Sunday, February 7, 2016

From Death To Life: A Visit to Fushimi Inari Shrine

-- Susan, Every Other Sunday

Jeff Siger's Saturday post this week left me angry and deeply in need of hope. (If you haven't read it, click here. I'll wait.)

Back? Okay, then.

Long before lifejackets (good or evil), long before airplanes, and long before the first computer reduced the size of our world to the shifting of pixels, the Japanese knew where to go when their spirits were ruffled or in distress, and when they needed help with everything from life-giving harvests to help with a troubled birth.

In Japan, when you needed help, you went to a shrine--and one of the finest, most peace-giving shrines I know lies on a mountain south of Kyoto: Fushimi Inari Taisha (in English, Fushimi Inari Shrine.)

Like most Shinto holy places, the entrance to Fushimi Inari is marked with a torii, but Inari merits no ordinary gate:
That's one big gate.

Two of these massive torii (measuring over two stories high) mark the entry route to the base of Fushimi Inari, which is the most important Inari shrine in Japan. Which is saying quite a bit, considering that Japan has over 10,000 Inari shrines.

Big surprise...the god(dess) of fertility gets around.

The primary shrine at the base of Mount Inari

The main shrine complex dates to 1499 (though the shrine itself was founded in 711, and moved to its current location at the base of Mount Inari in 816).  Here, worshippers can leave offerings and offer prayers before the largest of the shrine's many altars...

Each plaque represents a prayer, as does every paper on every string.

...and purchase prayer amulets, which are hung in rows along with prayer papers (many of those colorful strings are actually folded origami cranes, each folded while reciting a prayer).

Many papers, many amulets, many prayers. 

Here, you can also purchase a fortune, concealed in a strip of bamboo or a small clay fox (according to Shinto beliefs, the fox is Inari's messenger). Good fortunes, you take with you. Bad ones, you tie to these wires, and Inari takes the misfortune away.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could leave all misfortune here?

The lower shrine area is also home to one of Japan's best-preserved medieval stages for No (also written "Noh") drama--a stage which actually appears in my next mystery novel...

No(h) play today, sorry.

After leaving the base of the shrine, visitors pass up several flights of stairs to reach the start of the gate-lined path that leads to the top of the mountain.

You are...not nearly close enough to the top.

Thousands of gates line the path, nestled close together near the bottom:

The donors' names are inscribed on the back side of each gate.

and spreading out substantially more as you climb.

No, I didn't count them - but apparently there are over 10,000.

Most visitors climb only partway up, to the first of the major sub-shrines that act as way stations on the pilgrim path to the holiest place on the mountain, the summit shrine.

The summit of Mount Inari.

The journey from base to summit takes 2.5-4 hours, depending on whether you stop for tea and snacks at one (or more) of the sub-shrines and also on your physical condition. I stopped for lunch at a sub-shrine with a restaurant that featured a Fushimi Inari specialty: inari sushi.

Worth the walk.

For those not in the know: Inari sushi is sweetened tofu skin wrapped around a mixture of sushi rice and black sesame seeds. (And regardless of your opinion of tofu, it's delicious.)

The restaurant also had an amazing view:

On the side you can't see...a bunch of tired people.

A couple of hours (and a couple of rain showers) later, I reached the top:

I take terrible selfies, but...I needed proof.

The descent took only half as long as the upward part of the journey, but I took my time--I didn't want the magical time on the mountain to end.

Would you want to leave? 

To this day, Fushimi Inari ranks among the most peaceful, sacred places I have ever been, and I doubt I'll find many that can compare. When life seems too frustrating to bear, I turn to my pictures and memories, and they remind me that there are places in this world where peace still reigns...

Traditionally, the fox guardians hold either a ball or a storehouse key in their mouths.

... under the faithful, watchful eyes of Inari's guardian foxes.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Merchants of Death


Above is my view for the next few days, a golf course in Palm Springs, California.  Not that I’ll be playing on it.  Just sitting in the sun, writing, and trying my best to put cold, snowy January out of my mind…before I return back East to cold snowy February.

About the only risk I have to contemplate at the moment is an errant golf ball.  Not much of a chance of that. 

That was until I read the Greek newspapers, and felt as if I’d been hit smack dab in my…well, uh…you pick the spot.

No, it wasn’t the massive general strike on Thursday that brought Greece to a screeching halt, not the farmers vowing to keep the nation’s main highways blocked with their tractors, not the EU representatives insisting Greece’s government reduce its pension obligations if it wants the third round of billions in promised bailout funds, and not even the masses of demonstrators vowing to bring down the government if those reforms are enacted.

All of that is expected, old-hat activity.  What yanked me back to reality was a special report by Yiannis Papadopoulos in Greece’s paper of record, Kathimerini, with a title that tells it all: “Fake life vests soak up chances of survival for shipwrecked refugees.”

