Tuesday, March 29, 2011

spring in Paris

It's springtime in Paris. At Metro stations Eastern Europeans sell daffodils.

I'm posting a few pictures since i'm still on book tour.

My friend in Paris emailed that in the recent local elections the Socialists came out ahead of the far
right led by Le Pen's daughter so that's the good news.
More next week and enjoy spring wherever you are,
Cara - Tuesday

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Bedsheets of Maranhão

I saw them, first, from several miles in the air.
My wife and I were on a flight from Fortaleza, on the coast of Ceará, to Belem, near the mouth of the Amazon.
It was a clear day, not a cloud in the sky, and I looked down to see this:

A desert composed of white sand dunes, strewn with flashes of emerald green and turquoise blue.

It was, and still is, a landscape vaguely reminiscent of precious stones scattered on bedsheets.

Which is why Brazilians call the region the Lençóis Maranhenses = the Bed Sheets of Maranhão (Maranhão being the Brazilian State in which the dunes are located.)

The dunes were formed, over thousands of years, by sand deposited at the mouths of rivers and carried back to the continent by winds and sea currents.

Some of those dunes are more than 40 meters (130 feet) high, and they advance as far 50 kilometers inland from a (mostly deserted) coast.
The flashes, upon closer observation, turn out to be lagoons full of water.

That’s right, water – in the middle of a desert.

Bizarre, huh?
Even more bizarre is the fact that I wouldn’t have seen so much of a drop of it if I’d made the journey six months later.
The region records an annual rainfall of 1,600mm (more than 62 inches), 300 times more than the Sahara, and the lagoons are formed during the rainy season, which is at the beginning of the year.

When they’re full, the water in them is crystal clear and miraculously full of fish, crayfish, crabs and clams.
And, then, during the dry season, they simply disappear.

The region covers a total area of more than 1,000 square kilometers, roughly the size of the American State of Rhode Island.
The best time to visit the place is from the beginning of July through the end of September.
During those months it’s sunny, but not too hot, and you can walk up and down the dunes in your bare feet.
And then take a refreshing plunge in the crystal clear water.

 Leighton – Monday

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Freedom to Be Bad

It probably won't come as a complete shock to anyone if I say that political correctness is not an unmixed blessing.

Some people may even agree with me that P.C. has had a stifling effect on freedom of speech.  It used to be said that one's freedom of speech stopped just short of the right to shout "fire" in a crowded theater and that the right to swing one's fist stopped at the other person's nose.  Now, however, freedom of speech stops just short of hurting someone's feelings, and the right to swing one's fist in the vicinity of the other person's nose depends on whose nose it is.

We've always had cranks, idiots, and bigots among us.  The (unfortunately) blond UCLA coed who posted the rant about "hordes of Asian students" using their cell phones in the college library -- in the aftermath of the tsunami, no less -- was demonstrating almost unfathomable ignorance and insensitivity.

But those who called for her expulsion were as much out of line as she was.  She's an idiot.  She's demonstrated publicly that she's an idiot.  She'll be living it down for years.  The only people who will make friends with her will also be idiots.  If we're going to do anything official about this, perhaps it should be a re-examination of UCLA's admissions standards.

See, she has the right to be an idiot.  Freedom of speech doesn't mean freedom to say things everyone agrees with.  It's designed precisely to protect speech many of us don't agree with.  Otherwise, why would it need protection?

But all this is by way of an oblique introduction to my actual (literary) topic.  I've been seeing a lot of movies lately and even some TV, and I'm frustrated by the dwindling pool of suspects.

Gauging from the things I've been watching, if someone were to stage Ten Little Indians these days and the cast was mixed, in terms of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, the audience could get up and leave five minutes in, right after all the characters gather for the first big scene in the living room.  See that one straight white guy over there?  He dunnit.  Let's go eat.

(Not to mention that the play would need a new title, which is kind of amusing since the title it has now was chosen as a less offensive form of the title of the original rhyme.)

