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Japan by Sea

Buddhist statues at Daisho-in Temple

Buddhist statues, decorated to protect children and travelers, at Daisho-in Temple, Miyajima, Japan

Donald Trump, you may have read, recently visited Japan.  I also just wrapped up a tour of the Land of the Rising Sun.  At the risk of being the target of a derisive tweet or internet trolls, it is fair to say that I had the better trip.

The two-week National Trust Tours exploration of Japan, with a focus on its coastal cities and sites, certainly broadened my mind. Not only were the people and places welcoming, but the sharing of perspectives from our guides, study tour lecturers, and fellow travelers enriched an already heady experience.

Todai-ji Temple in Nara

Todai-ji Temple in Nara, Japan

The World Heritage sites, such as Todai-ji Temple in Nara, the capital of Japan from 710-784 CE, were powerful and moving, especially as one found places away from the crowds to privately indulge in the architecture, gardens, and spiritual meaning of the spaces. More modern sites, such as Hiroshima, the Adachi Museum of Art and Gardens, and I.M. Pei’s Miho Museum, were also important touchstones for understanding parts of life in today’s Japan.

Uchiko-Za Kabuki Theatre

Uchiko-Za Kabuki Theatre

Kabuki Theatre detailing

Exterior detailing on the Uchiko-Za Kabuki Theatre

It was at the more out-of-the-way places, however, where I found the time and space to connect more deeply with the culture of our host nation.  On Shikoku Island we traveled to the small traditional village of Uchiko to visit an exquisite, full-scale kabuki theatre, one of my favorite buildings from the entire tour.   Similarly, Toko-ji in Hagi, a medieval center of Japan, was a large site where you could lose yourself among the hundreds of moss-covered stone lanterns guarding the graves of five Mori lords.  The effect was sublime.

Toko-ji temple interior

Interior of the Toko-ji Temple

Lanterns at Toko-ji

Lanterns at Toko-ji

Toko-ji Lantern details

One of the many small coves in Toko-ji, where one could pause and reflect without the crowds

Another day took us to remote Sado Island, where we visited a center for traditional Japanese drumming and the weathered yet resilient Shukunegi fishing village.  More than 100 traditional Edo-period houses line narrow streets, where the villagers live, work, worship, and play.  It felt very much like a different culture from the hustle and bustle of the cities, yet the building forms—set cheek-by-jowl and using every bit of available space between sea and mountains—showed how the Japanese have had to value their land for centuries.

Typical lane through Shukunegi

Narrow lanes separate traditional houses in Shukunegi, a fishing village on Sado Island

Shukunegi house

A Shukunegi house, curved to fit the available land

Shukunegi street scene

Water, pathways, and homes all co-exist on a very small piece of Sado Island in Shukunegi

The spiritual is never far away in Japan, be it Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine.  We were fortunate to see traditional and current practices in a variety of settings throughout the tour.

Daisho-in Temple, Miyajima

A Buddhist monk prays amidst the beautiful Daisho-in Temple in Miyajima

Itsukushima shrine

The famous gateway to the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine in Miyajima

Prayers at the Itsukushima shrine

Offering prayers at the Itsukushima shrine

Itsukushima View

View from the edge of the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, with the vermillion torri that appears to float on the water at high tide, in the background

Buddhist statues at Toko-ji

Buddhist statues, decorated to offer prayers of protection for children and travelers, at Toko-ji in Hagi

One day we ventured to Gyeong Ju, South Korea, a World Heritage City.  The royal tombs at Tumuli Park rivaled burial sites anywhere in the world.  Dozens of mounds sit within beautiful gardens, and the few that have been excavated are wonderfully interpreted, both on site and at the Gyeong Ju National Museum.

Royal burial mounds in South Korea

Royal burial mounds in Tumuli Park, Gyeong Ju, South Korea

Royal burial site

Interpretation of a burial site in the royal burial grounds in Tumuli Park

Royal funeral jewels

Display of royal funeral jewels at the Gyeong Ju National Museum

We followed that morning visit with a tour of Bulguksa, one of the most beautiful Buddhist temples in Korea.  We arrived during a festival season, so the lanterns and flowers added to the beauty of the landscape and buildings.