Yes, dear readers, while refugees keep coming in an undiminished flow, while Europeans try coming up with ways of wresting away from them whatever valuables the human traffickers, thieves, and corrupt officials along the way did not take, they now fall prey to those who sell them certain death in the form of life jackets made of sponge-like water absorbent or non-buoyant materials.

It is as callous an act of human greed and indifference as I can imagine, and those who create these death jackets—especially in children’s sizes—deserve a truly special circle in hell.  But what of the Turkish authorities who permit their manufacture and sale to rage on?  It is not as if the places of manufacture and sale aren’t known; the reporter found them without difficulty.

And if some are caught, they face only a fine.  Even though the manufacturer bears more guilt than the sea for each death, for it is their death vests that ultimately drag each trusting, unsuspecting victim to the bottom.

They should be tried for murder.

The world should be outraged and demanding this death trade be stopped.  But no one does. No one cares.  We’re all complicit.

Damn, am I angry.


Friday, February 5, 2016

The forgotten Einstein.

Scotland’s forgotten Einstein?
An intrepid camera man ventured down George St in Edinburgh and asked 100 passers by who the man in this statue was.

Most of them had no idea.
Graham Bell? Carlisle? Fleming? Stevenson? Lord Kelvin?

Nope, none of them.

So the universe is full of invisible signals. There is a lot of noise out there.
Radio telescopes listening out into the far reaches of space to try and work out the origins of the universe, to hear the noises made at the time of the big bang.
Consider microwaves.
Gamma rays.
MRI Scanners and mobile phones?
The all use electromagnetic radiation… which was discovered by….
Well in  1865 Scotland’s greatest physicist, James Clerk Maxwell put down his pencil after working out a huge set of  equations that had proved electromagnetic radiation. Then he slipped quietly through the cracks of  history.
The man was a geek. He saw all things in terms of pure mathematics. Einstein kept a picture of him in his study, saying that ‘he stood on Maxwell’s shoulders’ Maxwell was to electromagnetics what Newton was to gravity.

James was born in Edinburgh in 1841, the only child of a land owning family with an estate in Dumfries. He was a bright kid. We all, as kids, made a series of small drawings, each slightly different so that  we could flick them together  and see the drawing move. But Maxwell worked out just how fast that  optimal flicker had to be.
At 14 years of age he published his first mathematical paper.
He then went to Cambridge, publishing three further mathematical papers. The University held a competition to see if anybody could explain how Saturn’s rings were held in place. The two vast concentric circles,  250 000 km in diameter, could be either rock, fluid or individual particles. Maxwell didn’t look at the planet- he looked at the maths. He worked out that the rings could be solid, but only on one side of the planet.  If they were fluid, the forces that held them there would also destroy them. Then he worked out that the theory of small of particles orbiting on their own  could be correct. And then went on to work out the number of particles that it might be.

He won the competition of course. Years later,  it was proved the number of particles was correct, and that led to the Higgs boson  and all the craft that have voyaged out into the galaxy since. The voyager probe proved him right about the rings. The gap between the rings is called the Maxwell gap. And now, when astronomers see a star being born, the start of a new solar system, it’s Maxwell’s maths that are still used.
After Cambridge, Maxwell became one of Britain’s first theoretical physicists. He became professor at Aberdeen University at the age of 25. His mum had died when he was 8, his dad when he was 24 and that early experience shaped him as a very humane man. Always wary of being a machine, his science had to do good.
All his colleagues were twice his age  but he was befriended by Daniel Dewar,  the principal of Aberdeen university and married Dewar’s daughter after proposing to her with a poem he had written. The marriage was very happy, they shared a sense of humour and a passion for poetry. And dogs. Maxwell’s had many dogs. All called Toby.

He was fascinated by colour. Newton had already split sunlight into the colours of the rainbow and it was known that  white light is all colours, whereas black is no a colour at all. Artists knew that  with three primary colours, they could mix any other colour. But nobody knew why that was.
Thomas Young thought that it was something to do with biology and that the human eye might have three receptors for each colour and the human eyes blended them together. Maxwell wanted to test this so he mixed the colours with mathematical precision, and then asked people what colour they actually saw – by using a simple colour wheel with different amounts of  red, yellow and blue and then spun the wheel 20th of a second per revolution which is what the eye can see. Red and blue gave magenta as expected.  But it needed red,  green and blue to give white.
So there are primary lights, and primary colours. As paint absorbs light, the circle emanates light. Maxwell worked out exactly what combination was sensitive to our eyes and demonstrated the range of colours the human eye could see. He did that in 1861 with a colour demo. Three photographs of the same tartan ribbon- one filtered with red,  one with blue,  one green.  If all three pictures were projected  onto the wall at the same time – the coloured ribbon appeared. And the screen you are reading this on, is formed in exactly the same way.
 Being smart, he then explained red green colour blindness. At 29 he was inducted into the Royal Society!
He then went to Kings College Cambridge, and started working with Faraday to try and unravel the greatest mystery of the  age - electricity
Faraday thought there was a connection between  magnetism ( as in a compass) and electricity ( as lightening).  Maxwell went on to prove that  there are invisible electric fields all over space.  Static charge generates an electric field. He proved that electric poles always come in pairs. Then changing a magnetic field generates an electric field.  And then that an electric current surrounds itself with an electric field.
                                                    I have no idea what this is but I am impressed.

