asakusa

The flight to Narita Airport was a pretty straightforward affair, though not unpleasant. Since my hours in Helsinki had left me very hungry, I devoured the airplane meal, which consisted of a beef burger swimming in a brownish sauce with peas and potatoes, served with some soba as a side dish. The kind Japanese man sitting next to me showed me the polite way of eating soba: you basically put more noodles in your mouth than should be physically allowed to, and slurp it all down. And I mean really loud slurping. The problem is that I have yet to perfect the technique of actually making the noodles move while slurping, so I have to choose between either movement or sound. Ah, and quite the messy business it is as well, I have stained my T-shirt to such a degree I have had to change into the awesome Yoshi shirt my friends gave me.
I spent most of the flight sleeping, but was awake to see the Japanese coastline appear from the horizon, and managed to see much of the Japanese Alps as we flew over the inland mountain ranges. Just before our descent to Narita, Mount Fuji appeared in the distance, even more majestic than I’d thought it would be. I would love to climb it, though that’s impossible at this time of year, as a kind older man on the Tōkyō subway explained to me. That’s one thing about sticking out like a sore thumb, people either avoid you, or come over to talk. So far, I have to say that most people I’ve met here are really friendly. But I digress. Airplane.
Before disembarking, we got two slips of paper (one for immigration and one for customs), which would set the tone for the official procedure of entering Japan: use smiles, friendliness and extreme politeness to extract even more information than your average American immigration procedure. Was I carrying any germs like anthrax, that could be used in the manufacture of biological weapons? No, I forgot to pack those. Seriously.

After making it through customs, I sampled the famous Japanese toilet, and yes indeed: heated toilet seat. They also have some sort of disposable paper toilet seat to put over the actual seat in order to further hamper the spreading of germs. I already told you, forgot my anthrax at home. Taking a train to Tōkyō from Narita airport takes about an hour, and while traveling it did seem like I never left the urban environment. This part of Japan really is all people and houses.

My first stop was Ueno, a major station in Tōkyō, with a large park, Ueno Kōen, right next to it. But one needs to get his priorities straight, so I got some food first. Ramen! (I dedicated my slurping during that bowl of ramen entirely to you, Mr. Oriisama). Afterwards, I took a large walk through Ueno park, which houses many of Tōkyō’s most impressive museums (among which the Tōkyō National Museum which I intend to visit in one of the coming days). Ueno park is a nice place for a walk. There’s quite a few street performers (saw some insane jazz guitar players) to provide you with a soundtrack, and there’s plenty o’ shrine and statue to go around. There’s also bums and crows, the latter of which are presumably very harmful and visitors are kindly reminded not to feed them.
Down the other side from Ueno station one can find Ameyokochō, a collection of permanent stalls with salesmen shouting out their wares. They’re a remnant of the black market that flourished here right after World War II, and it’s a good example of the life force that runs through this city.

My next stop was Asakusa, to visit Tōkyō’s number one buddhist temple: Sensōji. I bought a train ticket, but was looking in the wrong spot. Tōkyō has two major subway and train operators: Japan Rail (JR) and Tōkyō Metro. Having bought a JR ticket while I needed to take the Ginza line operated by Tōkyō Metro, I asked directions from a station employee. He explained the situation to the person sitting behind the till (romantically called ‘The Green Window’), who immediately gave me my money back (even though I’d bought the ticket from a vending machine). The station employee walked with me to a different station (the Tōkyō Metro one) near Ueno, and showed me how to get the correct ticket. He even walked me to the platform. Metropolis mentality? I am seriously impressed with how helpful and friendly people are over here.
I eventually made my way to Sensōji, and found the temple to be simply stunning. You enter the first gate, kaminarimon (or Gate of Thunder, dedicated to two deities, one of which is a thunder god), and walk through a long corridor of stalls selling rice crackers and souvenirs. Modern perversion and consumerism, you might think, but actually this form of commerce is just as old as the temple itself. Temples attract many visitors, so that seems like a good business plan, no matter the age you live in. At the end of this commercial corridor, there’s another gate, and the backside of this one is adorned with two huge sandals which belong to this gate guardians. Up next are a huge iron pot filled with incense, which people gather round in great numbers to waft the incense on themselves, supposedly because this will give them divine protection. Up the stairs there’s a large wooden box in which one throws money and prays for whatever he/she desires at the time. I prayed for one very interesting trip. I haven’t been disappointed yet.