Bulguksa temple

Bulguksa Temple in Gyeong Ju, South Korea

Lanterns at Bulguksa Temple

Lanterns holding prayers from the faithful, hanging from the ceiling of a walkway at the Buddhist Bulguksa Temple near Gyeong Ju, South Korea

Bulguksa temple entrance

Entrance to one of the main temples at Bulguksa

Japan is a photographer’s delight, and I found so many wonderful details that caught the eye of the camera lens.

Hiroshima children's art

Children’s art created from origami doves at Hiroshima

Bulguksa Temple detail

Detail from the Bulguksa Temple in South Korea

Golden Pavilion garden

A peaceful section of garden at the Golden Pavilion

Hakodate fish market

Hakodate fish market

View of the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine Gate

View of the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine Gate

Cover in fishing village

Cover for utility service in the historic Shukunegi Fishing Village on Sado Island

Tea ceremony sweet

Sweet for the tea ceremony in Kanazawa

Todai-ji detail

Detail from the Todai-ji Temple in Nara

Toko-ji lantern detail

Toko-ji lantern detail

Snow covered mountains near Otaru

Snow covered mountains in northern Japan, as we near the port of Otaru

Finally, one of the more delightful aspects of the trip was the myriad welcome and good-bye ceremonies from local residents at the smaller villages and cities.  Each differed and was unique to the particular region.  We were drummed away from Sado Island while we were enchanted with traditional dance in Korea.  One of the most charming welcomes came when we drew alongside the dock in tiny Hagi and were met by a group of some 20 high school students who wanted to talk with us as a way to work on their English.  Their curiosity—and their request to write our names in Japanese characters—made for a warm welcome.  My “David” was relatively simple, but it became one of the most cherished take-aways from the entire trip.

My name in Japanese characters

“David” in Japanese characters

Travel expands the mind for those who choose to be present for the teachings.  Beautiful thoughts of this ancient yet modern nation will certainly be rolling around in my head long after the specific memories begin to fade.

More to come…


Life-Long Learners

Lanterns at Bulguksa Temple

Lanterns holding prayers from the faithful, hanging from the ceiling of a walkway at the Buddhist Bulguksa Temple near Gyeong Ju, South Korea

Some of the most interesting travelers are life-long learners.

While taking in the wonders of place, people, and culture on recent trips to Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, I’ve spent time observing my fellow travelers. The reasons for travel vary widely. Some individuals finally have the time and resources to venture to new horizons while others are serious compilers—and completers—of bucket lists.  The reasons are almost as endless as the people joining me in visiting the temples, shrines, gardens, mountains, priories, theatres, museums, and much more along the way.

Life-long learners take a special approach to travel, just as they do in life.  They are curious, to be certain, but most are also risk takers.  In The Leadership Machine, authors Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger suggest that learners are “willing to feel and look stupid” because they can admit what they don’t know and are eager to move forward to learn. In the working world they are often the ones willing to “go against the grain of what they know how to do and prefer to do” in order to get better and to learn new skills.

I prefer the description of life-long learners as “sense-makers.”

Among  my fellow travelers, the life-long learners are easy to identify.  They don’t speak up just to look smart. However, the objective and dispassionate questions they do raise are almost always the best ones on the topic.  The life-long learners don’t dominate conversations, but instead seek first to understand before making pronouncements.

We all learn in different ways, yet experiences seem to be a key part of the career path of successful leaders.  From my observations there are multiple ways in which experience teaches.  Life-long learners revel in fresh challenges.  They connect with people.  Hardships don’t faze them, but instead seem to energize them.  They enjoy life.

On this trip, we’re also honoring the learning journeys of our children.  On a quick stop-over in the United States between the Asia and United Kingdom segments, we celebrated our daughter Claire’s graduation with a Masters in Social Work (MSW) from the University of California, Berkeley.  By taking risks, going where she may not be comfortable, and empathizing with people on all levels, Claire has shown me how to work to make sense of life’s quirks, challenges, and opportunities.