It seems kind of crippling for those of us trying to construct mysteries or thrillers to be told (gently, largely by example) that it is not done these days to have gay villains or villains of color, unless there are also very good characters who are gay and/or of color.  No such restrictions exist relative to white male villains; they're the utility infielders of films and popular fiction.  Good and villainous in any position, capable of any crime.  After all, look at everything they're already responsible for.

I personally would leap at the challenge of writing an Eskimo-African American transgendered serial killer.  A whole new spectrum of personal experiences and grievances to work with.  But the book would wind up in my drawer, atop the other misfires whose existence I usually omit when I talk about my writing life.

But I think real equality will only come when we can relax and let anyone be the bad guy.

Or is bad guy a sexist phrase?

Tim - Politically Incorrect on Sundays

Freedom or Death

March 25th was a two-for-one holiday in Greece: Annunciation and Greek Independence Day.  The former celebrates Mary learning from Archangel Gabriel that she was with child, and the later marks the day in 1821 when Greek Orthodox Bishop Germanos of Patras raised the Greek flag at the Monastery of Agia Lavra in Greece’s Peloponnese and inspired a more than eight-year struggle (1821-1829) to throw off nearly 400 years of Ottoman rule.

Bishop Germanos raising the flag (Theordore Vryzakis)

In towns and villages across Greece, school children proudly paraded the country’s blue and white flag.  Aflutter, the flag is reminiscent of Greek seas but it holds a deeper meaning.  The white cross honors the contribution of the church to the country’s enduring battle for freedom and its nine blue and white bars honor the nine syllable rallying call shouted across the land during Greece’s struggle for Independence: Eleftheria i Thanatos—Freedom or Death.  (Though some say they represent the nine letters of ελευθερια in the Greek word for freedom, the idea is the same.). 

Petros Mavromichalis
Greece’s larger cities also held military parades, and Greek communities around the world joined in celebration with parades of their own.  But this is not about any of those events, or for that matter whether the Revolution actually began a week earlier in another part of the Peloponnese when the ruler of its Mani region, Petros Mavromichalis, raised his war flag in Mani’s capital city of Areopoli and marched his troops off against the Turks.

No, this is about a small Cycladic island’s personal War of Independence heroine, Manto Mavrogenous (1796-1848).  Her statue stands at the foot of the main square on Mykonos’ harbor,  and yesterday it was surrounded by palm frondsan ancient symbol of triumph, victory, and the sacred sign of Apolloin honor of a life truly worthy of an epic film.  Or a tragic opera.

Manto Mavrogenous Square, Mykonos

Born in Trieste to a wealthy, aristocratic Greek merchant family, Manto Mavrogenous studied philosophy and history, was fluent in several languages, and drew her fire for Greek independence from her father, a member of Filiki Eteria, the secret society dedicated to freeing Greece from Ottoman rule. 

She was thirteen when her family returned to its roots in the Cycladic islands, first to Paros and after her father’s death to Tinos.  War broke out when she was twenty-five and she left for Mykonos, the place of her family’s origins, to convince its leaders to join in the Revolution.  But what she offered Mykonos and indeed all of Greece was far more than words.  When Ottomans attempted to land on Mykonos, she commanded the forces that repelled them.  She used her fortune to outfit ships and crews that battled pirates and the Ottoman fleet, and to send soldiers to fight for freedom on mainland Greece, as well as to support the families of those who fought.

Manto even sold her jewelry to support the fight and pressed the world to allow Greece to be free.  This is from her letter to The Women of Paris: “The Greeks, born to be liberal, will owe their independence only to themselves.  So I don’t ask your intervention to force your compatriots to help us. But only to change the idea of sending help to our enemies.” 

Demetrius Ypsilantis
In the early years of the war she met Demetrius Ypsilantis, a well-educated son of a prominent family, brother of the leader of Filiki Eteria, and a politically connected war hero.  (Yes, that city in Michigan was named after him, a town perhaps better known today for “the world’s most phallic building,” the Ypsilanti Water Tower.)  They became engaged and Mavrogenous’ beauty, bravery, and selfless commitment to Greek independence brought her fame across Europe. 

