Category Archives: travel

Modern Heian Kyo

The New York Times’ Travel Section this week has a multitude of articles about travel to Asia, and there are two articles about Kyoto alone.


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Cherry Blossom Season

Cherry Blossoms at the Heian Shrine, Kyoto.

In Japan, Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon are sometimes compared to different flowering trees that bud and bloom in the spring. Reserved and contemplative as she was, Murasaki is thought of as similar to  a cherry blossom, a traditional symbol of purity, while the gregarious, slightly more promiscuous Sei is likened to a vibrant red plum blossom.

A Sakura in Washington, D.C.

March is the month of the first Cherry Blossom or Sakura Festivals in Japan and in Washington, D.C. If you cannot get to Japan, the festival starts in our nation’s capital on March 27th this year. Even if you don’t particularly love cherry blossoms, there’s at least a parade with an enormous Hello Kitty balloon.


Filed under cherry blossoms, Murasaki Shikibu, Shonagon, travel

The 1300th Anniversary of Nara

Nara is home to the largest Buddha in Japan, built about half a century before the Heian period officially begins.

The Heian period officially starts in 794, the year that Imperial Capital of Japan moved from Nara to Heian Kyo, or modern day Kyoto.  This year is Nara’s 1300th anniversary, and there will be myriad festivals and celebrations in the city throughout the coming year.

Todaiji, the Temple housing the giant Buddhas.

Nara is a very charming small city, totally underrated in comparison to Kyoto. While it is understandable that many visitors to Kansai would bypass it in favor of the much-larger Kyoto, it’s a shame, because Nara never became a huge city and retains the feeling of a small ancient imperial capital.

Also, there are tame deer you can hand-feed buckwheat cookies.


Filed under buddhism, festivals, travel, Uncategorized

How to Avoid Carriage Rage

Just before Christmas, millions of people travel to visit far off relatives, and many of them will do so by car, leading to traffic and road rage. Sei’s list of “Hateful Things” provides insight into the annoyances one encountered in the Japan of 1,000 AD, and it seems that merely the rage-inducing technology has changed.

Sei complains about low quality, ill-kept carriages making irritating sounds:

“A carriage passes by with a nasty, creaking noise. Annoying to think that the passengers may not even be aware of this! If I am traveling in someone’s carriage and I hear it creaking, I dislike not only the noise but the owner of the carriage.”

Sei may appear finicky in this statement, but if one imagines traveling in an 11th century carriage, it becomes apparent that those wooden carriages would have been mind-numbingly slow, possibly traveling a few miles per hour on their wooden wheels. If a loud, creaking carriage were to approach one, it would be audible for a terribly prolonged period of time with no escape, and if one happened to travel in a friend’s squeaking carriage, well, it was even longer.

This holiday season, as you spend time sitting in traffic or traveling great distances, look at things from a Heian perspective. Traffic may be hateful, and you may despise the cars as well as the drivers surrounding you, or find all manner of rude behavior on the roads.

But hey – at least you can choose to ignore a car. You can’t ignore a massive squeaking carriage.

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Filed under carriages, Shonagon, travel

Shelter Yourself from Outside Reality

Due to a multitude of historical circumstances and Japan’s geographic status as an archipelago, Heian-era aristocrats had little in the way of urgent state business. They no longer had contact with foreign states, nor was there any conflict from abroad. There were occasionally internal revolts, but provincial military clans easily took care of such things with the reward of minor titles.

While there may have been battles once in a while, they generally took place quite far from Heian Kyo, and thus had little to no impact on its denizens.  The aristocrats’ wealth came from large holdings of land across the country, but provincial governors loyal to the emperor collected taxes from the peasantry and kept law and order.  Not only did Heian aristocrats rarely leave Heian Kyo, but they were rarely forced to confront the world outside of the city walls.

A Heian lady spies on a game of Go rather than a foreign enemy.

This peculiar situation explains, in large part, the blind focus on the world at hand – gossip, intrigue, and matters of rank. Why focus on outside matters if you don’t have to?

If you live in contemporary America, though there may seem to be all kinds of world problems, the fact is, they probably are not directly affecting you. There is no real threat of foreign invasion by sea or over the Mexican or Canadian border, civil war or internal revolt beyond protest seems unlikely, and the battles we do know about or participate in happen in far off lands most of us will never go to. So if you want to truly have Heian mentality, turn off the news! Don’t read that newspaper. Gossip about your rival. Try to overhear conversations around board games. Pay attention to other peoples’ outfits at the store, and complain about them later. You’re truly Heian now.

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Filed under insularity, travel

A Break in the Mountains

I have only just returned from a long trip away from my native soil, and though it is decidedly un-Heian to travel abroad, that is what I just did. Heian-era Japanese became more and more isolated from the world. They no longer sent ambassadors to China and Korea, thought of India, the birthplace of Buddhism, as further away than the moon, and perhaps a place of myth, and did not invite foreign emissaries to the royal court at Heian Kyo. The isolation was such that the Chinese court the Japanese were imitating was that of several hundred years before. This would be the equivalent of Italians today imitating 18th century France. That’s right, weird.
No, people did not venture abroad. Rather, the main traveling that aristocrats of the time did would be to stay for a long time at various Buddhist monasteries, where they would grow spiritually through an austere existence, or simpley wait out the latest gossip about themselves. In that spirit, let’s imagine that rather than having gone on a cruise to Central America, I went took a break in the mountains at a monastery. In a Heian interpretation of said vacation, I have written haikus to impart the important details.
Oooh, iguana farm!
Dominant males rest in trees.
Yes, they are all loose.

Majestic toucan
observes me below and squawks.
I want some fruit loops.

Feeding Honduran
parrots fallen orange pieces.
They all love me now.

You look like Sharpay
from High School Musical 3,
Honduran child says.

Top of Altun Ha,
dense jungle all around me.
My legs still don’t hurt…

Mayan Calendar:
will the world end in three years?
See 2012.


Cozumel – clear springs
abound. This is the island
of fertility.

Mexican ponies:
so very tiny, and quite
ill-tempered as well!

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Filed under buddhism, china, poetry, travel