CLaire graduation

Our wonderful Claire, now with her MSW degree from the University of California, Berkeley

Upon our arrival in London, we have had the opportunity to visit with our son Andrew—Claire’s twin—who is a masters student in vocal performance at the Royal College of Music.  This is my first visit to London since Andrew moved here for his studies, so I wanted to tour the RCM buildings and get a picture of where he practices, researches, and performs on a regular basis.

Cosi Fan Tutte

Don Alfonso, Guglielmo and Ferrando (l-to-r) – in a 1950s setting of Cosi Fan Tutte – plot to test the faithfulness of their fiancés.

On Saturday we traveled to the wonderful English town of Great Malvern and the Elmslie House, where the Felici Opera Company—with Andrew in the role of Ferrando—performed a delightful English version set in the 1950s of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.  We joined in the laughter at the antics of the two young men who agree to a clever ruse to test the faithfulness of their fiancés, while we were simultaneously thrilled at the exquisite melodies of Mozart.  Like Claire, Andrew has shown me how to take risks and follow life’s passions.

Rooftops of Great Malvern

The rooftops of Great Malvern

Great Malvern view

Looking down at Great Malvern from the lower reaches of the Malvern Hills

The fact that the production was in Great Malvern was a special treat.  Home or frequent haunt of some of England’s most accomplished composers, writers, and artists (Sir Edward Elgar, George Bernard Shaw, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien), the town, landscape, and Malvern Hills clearly inspired life-long learning and creativity in many who ventured here.

Asking questions with an openness to new ideas.  Making sense of what we see by dispassionate and deep study.  Inserting “punctuation marks” into our lives to ask “What have we learned this week about…?” All ensure that life simply doesn’t go by as we perform tasks, succeed or make mistakes . . . and learn nothing.  As Lombardo and Eichinger put it:

“Everyone wants to know the secret of success, and there is one.  It’s called continuously learning to do what you don’t know how to do.”

Have a good week.

More to come…


I.M. Pei, Rest in Peace

Miho Museum entrance

Entrance to I.M. Pei’s Miho Museum

Eight days before the revered architect I.M. Pei passed away at 102 years of age, I had the opportunity to visit one of his last—and more remote—commissions:  the Miho Museum in Japan.

Standing amidst the Shiga mountains in a protected nature preserve, Pei’s Miho Museum, which opened in 1997, fits in well with the other modern yet very accessible works of this master who left an indelible mark on the world before his passing on May 16th of this year.

Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural historian and author Paul Goldberger wrote a lovely obituary for Pei in the New York Times, capturing  the architect’s expansive work and spirit.  When thinking of Pei, my mind naturally turns to the beautiful East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., a museum I’ve visited many times.  One feature that always brings a smile to my face wasn’t exactly designed by Pei.  Etched into the stone is a listing of all those who made the East Building possible—politicians, National Gallery leadership, architects, and more.  At one point the beautiful Tennessee marble has turned a different color, the result of millions of visitors rubbing the name of I.M. Pei with their hands, wanting to connect physically and spiritually with the design that showed how a modernist could fit a masterpiece into the core of Washington’s monumental architecture.

While not as famous as the East Building, the glass pyramid at the Louvre, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, or other major works designed by Pei, the Miho Museum nonetheless struck me as impressive architecture that beautifully fit its site and unique program.*

Tunnel to Miho Museum

Mountain tunnel that leads visitors to the Miho Museum

After a slow ride up curvy mountain roads, one arrives at the Miho and its welcome center.  From that point visitors approach the museum itself via a pedestrian tunnel cut through the mountain, giving a hint of the 75% of the museum spaces that Pei placed underground to maintain the look of the nature preserve.

Entrance to bridge

Emerging from the pedestrian tunnel to cross a beautiful bridge, with its first glimpse of the museum building

From the darkness of the tunnel the light draws you toward a cantilevered bridge and a first look at the museum building.  I was there on a perfect spring day.  The shift from darkness to light and beauty was as striking as it was intentional.

Entrance to Miho Museum

Entrance to the Miho Museum

Once inside the museum, Pei’s use of steel and glass for the ceilings and some exterior walls, balanced with warm French limestone for the interior spaces, takes over the experience.  The extensive glass allows a sense of nature to move into the building, and also provides vistas which include an earlier bell tower Pei designed for the museum’s founder.