There’s more, but I’m hungry and will go out in search of food.

Helsinki Airport

I’ve finally set off on my journey. A pleasant parting drink with my parents at the airport managed to calm me down somewhat. There’s only so many days of saying goodbye one can withstand without turning into a pink rabbit with mascara tears all over one’s once blissful little face. But I digress. Airports. Apparently you’re not allowed to take pictures in areas where your luggage is inspected, something which an airport official was very quick to teach me, dutifully waiting until I’d deleted the picture. Two minutes in, and I’m already learning.
Another thing I’ve learned is that Finnair is a delightful airline to fly with, especially if you’re used to the “This is Sparta!” approach of a certain Irish low-cost airline. On a two-hour flight you’re presented with some excellent triangle sandwiches (my absolute favourite travel food, which, apparently, are made by ‘people with opportunities’, the latest politically correct term to join the ranks of crippled, handicapped, impaired and challenged, as Julie and Sien have pointed out. Good sandwich, by the way), tea, and water to make sure we stay nicely hydrated. As my father pointed out, the colours of the setting sun when flying to Scandinavia are quite different from what we’re used to, and indeed, I had never seen such beautiful shades of purple in the evening sky.

On departing from Brussels, the captain ominously pronounced our destination as “Hell… sinki.”, but so far it seems to be just another airport, albeit adorned with the strange yet fascinating language that is Finnish. Traditional linguistic theory has it that this language has been placed on earth by visiting aliens, and being surrounded by it on all sides at this very moment, I can see how one could make such assumptions. Well, off to find a quiet corner of the airport to curl up for the night. I’ve got a tiny seventeen hours of waiting to do for my connecting flight to Tōkyō. Perhaps that’s what the captain was referring to. Welcome to hell…sinki.

Well, I’ve survived the night. You’d be surprised just how quiet a large international airport gets at two in the morning. And although this waiting room seat was not the best bed I’ve ever slept in, it certainly wasn’t the worst either. I actually managed to sleep a few hours, which was more than I’d hoped for. As I’m typing this, I’m watching the sunrise slowly turn the morning clouds from grey to pink to gold. Ten more hours before my flight.

I managed to sleep a few more hours, and am now as rested as I could ever hope to be from sitting in airport seats. It’s still five hours until my flight leaves. Airports are silly places. There’s heaps of alcohol, perfume and candy in every of the twenty or so shops littered around Helsinki airport, but don’t you dare go looking for tooth paste. I eventually scored some in a tiny newspaper stall, hidden behind a corner. Yes, indeed. This paragraph was written in a cloud of minty freshness, provided by Pepsodent, reikiintymista ja plakkia vastaan.

The Teachings of Ethan Nichtern

One night, when browsing the web, I must have stumbled upon what was then still called ’21st Century Buddhism’, a podcast which consisted of talks given by Ethan Nichtern, a young teacher in the Shambhala buddhist tradition. That is undoubtedly one of the better coincidences that have shaped my life thus far, as his insights are what eventually convinced me to commit to a regular meditation practice. Here is what he has to say on contemporary buddhism:

To me, buddhism was this awesome gift, wrapped in really weird packaging. It would almost be like if you gave your friend who was really into football, a signed football from his favourite NFL player, but you wrapped it in frilly, pink paper, so he couldn’t tell what it was and was slightly turned off. He’d say: “I don’t want that. I don’t care what’s in here.” Something felt off about the presentation, but the teachings, once you unwrapped them, felt very relevant to me.