Bust of Demetrius erected in foreground of "The Brick Dick" of Ypsilanti.

It seemed a fairy tale, but that was not to be.

During their engagement Mavrogenous’ home was totally destroyed by fire and her fortune stolen.  She moved in with Ypsilanti but in time he broke off the engagement.  Deeply depressed and virtually penniless, she never recovered.

Her memoirs were written on Mykonos but she spent most of the balance of her life amid poverty in Greece’s first modern capital, Nafplio, before finally moving to Paros where she died penurious and in oblivion at fifty-four.

The great debts owed to her for financing so much of Greece’s Revolution were never repaid.  Unless you count the palms, thanks, and honors bestowed each March 25.

The back of a Greek coin worth less than a penny

Freedom or Death.


Friday, March 25, 2011

Cricket and the Black Dog

When you were a kid, what did you want to be? I'm sure there are some of us who wanted to be writers, but maybe that came later. It did for me. When I was a boy I wanted to be a professional cricketer. I wanted to travel the world, stay in nice hotels, visit exotic places, and get paid for playing cricket. What better life could there be? I was a very talented schoolboy cricketer and for a short period in my teens it looked like playing cricket for a living might be a possibility. Then I lost my love for the game, lost some form, other 'distractions' came along - girls, pubs - and the moment passed. As compensation, when I became a journalist, I tried my hand at cricket writing. It never matched up to playing though, and the press boxes were mostly populated by stale, bitter old men and not the Wildean wits of my imagination, so that dream died too (though I did write a cricket book, my first book, in which I got to interview Geoff Boycott, David Gower and Richie Benaud, and a host of other childhood heroes, and got an agent, which in turn led me to where I am today, so it was worth it...)

Why do I mention all of this? Because deep down, I still think that playing cricket for a living is the best job a man could possibly do. The Cricket World Cup has been taking place for the past six weeks - though it has often felt like six years - and it's been very difficult to get work done, or rather, very easy to avoid working citing the cricket as an excuse, particularly on days when England have played. I watch and I think about how I might have played that ball, or whether I would have taken that catch, and feel a twinge of envy and regret that I didn't knuckle down, put the girls and boozers on hold for a few more years, and dedicate my life to the game. I would never have played for England, but I coulda been a contender etc....

But then I remembered why the those distractions became so appealing, and why I lost my desire to play. I'd spent all my teenage years playing, every weekend in the summer in matches, during the winter practicing indoors two or three times a week; during the school holidays I played or practiced most days of the week. The fact is I got bored. Playing cricket full time would have soon palled.

Then yesterday came the news that Michael Yardy, a utility player in the England World Cup squad, had been sent home suffering from depression. Apparently he's been fighting his illness for a while, and the relentless gradgrind of  international cricket - he had been on the road for five or six months - had become too much. Suffering from depression, away from your wife and family for months at a time, the life of a professional sportsman soon loses lustre; the hotel rooms may be nice but the they're still hotel rooms and the walls still close in. Yardy isn't the first English cricketer to suffer from depression. Marcus Trescothick, a far more talented player, effectively quit international cricket after a series of breakdowns, the last time on a tour to Australia. He has written honestly and eloquently about his illness, shining some much needed light on depression and lifting much of the stigma, though there are still those misguided souls who bluster and wonder how pampered sportsmen can possibly get depressed, unaware that it's an illness that strikes arbitrarily, regardless of profession or wealth or social class.

Scratch the surface though, and it becomes clear that of all sportsmen and women, cricketers seem to suffer most from depression.The cricket journalist and historian David Frith once wrote a book about the phenomena, Silence of the Heart, which discovered that English cricket players are twice as more likely to commit suicide than the average male. 'Cricket has this dreadful, hidden burden,' Frith once said. 'It must now answer the very serious question of whether it gradually transforms unwary cricket-loving boys into brooding, insecure and ultimately self-destructive men.'