Interior view of the entrance hall

Interior view of the Miho Entrance Hall

Ceiling of Miho Museum

Interior view of the ceiling of I.M. Pei’s Miho Museum

View of the bell tower

View of the distant bell tower from the museum’s central hall

After almost two hours at this wonderful space, it was time to go.  The trip back from the light into the tunnel meant you were leaving what Pei, upon first seeing the site, described as Shangri-La.

View of the bridge and tunnel

Looking back across the cantilevered bridge

Bridge detail

Bridge detail, Miho Museum

I would have felt privileged to see this beautiful work of art at any point, but to have had the opportunity to be in Japan and to see the Miho Museum first-hand in the month of the master architect’s passing, was especially moving.

Rest in peace, I.M. Pei.  Your work has graced the world we live in.

More to come…


*I’m not going to use this post to go into the somewhat mysterious—and perhaps questionable—practices in acquisition of the collection by the controversial founder of the museum, Mihoko Koyama, who is also the founder of Shumeikai, a new religious group that claims some 300,000 followers.

Children of the Drum

Playing the huge taiko drum

Playing the huge taiko drum

Two wooden sticks, a calf skin, and a hollowed-out tree trunk. Basics from nature. I never thought they could bring such primal fun, but that was before I spent a morning at Kodo’s Sado Island Taiko Center.

The recent National Trust Tours Japan by Sea trip led me on a Friday morning to remote Sado Island, the nation’s 6th largest island comprised of two parallel mountain ranges separated by a plain dotted with small rice farms. First known as a place of exile for intellectuals and political dissidents, it now boasts premium quality rice and sake. It also serves as the home base for the world-famous taiko drumming group, Kodo.

“Exploring the limitless possibilities of the traditional Japanese drum, the taiko, Kodo is forging new directions for a vibrant living art-form. In Japanese the word ‘Kodo’ conveys two meanings: Firstly, ‘heartbeat’, the primal source of all rhythm. Secondly, read in a different way, the word can mean ‘children of the drum’, a reflection of Kodo’s desire to play the drum simply, with the heart of a child.”

When we arrived at the beautiful Taiko Center, the first view of the drumming room took my breath away. One’s eye is drawn to many different features: the large glass windows inviting the lush Sado Island landscape inside, the circle of drums along the walls, the wood construction and cathedral ceiling that promise wonderful acoustic properties for the drumming, and—primarily—the two huge taiko drums that were hand-carved from a 600-year-old “keyaki” (Japanese Zelkova) tree by Kodo members. It is a sight that excites the senses.

Kado Center main drumming room

Kodo Center drumming room

We were warmly welcomed and given a history of the center and the Kodo Cultural Foundation, which is focused on social education and giving back to the local community. Kodo grew out of a 1970s concern that young people were leaving the island. Eventually Kodo was formed as a type of university for the study of traditional Japanese arts and crafts. More than 30 performing members, apprentices who undergo a two-year program, probationary junior members, and other supporters make up the community. One of the more exciting recent programs is an expansion of the use of taiko in promoting health, fitness and preventive care for disabilities through their “Exadon” program.

Our instructor for the day was a charming young woman who initially helped us with the appropriate stance behind each drum (legs spread apart, knees bent, stomach tucked in tightly) and the proper grip on the drumsticks (with a loose wrist). On the first few beats, our group was all over the place. But like a patient choirmaster, our instructor asked us to listen to each other and work as one. Soon the sound of the drums, beating in unison, was booming around the room, making the tops of the two huge taikos vibrate with sympathetic sound (similar to the lower strings on a harp guitar). The world was coming together as one. Then, picking up the pace, she laid aside her drumsticks in order to use two wooden blocks as a metronome. She had the group varying tempo, twirling between beats, and generally losing ourselves in the excitement of the sounds.

DJB drumming

DJB at work (and play) at Kodo (photo credit: Melissa Blunt)

For a brief time, we became the children of the drum. I cannot remember when I’ve had this much fun.

Our lesson completed, we were treated to a thrilling mini-concert on the largest of the taiko made from the keyaki tree. For the rest of the day, the group babbled in excitement. We’d been together almost two weeks, but it took those children’s toys to connect us at a different level.