(from ‘Practice like your Hair is on Fire – Part 1′ © 2009 Ethan Nichtern)

This problem of what he called “retro packaging” is exactly what his teachings help to unwrap. He talks about what’s happening in our mind as we come home from a bar at three in the morning only to aimlessly watch Youtube clips for an hour while we know we have to be at work the next day. Or how when we walk down the street and pass hundreds of people, we can only remember the two that we thought were hot. His podcasts shed light on the whole spectrum of buddhist teachings, ranging from mindfulness, karma, impermanence and desire to money, anger, sex, and almost every other topic we get confronted with in our daily lives.

idppodcast

Ethan Nichtern has a very likeable way of talking, calm, yet without that grueling air of holiness you can hear with teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh (whose teachings are well worth studying in their own right, mind you), and is quite witty to boot. I’ve found myself bursting out laughing many a time, mainly because of his disarming honesty. I highly recommend listening to some of his talks, and if you have to choose two, listen to ‘Desire’ (recorded on 2009-11-14) first, and then check out ‘The Basics of Working with Your Mind’ (recorded on 2011-01-03)

You can subscribe to his podcasts
> Through RSS
> Through iTunes

Book Reviews: Brad Warner

Brad Warner is undoubtedly an important figure in translating buddhist teachings to our western contemporary setting. Besides his blog on the contemporary face of Zen buddhism, hardcorezen.blogspot.com, he has written several books on the matter.

I’d like to introduce you to two of his works, namely ‘Hardcore Zen’ (2005) and ‘Sit Down and Shut Up’ (2007). As is apparant from those titles, Warner doesn’t fit in with some of the more new-agey, sickeningly sweet publications on buddhism one can find in many mainstream bookshops. His writings are very personal, which in his case means they fit more in a punk tradition of questioning authority.

Both books use the same formula: Warner talks about buddhism, and his Zen-practice in particular, through stories that the average person can identify with. He uses the tools at his disposal, namely a history of being a punk bass player, a love for Japanese monster movies and a critical mind not too inclined to accept any external authority, to pass on what he has found to be meaningful in the buddhist teachings. Don’t think of this as some modern perversion of the buddhist teachings, in fact, this is exactly what the earliest forms of buddhism (and indeed the historical buddha himself) have always done: explain what you feel is essential through the means available to you. Just like the historical buddha used a framework of a society that firmly believed in reincarnation to explain karma and different mind states in ancient India, so Warner uses our celebrity culture and Eric Cartman’s “I am a cop. You will respect my authority!” to explain what is happening in our mind.

warnerbooks

Warner details some of his views on modern buddhism in his review of ‘The Making of Buddhist Modernism’ by David McMahan:

“I’ve said several times that I feel like Buddhism is sort of like advanced physics. Albert Einstein pioneered so much of advanced physics it might be considered appropriate to call it ‘Einsteinism.’ But if we did that we would not want to stop all of advanced physics at the point of Albert Einstein’s death and say anything that came after is not legitimate. Same with Buddhism. Buddha never claimed to be a prophet or messiah. So to say Buddhism stops with the death of the historical Buddha would be a grave misunderstanding of Buddhism. Westernization and modernization of Buddhism is inevitable and helpful.”

(from ‘Hardcore Zen – The Making of Buddhist Modernism’ © 2011 Brad Warner)

Because Warner speaks from his own experience, he does end up talking about his own life a lot of the time. Combined with his often cynical phrasing, this has lead to Warner becoming somewhat of a controversial figure. I must admit that at times, I found the passages on his personal life less interesting than the buddhist interpretations he presents based on those, but they are a necessary part in the way his works are structured. However, quite a few people have accused him of being an egomaniac, which I think mainly illustrates a lack of understanding on their part. I’ve re-read Hardcore Zen between 5-10 times, and it has yet to fail in providing me with some valuable insights.

