Sunday, June 26, 2016

Horsing Around at Shinto Shrines

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan (and the official state religion until 1945).

An animistic faith, Shinto involves the worship of many (read: thousands) of divinities, known as kami, who represent and watch over everything and everyone.

Traditionally, horses were considered intermediaries between the human world and the realm of the kami (though, unfortunately for the horses, they had to be sacrificed in order to get there). White horses are considered particularly sacred, and were sacrificed to the kami on important occasions.

The sacrificial horses were often stabled at the shrine, fed well and given special care to ensure both the animal's health and the kaki's favor. On the festival day, the horse was adorned with ornate tack and blankets, amulets, and sometimes even a headdress, walked to the altar ... and sent on its mystical journey. (We'll leave it there.)

These special sacrifices continue even to this day, but in modern times, wooden amulets and statues of horses take the place of real, living animals. Many of the larger shrines still "stable" a life-sized statue of a horse (usually white) on the grounds - sometimes in the converted stable where the real horses were once kept:

Awaiting his fate at Itsukushima Shrine

At Itsukushima Taisha, on Miyajima Island, the ritual horse (pictured above) has a stable directly across the path from the shrine's main entrance, with a view of the shrine's Great Torii and the bay:

Great view . . . if you don't mind being a sacrifice.

It's a world-class view, though I'm sure the real horses didn't appreciate it quite as much.

The Great Torii (same view) at high tide.

At other shrines, like Fushimi Inari Taisha (just south of Kyoto) the ritual horse is kept in a ritual "stable" built especially for that purpose. Fushimi Inari's ritual horse "lives" halfway up the first flight of steps at the very base of Mount Inari, between the shrine's main altar and the first of the uphill paths where thousands of torii line the mountain's slopes.

The horse lives in the little house, bottom center frame.

The "stable" measures about the size of a one-car garage, and has windows so visitors can see the horse (and vice versa) as they pass on their way up the mountain.

A closer view of the "stable"

The horse is removed from his "stable" and decorated for festivals and rituals where a real horse would once have been sacrificed.

Fushimi Inari's ritual horse.

Symbolic sacrifice as a form of worship is fairly common in Shinto ritual - many of the shrines sell amulets imprinted with various objects, and worshippers purchase the ones that correspond to their current prayers and needs.

Shinto remains one of Japan's primary religions, and a significant portion of the population will acknowledge Shinto as their faith, if asked. Among the world's religions, Shinto ranks among the more peaceful--although (some of) the kami don't necessarily object to war or hostility, most of them don't request it or expect anyone to conduct it in their name. Also, Shinto accommodates other religions well--when Christianity came to Japan in the 16th century, many adherents of the Shinto faith became Christians "also" -- seeing the Christian god as simply one more to add to the pantheon. (Ironically, most of them didn't worry much about the Bible's claim that the Christian God was the only god - they simply thought he was foreign, and thus mistaken--and like most gods, they figured it was easier to simply go along with him in church than to try and disabuse him of the notion.)

I find both Shinto and its various kami fascinating, and its shrines offer some of the loveliest and most compelling architecture in all of Japan. If you find yourself near one, definitely take the time to visit. They're beautiful, relaxing, and peaceful places  and perfectly safe. . . unless you happen to be a horse.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

It's All Up to the Mykonians


Perhaps there’s just something in the air…or the water, but the raging populist drive reflected in Thursday’s Brexit vote and the US Presidential campaign seems to be taking root on Mykonos.

A half-dozen times this week different Mykonians lamented to me on their island’s future. That’s not unusual.  I’ve been hearing similar complaints every year for over thirty years. Some say it’s only natural. :)  This time, though, the complaint was specific, with each one expressly saying, “We’re turning into Las Vegas.”

That gave me a chill.  No, not because of my own memories of times in Las Vegas, but because those were practically the very words I’d used to describe the potential fate of the island more than three years ago in Mykonos After Midnight (no cover shot this time). 

Here is dialog from that Kaldis book #5 among Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis, his colleague Yianni Kouros, and Lefteris, a local Mykonos businessman.  I’ve edited the conversation slightly so as to avoid a plot spoiler.

[It starts off with the local, Lefteris, saying,] “Can you imagine [turning] … Mykonos… into the Las Vegas of the Mediterranean?”

“And that’s a good thing?” said Kouros.

Andreas rubbed his forehead.  “Don't you think the island has gone about as far off in the ‘nightlife direction’ as the Mykonians can take?”