It's not confined to England either. Frith found that in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia the number of cricketers who take their own lives is even higher when compared to non-cricket playing males.

Of course, it's not cricket which causes people to commit suicide. People kill themselves for reasons that are unique to themselves and their pasts. Yet it seems foolish to ignore that fact that more cricketers are prone to this, and not just the ones who travel the world, spending months away from their loved ones, in the glare of the media spotlight, or stuck in lonely hotel rooms Skyping their friends and family. It affects those who play the circuit in their home country, which involves a fair amount of travel and time away, but not months.

I look back to my playing days (I say looking back, I'm planning on coming out of retirement this summer, the dream never really dies) and I can see what Frith means. Cricket is essentially an individual game dressed up as a team sport. The main action is the duel between bowler and batsman. Once the batsman is out, through a daft shot, good bowling or a slice of bad luck, then that's it for him for a fair while. This isn't baseball where you'll be up again in a couple of innings time. A batsman has to sit for days, possibly weeks, waiting for another chance, the pressure building. Even when fielding you can bet he'll be mulling over his dismissal, thinking about his approach next time he bats. By the time he gets out to the middle again he might be so keyed up and tense he is incapable of doing well. So, he gets out, and then broods on his dismissal for more days, the cycle ever worsening. Some people are very good at putting failure out of their minds, of attributing it to bad luck, and looking forward to 'next time' and a chance to put it right. The more sensitive, intense soul begins to fear the next time  because it could mean more failure, which breeds more brooding, and more sleepless nights. It's easy to see, if other things in your life were going badly, how such a cycle would intensify depression.

Many of the suicides Frith talks about involve ex-players, and cricket is not alone among sports in this regard. Life on civvy street, having been used to playing in front of large crowds and being feted, swapping the excitement and the uncertainty for the prosaic and mundane, can be demoralising, and players often end up prostituting their name to make money, looking with envy on those who still play. Yet it doesn't explain everything, and how cricket, the sport with the genteel, civilized reputation, hides such a dark heart.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rare Pleasures

This blog is a piece of unashamed theft. Knysna is definitely Stan’s territory – it is where he lives when he’s in South Africa - and I have absolutely no business writing about it. However, there are extenuating circumstances. Three of them in fact. First, he asked me to write the blog for him this week. Second, I’ve just been visiting him in Knysna, so at least this is based on recent first-hand experience. Third, he wrote a piece about Johannesburg last week (which is where I live).
So what makes Knysna so special? That’s very easy to answer. It’s the lagoon. It’s beautiful, exiting to the sea through a crevice in the surrounding hills called simply The Heads. Stan’s house is up on the left hill (or Head) in this picture that looks from the town out through The Heads to the sea.

Not only does the lagoon provide a wonderful scenic feature and a home to all sorts of water sports, but it is also home to the Knysna Oyster. The canny folk of Knysna have a knack of taking their natural advantages and turning them into commercial advantages. For many years one would drive onto a small island in the lagoon –Thesen Island - which had a desultory timber business on it, and the Knysna Oyster Company. The Knysna Oyster Company was a beacon attracting tourists and locals alike. At first it consisted of an oyster farm where oysters were cultivated in the lagoon and sold –open or closed – to visitors and local restaurants and hotels. After some time, a few outside tables were added where you could sit in the sun, enjoy the lagoon and eat your oysters with your own wine. Then it became a café, then a restaurant, then a landmark … and then it disappeared.

Knysna specialises in rarities. There are the famous Knysna elephants, by far the rarest of their clan. Believed extinct for many years, it has now been established that a few still wander deep in the Knysna forests keeping well away from humans. For visitors who don’t have a few months to invest in trying to find them, an Elephant Park with non-Knysna elephants has been situated nearby.