A child of the drum

A child of the drum (photo credit: Melissa Blunt)

We love our technology and what it makes possible today. But we also need to remember the basic things that make us human, helping us work together in community. We need to find ways to get to the heartbeat.

Have a good week.

More to come…

Gardens and Gardeners

Tensha-en garden

Tensha-en Garden, Uwajima, Japan

Linking the passions of America’s founding fathers with those of the ruling classes of Asia wasn’t on my agenda when I left for a two-week National Trust Tour of Japan and South Korea earlier this month. Sometimes serendipity just strikes.

It was pure chance that I began reading Andrea Wulf’s Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation as I was leaving for my first trip to Asia. I was absorbed in her illuminating study of the passion for gardening, agriculture, and botany of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison—America’s best-known founding fathers—as I was entering a world where exquisite gardens were the obsession of Japan’s ruling class.

The juxtaposition was fascinating and delightful.

I became acquainted with Wulf through one of my favorite books, her 2015 work The Invention of Nature, with its description of how Alexander von Humboldt radically reshaped the way we thought of our relationship to the natural world. Founding Gardeners, written in 2011, isn’t as consistently strong, but is an enlightening read in its own right. These four gentlemen (plus Abigail Adams) tied the beauty and bounty of the American landscape to their concepts of liberty and the greatness of their new country. As expected, Thomas Jefferson was a recognized leader in this work, but the surprises here are more with the passions of George Washington, John and Abagail Adams, and James Madison.

In Wulf’s hands, Washington steps down from his perch as American deity to become a farmer (albeit one with slaves—more on that in a moment) with a real passion for the land and its bounty. She recounts how he takes time out every week during the most stressful periods of the revolution and subsequent governmental crisis to write out detailed instructions to his farm manager. Washington read widely in the agricultural and gardening works of the day and corresponded with like-minded individuals across states and oceans, sharing letters, books, seeds, and specimens. At Mount Vernon, he developed a garden that spoke to the vibrancy of the American landscape and experiment in self-government. Madison, likewise, took time from his extensive labor in shaping that government to learn and practice model farming techniques. In fact, Wulf makes the strong case that Madison was one of the first individuals to espouse the notion of conservation, long before Henry David Thoreau or George Perkins Marsh. In Madison’s Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle, our fourth president, “did not see nature through a romantic lens of transcendent beauty but as a fragile ecological system that could be easily destroyed by man.”

“In a world where many still believed that God had created plants and animals entirely for human benefit, Madison told the members of the Agricultural Society of Albemarle that nature was not ‘subservient’ to the use of man. Not everything could be appropriated, Madison said, for the ‘increase of the human part of the creation’—if it was, nature’s balance would collapse.”

My main quarrel with Wulf’s book is the consistent absence of the role of the enslaved population in the work of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. Adams, of course, did not have slaves and his plot at Peacefield in Quincy was much smaller than the gardens of other three. While the enslaved population is mentioned, it is not always clear who was doing the work to take vision to reality. Washington seems to have taken a more direct physical role in the creation of his landscape than the cerebral Jefferson, for instance. More attention by Wulf to the building and care of the gardens by those slaves would have provided a more realistic context for the work and world of the southern founding fathers.

I finished up Founding Gardeners as our plane was touching down in Kyoto, Japan. As luck would have it, our first lecture on this study tour was a look at Japanese garden history by Dr. Michelle Damian. Quoting from a treatise on medieval Japanese garden design named Sakuteiki, Professor Damian highlighted influences on design such as Buddhism, nature (and reflection on memories of a wild nature), geometry (the shape of the land and the desire for balance), and taboos (especially the need to be aware of, and avoid, them). We followed that with tours in and near Kyoto of the gardens at the World Heritage sites Tenryu-ji temple and Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) temple. Both were stunningly beautiful and set the stage for our later visits to more remote locations along the coastline of the Inland Sea and the Japan Sea.

Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Tenryu-ji Temple in Kyoto

Tenryu-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan

Two exceptional gardens—one quite modern and the other dating from 1676—dominated our visits in the second week of the tour.