“Maybe, but it has only profited the handful of locals who control it.  Look, I love this place as much as any Mykonian.  I grew up here and raised my family here.  But I'm a realist.  There is no going back to the old days.  None.  All we can do is try to protect the future, make things fairer so that no longer will one man get rich and another go to jail for doing exactly the same thing just because one has connections and the other does not. 

“If we'd commit as a community to turning our island into a worldwide entertainment destination, a Las Vegas on the sea, it would become a year-round tourist attraction, and not just a place for partying kids in the summer.”

Lefteris turned his hands palms up and shrugged.  “But none of that is ever going to happen...The big boys here have all the juice and the big boys elsewhere don’t want Mykonos to [succeed].  And you don't have to look very hard to see how nasty some of them are willing to play.”
[When alone with Andreas, Kouros said,] “Las Vegas may not be a bad comparison for the way Mykonos could end up.  I hear it's surrounded by desert filled with never to be discovered bodies.  Mykonos has the Aegean.”

“Let's hope it doesn't go that way.” 

“What's to stop it?  If all it takes is money to do whatever you want, those with the most get to call the shots,” said Kouros.

Andreas put his arm around Kouros’ shoulder.  “If you’re right, there's nothing you or I can do to affect the end of that story; it's all up to the Mykonians.” 

So, to those Mykonians now concerned and complaining, I suggest that perhaps some constructive guidance can be found in the words of U.S. Representative and veteran civil rights leader, John Lewis, offered in his speech Wednesday announcing his and his colleagues’ determination to occupy the floor of the United States Congress until that government body addresses common sense gun-control measures.

Here are relevant excerpts from Representative Lewis’ speech, modified as indicated for local consumption.

“[You] were elected to lead, [fill in position]. [You] must be headlights, and not taillights.  [You] cannot continue to stick [y]our heads in the sand and ignore the reality of [what is happening to our island]… [T]his is a fact. It is not an opinion. [You] must remove the blinders. The time for silence and patience is long gone.

We are calling on the leadership of the [island] to bring common-sense … legislation [and enforcement] to the [fore]… [You] came here to do [y]our jobs.  [You] came here to work. The [Mykonian] people are demanding action.”

As Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis once said, “It’s all up to the Mykonians.”


Friday, June 24, 2016

The Man On The Moor

                                                         Artist’s Impression – BBC website

On Saturday 12th December 2015 at 10.47am, a cyclist found the body. It was torrential rain and cold, but a man was lying on the path of the Chew Track from Dove Stone in the Peak District National Park. He wasn’t dressed for the climb or the weather, in corduroy trousers, slip on shoes and a jacket. He appeared to be about seventy years old. The man lay parallel to the path, his head facing uphill, his legs straight downhill. He looked like he was resting. 

He wasn’t and he had died a painful death.

Of strychnine.

He appeared to have taken the poison himself and then lain down to die.

Strychnine poisoning is an unusual way to kill yourself in modern Britain. It causes convulsions followed by death by asphyxiation. Dr Hilary Hammett described it as “in the top ten of unpleasant poisons in terms of ways to die” (BBC News). It was Agatha Christie’s weapon of choice in her debut mystery novel and was described by the protagonist of The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells as "the devil...It's the palaeolithic in a bottle.”

Greater Manchester detectives have not been able to ascertain the identity of the dead man who travelled by train from London to Saddleworth Moor, a distance of more than 300km. There are clear images of him on the CCTV at Piccadilly Station in Manchester, wearing the same clothes his body was found in. It is thought that the man then walked out to the moor and asked the landlord at the local pub, The Clarence Pub, Melvin Robinson,  for directions to the top of the mountain. The landlord told him ‘there’s not enough daylight for him to get there and back today. He just thanked me and asked me again for the directions, which I repeated to him. And he just set off.”

He was calm, clear. Not suicidal.

He had no ID. Just £130 in £10 notes and return train tickets, plus the container for the strychnine.  

He is still unidentified , and now hopes are resting on the serial number on a  titanium plate in his leg and the last reports are that this takes the investigation to a hospital in Pakistan.

The big question, apart from who is he, is why would anybody  travel 200 miles from London to die? Maybe if they find out who he is, they might find out why he did it.

As everybody knows, Saddleworth Moor is closely linked with death and tragedy and this is yet one more to add to the list. Reports say that this unidentified body is the  42nd unidentified body found in the UK in 2015 and that is an appalling statistic. .
                                               The Irish man, missing for twenty years.