At Brenton on the sea side of the town, there is a butterfly – the Brenton Blue – which occurs only there. In common with several other species of Blue, it has a complex relationship with a species of ant. The caterpillar secretes a sweet substance that the ants enjoy, and in return they protect it and help it with its complex life cycle, even excavating a hole for it to feed on roots and eventually pupate. Since this is sea front property, the Blue was hardly likely to have been left in peace, but at least an area has been set aside to attempt to preserve the species. Brenton Blue tours are doing rather well too.
Then there’s the Knysna Seahorse – the rarest species of seahorse and the only one on the South African coast. It occurs only in three estuaries along the Cape coast. All seahorses are fascinating creatures with their languid behaviour and charming faces. Fortunately they’ve caught the hearts of the people in the area. But that brings me back to the disappearing Oyster Company. Thesen Island has become a residential development. Suddenly this small island, practically at sea level, has been packed with houses. We are assured that no damage will result to the lagoon or the seahorses. Just what happens to the effluent from all these new dwellings is best left to the imagination. The oysters packed up and left, bag and baggage.

Well, perhaps global warming has one saving grace after all. Thesen Island will be among the first to go…


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Travel log

During the past three weeks I have done a bit of traveling, visiting three different locations, London, Paris and Bucharest. There is not a single thing I could add to Cara’s wonderful portraits of Paris provided weekly on the blog, nor to Dan’s regarding London. No one has to date however mentioned Bucharest so I thought I might share a little bit of what I saw during my time there.

First off I would like to mention that the people I met in Romania were all extremely warm and generous as well as entertaining. Most seem to have no problem conversing in English and all seemed fond of their country but tired of their politics - something that seems to be going around.

I did not see a single gypsy which was surprising. But maybe I did but did not realise it. I had a similar experience in Switzerland once, had spent some hours there without coming across a bank or chocolate.

The city of Bucharest has its share of beauty, apparent in the buildings erected during an economic boom in the beginning of the last century and varying even older structures. Many of these are presently under decay as not enough is done to maintain the integrity of the buildings and one can only hope for the city’s sake that this is addressed sooner rather than later. Further to this, it was maddening to hear that during the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu (1965 to 1989) a large chunk of the old historic center was demolished to make way for the horror of all architectural horrors – buildings of communist design.

No matter in which city one comes across these buildings they are always are so shockingly ugly and devoid of character, them that it boggles the mind to try and imagine what the communists were thinking. Did they dream about whole cities made up of these monstrosities? Did they really find them beautiful or was beauty something that appalled them? To me the seemingly endless prefabricated panel after prefabricated panel strain the eyes and I keep I trying to envision a childhood spent surrounded by the lifeless gray tone but cannot. A child’s mind developing under such circumstances would probably be missing a good chuck of its otherwise roaming imagination. Which might have been the master plan.

Ceausescu was probably crazy towards the end. Too much absolute power tends to do that to a guy – take Gadhafi for one. Ceausescu built a huge, huge structure he called the people’s palace, despite the people having no call to it or right of entrance. Occasionally the odd person or two were dragged inside for torturing but that does not entitle a building to be called the people’s palace. Outside it, on the boulevard leading up to the building Ceausescu had rows of fountains installed, only thing was that there was not enough water to keep them running. Being a horrid dictator, no one mentioned this to him, they just made sure to know when he would be passing by and turned them on for such occasions.

Ceausescu’s wife was also deranged via power. She was originally a textile worker but by the waving of a magic wand she suddenly became a PhD in chemistry. Many complex books on chemistry were published in her name in the country during her husband's regime. I was told in Bucharest that she was always addressed as “the most gifted and most accomplished scientist in Chemistry in the world”. Or something similar. To me this is amazing. Why chemistry? Rocket Scientist or Nuclear Physicist would have seemed the more obvious choice, evil dictator and all that. But this will never be known as she was executed by firing squad along with her husband on December 25th 1989 – about a fortnight later capital punishment was abolished in Romania. I would have given her life in prison in exchange for an explanation regarding the choice of Chemistry as a bogus degree.