The more modern work is at the Adachi Museum of Art, founded in the 1970s by Adachi Zenko and designed to include viewing gardens as well as a collection of modern and contemporary Japanese paintings, especially those of Yokoyama Taikan. Zenko felt an affinity between the works of Taikan and nature, so he constructed superb gardens which could be viewed as one walked through the museum. These gardens are set against the backdrop of the ubiquitous mountains that make up the Japanese landscape. Pulling art, garden, and landscape together made for an unforgettable experience.

Adachi Museum Gardens

Adachi Museum of Art Gardens, Japan

The following day our tour landed in Kanazawa, an artistic center that escaped bombing in World War II. The highlight was a visit to Kenrouku-en gardens. Kenroku means “combined six” referring to a renowned garden from the Sung-dynasty in China that required six attributes for perfection: seclusion, spaciousness, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water, and broad views. Construction began in 1676, and by the early 1880s it had matured to the beautiful garden seen today. The 25 acres comprises an entire city block.

Kenroku-en Garden

Kenroku-en Garden, Kanazawa, Japan

Most of the gardens we visited in Japan were constructed under the direction of the ruling class, as were those at Mount Vernon, Peacefield, Monticello, and Montpelier. No matter the differences shaped by culture, landscape, and time—and recognizing the backbreaking work often produced by forced labor—these places nonetheless have matured to something that reaches millions of people from all walks of life. There is a peacefulness that comes from visiting these special places on opposite sides of the world. As Wulf describes the differences between the beautiful—which was applied to scenes or objects that were “small, smooth, delicate, and light”—and the sublime—associated with vast, often rugged landscapes—I couldn’t help but give thanks for the opportunity to become engrossed in both over the past two weeks.

More to come…

In Search of the Worst Case Scenario

Tenryu-ji Temple in Kyoto

Tenryu-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan

I have only recently come to accept that I’ve spent my entire life as a worrywart.

This is hard to admit, because I worry what people will think of me if they know that I’ve lived a life of constant concern about what can go wrong.  Knowing I dwell unduly on difficulty or troubles, will family, friends, and colleagues think less of me?

A quote attributed to Mark Twain (and recently repeated during a lecture I heard by a Zen Buddhist monk at Tenryu-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan) gets at the heart of the issue:

“I have been through some terrible things in my life, some which actually happened.”

Until recently, I attributed my willingness to dwell on the worst case scenario to good planning. Having an advanced degree in planning led me to rationalize that I was simply trying to make sure things went well by gaming out all the things that could go wrong.  But it was pointed out recently that perhaps I’ve taken that to extremes.  I could tell I was driving others crazy with this approach to life, and I had to admit that I was driving myself crazy as well.  After tossing and turning one night while every bad scenario possible raced through my head, I awoke (literally and figuratively) to the realization that most of those terrible things that have come up in my head through the years have never actually happened.

In considering mindfulness and living in the moment, I was fortunate to hear this presentation in Kyoto at Tenryu-ji Temple—a remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Perhaps it resonated because Thomas, the monk, was an American who could speak from my cultural context.  Thomas was an exchange student from the 1960s who came to Japan and never went back.  When describing mindfulness and meditation, he said that several of his Trappist friends spoke about the “sacrament of the present moment.”  A sacrament is something that gets you closer to what you define as the creator.  He suggested that all thoughts in our head are either about the past or the future, yet we can only really connect with who and what we are in the present.

This fit very well with a cartoon a friend sent to me about worrying.  A young lady is in her kitchen cooking and enjoying her favorite music, both things she really loves.  Then she begins worrying:  will the kids enjoy the meal, was the recipe a little sketchy, weren’t those vegetables starting to go bad?  Three or four frames later she’s worked herself into a lather, and only then realizes that she hasn’t thought about cooking or the music—the things she really enjoys—for several moments.

Taking your mind off what you are doing in the present leads to worry and frustration. In his lecture Thomas suggested that if you find yourself in a line and are annoyed with the lack of movement forward (a common occurrence on a trip with 100 fellow travelers), step back and consider your thought process.  I’ve tried that out multiple times and it has been helpful in moving back into the present.