The theories of Faraday and Maxwell were inextricably linked, and it was all proved by pure maths.
But Maxwell wasn’t finished. He investigated Faraday's idea that electro magnetic field lines can be disturbed by waves travelling along them (like ripples on water). He noticed that the fields fluctuated in time with each other, and then he measured the speed. Deep in that equation  was the exact speed the wave form travels at. 300 000 km a second. The speed of light.

 What an Eureka moment.
He theorized that light was an electromagnetic wave, but it was a few more years  before he was proved right by Mr Hertz. But Mr Hertz didn’t think it had any practical application.

He was wrong about that.

There is now a movement to get James Clerk Maxwell onto  a new banknote. And not before time.

Caro Ramsay  04 02 2016

Thursday, February 4, 2016

A Singaporean in Sri Lanka

Michael - Thursday

One of the many enjoyable things about mystery conventions is meeting interesting authors you don't know. I had the pleasure of meeting Ovidia Yu last year at Bouchercon where we shared a panel. Ovidia is from Singapore and writes delightful mysteries featuring a caterer -  known to all as Aunty Lee - who somehow becomes involved in unusual murders and solves them using raw intelligence and by being an inveterate busybody. I guess they would be categorized as 'cozies,' but, be warned, there's a sting in these tales. And they have a wonderful sense of place of Singapore. The first book in the series is Aunty Lee's Delights, the second Aunty Lee's Deadly Specials, and the third, to be published this April, Aunty Lee's Chilled Revenge. Ovidia also writes plays and other fiction and nonfiction and is one of Singapore's best known writers.

In her guest blog today, Ovidia visits Sri Lanka for a variety of reasons as we will learn.

I spent most of January in Sri Lanka thanks to the Fairway Galle Literary Festival.
This was my first visit despite Sri Lanka’s proximity to Singapore and I was totally unprepared. (With good reason for once - my father had just died after four and a half weeks in hospital and five years of cancer.) The funeral was three days before I left for the festival and a complete getaway from super-efficient sterilized efficiency and colonoscopy bags seemed a good idea—which meant getting out of Singapore.
I had heard about Sri Lanka, of course. Younger sons in Agatha Christie are always getting sent to Ceylon to be tea planters and the civil war and the 2004 tsunami had been in the news…
For a rule-bound Singaporean, traffic in Colombo is a major shock. Even more surprising to me was the casual way my driver shouted to the driver in the next car, “It’s always the Muslims!” when we were held up by a van disgorging veiled passengers. I looked round to see if anyone was snapping his number to report him but no one seemed concerned—or upset. I switched off my inner (‘no racial/religious/language slurs allowed’) monitor and told myself I would be home in three weeks.
Then I got to the Galle Face Hotel.
It was like stepping back into a fantasy Edwardian age except one with air-conditioning and hot water where people still play croquet on a lawn overlooking the sea.

With commemorative plaques informing guests that Arthur C Clarke, Mark Twain and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had all walked these corridors.

I would happily have stayed there indefinitely. Especially as they have great WiFi.

The first stage of the literary festival was in Kandy, a train ride up into the hills of tea country and blessedly cooler than Colombo.

We stayed in the Queens Hotel on the edge of Kandy Lake, also known as Kiri Muhuda or the Sea of Milk.

Apparently Kandy Lake was created out of padi fields by slave labour by their last Sinhalese king.
Because Britain’s Southeast Asia Command had been in Kandy, Ceylon had far better resources and infrastructure than Singapore. On hearing where I came from, several Sri Lankans reminded me with wry pride that when Singapore was moving towards independence, Lee Kuan Yew visited and took their much larger island as a role model for ours.
The festival events were also held in the hotel. This is Govind Dhar and me discussing whether local objects (porcupine quills and local poisons for example) trigger stories.

Kandy was so peaceful and picturesque. Everyone laughed during our session when one woman commented, “But how can you even think about murders in such a peaceful place as this?” Of course some of us see murder everywhere. But I could see her point. 
Then we were given a break in Tangalle. I swear this is one of the most beautiful places on earth—even if you don’t come from an industrial building bound city like Singapore.