One additional bit of information struck a chord in me. Ceausescu tried to get a handle on the gypsies during his time in power but failed miserably. I am no fan of the gypsy culture to say the least but this brought them up a notch in my book. Now they are on the “Do not understand, but might have something going” category.

Evil dictators remain in the very lowest category: “Hurry up and die you idiots”.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

rules of shopping in Paris

Have you ever wondered about the Paris shops with a sign 'entrée libre' - not so common any more - but you can still find shops with a sign on the door reading “entrée libre”— literally “free” or “unrestricted entry.” When I first visited here this struck me as very odd. Why have a sign on a store announcing that people can come in? Isn’t that pretty much what having a store is all about? Isn’t it kind of like having a sign on a preschool saying “children allowed”? I imagined an entrepreneur giving a pitch to potential investors: “I’ve got this incredible revolutionary idea for a retail venture. You’ll probably think I'm crazy but just hear me out. What I’m going to do is rent a ground-floor storefront space, fix it up nicely, stock it with products, and then — hold on to your seats now, because this is the really beautiful part — I’m actually going to let people come in, off the street, and purchase the goods! Yes! Try to picture it! But we’ve got to move fast before someone else beats us to it!”
Later it occurred to me that maybe the reason for the entrée libre sign was to distinguish these shops from the exclusive jewelers and antique dealers that only receive customers by appointment. But even that turned out to be wrong. The point is this: traditionally, entry to a French retail outlet is by default not free and unrestricted — the understanding is that once you set foot inside you are going to buy something. You can’t be “just looking.” I say “traditionally” because most stores no longer observe this custom. Over the past 20 years or so, entrée libre has become the default — except for food shops, which are still the holdout. That’s why most butchers, bakers, greengrocers and fish mongers are open to the street or have a huge display window: you’re supposed to be able to see their wares before entering and refrain from taking up their space, time, attention and oxygen unless you have firm plans to blow some euros.
But the first rule of course is to say Bonjour/Madame Monsieur and make eye contact with the shopkeeper. If you don't that's a sign of disrespect and that you are a foreigner. After all, this is the shopkeeper's 'maison' and you as such are a semi-invited guest.
Shoppers violate this rule at their peril. I once went to a wine shop hoping to find a specific brand of an obscure aperitif. There were four or five customers ahead of me and only one clerk. All of the bottles on sale were readily visible and, seeing that they didn’t have what I wanted and that it might be 15 minutes before I could even explain this (another unposted rule: no talking to the sales staff out of turn), I wheeled around and headed for the door. The clerk was vividly unhappy about this and called after me, “Oh, Madame!” with a look of outraged exasperation on his face, as though I had just loudly released a fog of paint-blistering flatulence and was now fleeing the scene. In the civic interest, I would suggest that to avoid confusion, the remaining non-entrée libre stores put up a notice saying the exact opposite: “sortie payante” – entry may be free, but getting out is going to cost you.

Cara - Tuesday home respite from the road

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Twins

New York’s South Bronx has one thing it can be proud of. 
Or, as others might say, something it really has to answer for. 
For it was there, in the 1970’s, that the four forms of musical and artistic expression collectively known as Hip Hop arose. 

You've heard the music. It's commonly referred to as rap.

And you've probably seen the dance form, called breaking.

DJing, mercifully, is the easiest to avoid.

But graffiti is not - and it has changed the landscape of many of the great cities of the world.

Except Singapore where they fling you in jail for it and throw away the key.

No such luck in São Paulo, where the municipal government has practically given up on preventing it. 
Artistic parallels are often drawn between the energy of São Paulo today and the energy that existed in the South Bronx of the 1970’s. 
Brazilian social scientists have an explanation for it: Poverty and uneven distribution of income have fed folkloric vandalism and stimulated the creation of graffiti as an urban sport for the disenfranchised.
But now, all of a sudden, we’re being praised as the new shrine of graffiti and a center of inspiration for graffiti artists worldwide.