Because of the many references to pop culture, the cover design and the way Warner uses language in his publications, I believe his works to be especially attractive to younger generations, though there’s a lot to be found here for everyone. You can find his books on Amazon:
> Warner, Brad – Hardcore Zen
> Warner, Brad – Sit Down and Shut Up

Research on Meditation Practice and Neuroplasticity

Now and then, one stumbles upon claims that something is ‘”scientifically proven”. Especially in the context of meditation practice, I have come across such claims multiple times, but the people making those claims never seemed to provide a clear reference to academic research on the matter. So I was delighted when an article presenting such claims also included the name of the person responsible for the research and subsequent publication. After some probing around the internet, I managed to track down the original article by Sara Lazar et al. in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, published by Elsevier in 2010. I’ve included the abstract of the academic article below:

graymatterTherapeutic interventions that incorporate training in mindfulness meditation have become increasingly popular, but to date little is known about neural mechanisms associated with these interventions. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), one of the most widely used mindfulness training programs, has been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well-being and to ameliorate symptoms of a number of disorders. Here, we report a controlled longitudinal study to investigate pre–post changes in brain gray matter concentration attributable to participation in an MBSR program. Anatomical magnetic resonance (MR) images from 16 healthy, meditation-naïve participants were obtained before and after they underwent the 8-week program. Changes in gray matter concentration were investigated using voxel-based morphometry, and compared with a waiting list control group of 17 individuals. Analyses in a priori regions of interest confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared with the controls. The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.

(© 2010 Elsevier Ireland Ltd.)

This is a fascinating bit of research, and I enjoyed reading the entire article. If you find the academic writing style a bit too dry for your taste, you can always read the psychcentral article by Rick Nauert. You can find both articles below:
> Nauert, Rick: Brain Structure Changes After Meditation, 2011
> Lazar, Sara, et al.: ‘Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density’ in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Elsevier, 2010.

Sign here, please

As anyone who has known me for more than a few minutes could tell you, I’m not too big on the paperwork. Yet moving to the other side of the world does involve a nasty amount of red tape. In the past few weeks I’ve had to replace my Belgian identity card, apply for a VISA-card, give my parents official authorization over my bank accounts, order Japanese Yen, figure out what can be covered by insurances in Japan, actually get the relevant insurances, figure out what icky diseases I’m vaccinated for, then get shots for the ones I’m still vulnerable to, on top of the usual paperwork involved with quitting your job and temporarily moving back in with my parents. “Sign here, please.” I’m surprised there’s any ink left for me to sign the endless flood of forms and applications with.

But there’s also some really cool things to be sorted out, like searching for Couchsurfing Hosts in Tōkyō. And since the powers that be only care for paperwork during office hours, the rest of the day can be spent with my friends.

Journal of Buddhist Ethics

I’m a big supporter of open-source culture, as I believe it’s one of the major ways the internet can help us redefine the way in which we interact with knowledge and the arts. I’m always particularly delighted when a source with good academic credentials decides to adopt such a model, and the Journal of Buddhist Ethics has done just that. It was founded by Damien Keown (University of London Goldsmiths College) and Charles S. Prebish (Penn State University) in 1994, and utilises a blog model to distribute its articles. You can download these articles as pdf files which include a copyright notice which is very much like what you find in creative commons licenses.

journalofbuddhistethicsDigital copies of this work may be made and distributed provided no change is made and no alteration is made to the content.

The material published in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics is, as is common practice in most academic journals, a mixture of articles and reviews of books in the same research field. Two examples of papers are Goodman, Charles A.: “Paternalist Deception in the Lotus Sutra, A Normative Assessment” (2011) and Sevilla, Anton Luis: “Founding Human Rights within Buddhism, Exploring Buddha-Nature as an Ethical Foundation” (2010). There’s more excellent papers by the likes David Loy as well as book reviews by Steven Heine.

All in all, this is an excellent free resource if you’re interested in academic buddhist studies.

How to stretch to get into the lotus posture

To me, the embodiment of the open way in which education is evolving is represented by the Youtube tutorial video. So I know no better way to start a page on contemporary buddhism than sharing some instructional videos to help with that most crucial part of any meditation practice: posture. Both half and full-lotus position offer an excellent base for a solid meditation posture. Dr. Mark Rosenberg from how to stretch has been a chiropractor for three decades, and he gives some very good stretching exercises for loosening the hips, which is essential for getting into lotus.

Though there are many more excellent videos on his channel, below you can find those that will get you started for lotus posture:
> Loosening the Hips
> Preparation for Getting into Lotus
> Get into the Lotus Posture – Part 1
> Get into the Lotus Posture – Part 2
> Get into the Lotus Posture – Part 3