Of course I only noticed this in between trying to prepare the rest of my talks and children’s writing workshops and realizing I couldn’t remember what my last book was about… and still trying to convince myself I would get the edits on my next book done while dealing with condolence emails and requests to attend memorial functions…
I had not had time to be tired during the last months of hospital vigil. My father had been well cared for by medical and nursing staff and sedated from the worst of the pain, but he needed someone (ideally a writer daughter without an office job) constantly present to switch television channels, help friends smuggle in his whiskey and Coca Cola and keep out anyone who tried to lay hands and pray too aggressively for his healing. Cancer had taken over most of his colon and pancreas and he was ready to go join my mother so there were no regrets there. “Give him whatever he wants” his doctors said. But watching someone die slowly is a draining process.
I discovered in the Tangalle Anantara Resort the perfect place to recharge.

Tree climbers also harvest coconuts and tap the sap of coconut flower buds for arrack—but more about arrack later.

I also learned about the wood apple, which is incredibly sour and usually eaten mixed with honey and coconut milk. Gayan, staff member at Anantara Tangalle which hosted us, showed me how to crack the fruit’s hard shell on the ground and scoop out its innards.
Elephants love wood apples and eat them whole, tossing the fruit into their mouths with their trunks—and apparently the shells emerge whole from the other end. So if you find a wood apple on the ground it may not be immediately obvious whether it came off a tree or out of an elephant!

I didn’t get any writing done in Tangalle. But I managed to prep for the main festival in Galle.
We stayed in the Jetwing Lighthouse in Galle, another luxurious beachfront hotel, but with all the events going on in the Old Dutch Fort and Children’s Festival I didn’t get to see much of the hotel other than my room. I could so get used to living like this! (Though preferably without daily workshops…)

The ubiquitous tuk tuks were everywhere. When I realized I was no longer alarmed by their lack of seat-belts and wild swerving in and out of lanes to avoid cars, pedestrians, bicycles, cows and dogs I knew I had finally managed to shut down my Singaporean need for control—for a while at least.
But there was still a strange disconnect. For example, in the midday sun and heat of Sri Lanka, these children were playing ‘Edelweiss’.

The next stage of the festival brought us up north to Jaffna. We went up on the railway line which, like the A9 highway to Jaffna, have been only recently rebuilt after the war.
There was more beauty on the journey up as the palms and tea plantations of Kandy and palms and beaches of Galle gave way to the palms and padi fields as we approached Jaffna.

And the people changed too. The people in Jaffna felt more cautious and soldiers and police were very much in evidence. A restaurant manager, himself recently come up from Colombo, commented on the difficulty of hiring staff. After years living under a 6pm curfew, a whole generation has come of age afraid of being out after dark. The hotel industry is very new here. The Jetwing Jaffna which kindly hosted us was very comfortable though not (yet) officially open.
And from the hotel we could see bomb damage, abandoned houses and boys playing cricket with what looked like a tennis ball.

But there are hopeful signs too. The Jaffna Public Library, destroyed twice, has risen a third time; fronted by the statue of Saraswati, goddess of knowledge. And the nearby clock tower, also damaged, has also been restored.

And though the hotel and neighboring supermarket did not serve or sell alcohol (a staple of travelling writers) we were directed to a shop just beyond that provided such necessities as beer, vodka and arrak. Coconut arrak (a rum like liquor made from the sap of coconut flowers tapped at dawn) sounds like something mythical but goes down very well with ginger beer. We saw locals buy bottles that they tucked into their pants and pulled their shirts over. But maybe because we were foreigners we got a bag for our booze.
And then there were the Missing Sit-Ins, perhaps the greatest difference between Jaffna and Colombo, Kandy, Tangalle and Galle—everywhere in the ’South’ that Jaffna had been cut off from for so long.
I was told some thirty thousand Tamils still live in camps with thousands still missing.

One woman said (via translator) “My son and daughter. First the LTTE took them. Then after the army came they came home. They surrendered to the army and the army took them. They never came back. My son is nine years old. My daughter is eleven.”
Jon Snow, in Sri Lanka to film for Channel 4, was staying in our hotel. He asked Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, where the missing people might be; people who had been seen in detention up to a year after surrendering to government forces. The PM denied the existence of camps. And the people? “Probably dead” was his answer.
It is hard to deal with death and separation. But it must be much harder not even knowing whether to mourn or to search.
I asked some young students in Jaffna whether they wanted to write about their memories of the war, tell their parents’ stories perhaps. No, they said, they wanted to write romances and musicals and adventure stories, everything had been too serious for too long.
This was the answer for the woman down South. In a peaceful environment it can be fun and entertaining to discuss murder mysteries. But where real murders and disappearances are fresh in memory, reading about murder is not fun. And one writes of it as much out of responsibility to the dead as to the living.

Ovidia Yu