Enter The Twins. (Os Gêmeos)
No, not the baseball team from Minnesota.

The Twins I’m referring to are Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo, identical twin brothers from São Paulo.

They’ve been painting graffiti since 1987, when they were 13.

And, these days, they are doing it on walls and buildings all over the world. 

Their work is in Miami, in Manhattan, in Brooklyn, in San Francisco, in the Netherlands, in Paris, in Rome – all sorts of places.
And they get paid for it.

Even by the municipal government of São Paulo, who invited them to decorate the trains of the subway system. (Can you see New York doing that?)

Their subjects range from family portraits, to Brazilian folklore.

And are often commentaries on political or social aspects of the society.

To those of you out there who’ve had your children busted for tagging with spray paint: Rejoice!

You can now hope they’ll make a name for themselves as artists.

Leighton – Monday

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Spirits of Place

This is a torii, a Shinto structure through which the Gods enter.
You'll find a torii in front of every Shinto shrine in Japan. You'll also see them free-standing, like this one, wherever there seems to be a vortex of kami, or spirits of place. Many of them stand in seawater, either in the ocean or in bays.

Shinto is perhaps the oldest Japanese religion and the closest to being home-grown, although the name is taken from two Chinese words, shin, meaning "spirit," and to, which is a derivative oftao (as in Taoism), meaning a path or a course of study.  So I suppose you could say it's a spiritual path of study.  It's sometimes translated as "the way of the gods."

Despite the borrowing of Chinese words -- probably chosen because Japan never invented a written language of its own but instead appropriated the character-based system of the  Chinese -- Shinto is Japanese to its roots. The Shinto creation story is essentially the story of the creation of Japan.  In it, two powerful kami, Izanami and Izanagi, were deputed by other gods to create the world. After some trial and error, they created the eight islands that became known as Japan.

Izanami and Izanagi creating Japan on the ocean

Therefore, Shinto holds Japan itself as sacred.  It further holds that kami are to be found in all aspects of the natural world and that the natural world is therefore the source of beauty and goodness.  Nature is sacred.  To be removed from nature is to be far from the gods.

Shinto gods have no investment in morality.  They do not judge or punish.  Human suffering, presently so abundant in Japan, is not seen as punishment but as a state that is sometimes unavoidable.  In times of suffering, people might go to a shrine and seek purification.  Most Shinto shrines are built to house an especially strong or vital kami, and therefore they literally mark places that are rich in spirit.

A visit to a shrine actually begins with a ritual cleaning. There is a basin outside virtually all Shinto shrines.

Here is how it should be used.

Hands and mouth should be washed thoroughly. Cleanliness is an important aspect of Shinto.

Then one may ring a bell or clap one's hands and pray.
The purpose of prayer is not to atone for past wrongs or to avoid future misfortune.  It is to strengthen one's connection with the earth, with the source of spirit, and to hasten the reestablishment of one's own equilibrium.  It also may help turn away the influence of mischievous spirits.

Once one has visited the temple, one is supposed to behave properly, which in Shinto means in a way that furthers the aims and the harmony of the group.  This probably explains the extraordinary behavior of the Japanese in the wake of the recent disasters.
These are pictures of Shinto Shrines at Fukushima, neither of which may be standing now.

One of the first things that strikes me when I look at Shinto shrines is how they mirror the Japanese aesthetic of natural simplicity, an aesthetic that clearly has its roots in the belief that the natural world is the source of spirituality.

Shinto is not an exclusive religion.  It recognizes the multitudes of angels, demons, messiahs, saints, and spiritual leaders from other religions as kami.  Most Japanese, if asked, would probably say they practice both Shinto and Buddhism.

But there's a functional division between the two. Shinto, which doesn't really touch on the afterlife, is the religion of daily life, while Buddhism is the religion (at least in part) of the afterlife.  Most Japanese weddings are Shinto ceremonies, but almost all funerals are Buddhist.

I'm certain that Buddhism is much on the minds of the Japanese today.