It was rumored that the body might be that of  man from Northern Ireland who has been missing since he discharged himself from a County Armagh hospital over twenty years ago but DNA comparison with the man’s son have ruled him out.

Similarly, it was suggested the body might be that of  Stephen Evans  who survived a plane crash at the beauty spot in 1949 when he was a child. He was the sole survivor of the crash that claimed 24 lives…..but then Professor  Stephen Evans, as he is now, came forward to rule out that theory.

And the mystery goes on….

 Caro Ramsay 24th June 2016

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Olifants River Game Reserve Revisited

Michael and Jonathan - Thursday

A river runs through it
After a busy time with Crimefest and our launch in the UK of Deadly Harvest, I got back to a stack of exam papers to mark.  I couldn't see any reason to sit in chilly Johannesburg doing that, so I headed up to the bungalow I share in the Olifants River Game Reserve with my friend Jonathan Everitt who is a keen photographer.  The trip was motivated as a quiet place to mark, and a research trip to discover more about the rhino poaching industry.  You don't want to hear about the former and there will be more about the latter in a future blog.  In the meanwhile, I invite you just to enjoy our trip with us. Jonathan took all the pictures.

It's a bit crowded out here

The focus of  the African bushveld in winter is water and in a drought year even more so.

The view from our deck across the river - I did have a few distractions from work... 

Elephants join the parade
Impala at the water
As the river dries, a few plants claim the last moisture

Away from the river, it's the waterholes that are the focus of life.

Male kudu
He's been digging in the mud with his horns

Terrapin  (freshwater turtle) just out of the muddy pool
White rhino
Red billed oxpecker. Oh, yes, there's a female kudu underneath it
Juvenile bataleur eagle
Red crested korhaan.
A beautiful bird and amazingly well camouflaged!
Lilac breasted roller
Brown hooded kingfisher

Pretty dry out here

The cactus-like Nabooms were in flower and attracted some smaller game.

And it was full moon as a bonus

White backed night heron in the moonlight

Monday, June 20, 2016

A Burg and a Polis

Annamaria on Monday

I’ve been on the move.

A week ago in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania:

This historic village is where, during the American Civil war, the Confederate Army made its northernmost incursion—a two-day event.  Charming and well loved by its inhabitants, it is now also the home of the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, run by the remarkable Debbie Beamer.  Debbie is passionate about the genre she sells and imaginative about the way she promotes her business and the authors who are lucky enough to visit her.

On this recent trip, I learned about other businesses run by women in the town, and as an entrepreneur myself, I am impressed by their attitude of mutual support and their success at pooling their talents.  In addition to the bookstore, Mechanicsburg has a tea parlor, a spice and herb store and garden, and a flower shop.  The women who run these four separate enterprises have found synergies among their businesses that benefit them all.  Last week, I was the beneficiary of three of them.


Once a year, Susanna Reppert, owner of The Rosemary House, herb and spice shope and garden, arranges for an author to present at a themed tea party. This year I had the privilege of being that writer on Sunday the 12th at a ‘Traveling to Africa Tea.”  Susanna did all the organizing and coordinating.


Debbie and some of her helpers scheduled a book signing in the early afternoon.  

Folks showed up in Susanna’s beautiful garden, where the tables were covered with lovely African cloths.  Debbie sold books at one.  I signed at another.  Susanna's son—Cedar—dressed in his safari outfit, escorted the guests to us.

Susanna’s sister Nancy runs the tearoom next door and is skilled and imaginative to a nth degree.  Here is her menu for my event:

The servers were dressed in African print dresses.  Here are tables they decorated:

And some of the dishes:

The menu says, "Keep a Watchful Eye Out for the Zebra?"

And, "Do You See the Cheetah? Brownie"

A word about the Scottish scones—they were like delicious clouds.  Nancy could give lessons to all the lesser-talented bakers who made all the (a thousand by now) scones I have ever eaten.

Delighted, I spent the night with Susanna and her family.  And the next morning, on a drive to the train station in Harrisburg, I got to talk the book biz with Debbie—informative, funny conversation—with a great deal of mutual agreement.

On Monday evening, I made a cameo appearance in my New York apartment and headed out the next morning to JFK and a flight to Minneapolis.

Minneapolis, Minnesota:

—where Stan and I have a ton of work to do on the anthology of short crime fiction Sunshine Noir.  We have been editing up a storm.  We have made great progress, despite the occasional tiff over the definition of an independent clause.

And there has also been some of this each afternoon.  Yum.

And to delight you all, here is something we saw on the PBS News Hour, while we were sipping some of that nice bubbly.