As a lifetime worrywart, I’m not going to change overnight or on one trip.  But being outside my normal routine is a good time to use different places and experiences to start.  Perhaps those terrible things that aren’t going to happen to me in any event will begin to fade away.

Have a good week.

More to come…


Installment #3 in The Gap Year Chronicles

Hiroshima 1945 / 2019

A-bomb Dome

A-Bomb Dome at Hiroshima, Japan

Pearl Harbor. Normandy Beach. Hiroshima. Names, places, memories, and lessons we should never forget.

Last week I was moved beyond words by time spent at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Garden and Museum in Japan. In fundamental ways the experience mirrored my reactions during visits in recent years to Pearl Harbor and Normandy Beach.

The world at the time of those earlier visits seemed more stable than it does in 2019. Just a few years ago we didn’t have out-of-control individuals in positions of immense power in the United States; individuals threatening to use nuclear weapons against other nations and people just because the capability exists. Instead, we had leaders who sought, at least at some fundamental levels, to try and unite us as a people and as a world. There seemed to be adults in charge who had the memories to understand the horror to humankind of nuclear war.

As John Hersey, the author of the landmark 1946 piece on Hiroshima in The New Yorker, once wrote:

“What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence, in the sense of fear of specific weapons, as much as it’s been memory. The memory of what happened at Hiroshima.”

Hersey’s piece, the only single-content edition of The New Yorker in the history of that publication, was the subject of a pre-tour lecture I attended by Harvard Professor Werner Sollors*. In his talk, Professor Sollors spoke to the impact of Hersey’s reporting and how it led the U.S. government to revise its narrative about why dropping the bomb was necessary. The report was serialized in some 70+ newspapers (back before all the major newspapers were owned by a small handful of conglomerates), turned into a book (never out-of-print), produced as a national radio reading, and became a touchstone for the nuclear non-proliferation movement. I bought a copy of the book at the Hiroshima museum and finished reading it in two nights. Sollors’ lecture was a powerful preface to visiting the place where the world’s history changed.

A visit to Hiroshima begins at the A-Bomb Dome, a 19th century industrial building made of steel and brick that survived the bombing and has been left as a ruin to dramatize the scale of the destruction. On the day of our visit, the dome—and every other element of the peace garden and museum—was flooded with Japanese students. A visit to Hiroshima is a key part of education in Japan, and the message focused on the need for peace and non-proliferation is powerful.

Hiroshima is a very different testament to the destructive power of war when placed against Pearl Harbor and Normandy. Yes, both Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima were attacks carried out in surprise. But in the case of Pearl Harbor—and also at Normandy—the targets were largely military. Hiroshima was one of a handful of major Japanese cities that had been spared from large-scale bombing, and was chosen for the A-bomb attack in part for that reason. Almost 100,000 people—largely civilians—died on August 6, 1945, the day of the bombing, or shortly thereafter. The overall toll came to more than 140,000. The museum effectively shows the massive destruction, unlike any seen before during a single day of the war, and the impact on the people of the city, the country, and the world.

At Pearl Harbor, I saw the floating memorial to the individuals killed and buried in the wreckage of the U.S.S. Arizona. I walked among row after row of headstones at the American cemetery at Normandy, stones with the names of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice and some, who made the same sacrifice for country, but whose names are known only to God.

Peace Memorial Garden

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Garden

At Hiroshima, it is different. There is a simple memorial in the shape of a burial vault, with the names of the citizens of that city who died in the attack. Many lost their lives in an instant. John Hersey said the survivors described the atomic bomb as “a noiseless flash” that, unless you were several miles away from ground zero, gave you no time to react. His description of the experience of Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk for the East Asia Tin Works, describes the horror felt by tens of thousands.

“She thought that before she began to make entries in her lists of new employees, discharges, and departures for the Army, she would chat for a moment with the girl at her right. Just as she turned her head away from the windows, the room was filled with a blinding light. She was paralyzed by fear, fixed still in her chair for a long moment (the plant was 1,600 yards from the center).

Everything fell, and Miss Sasaki lost consciousness. The ceiling dropped suddenly and the wooden floor above collapsed in splinters and the people up there came down and the roof above them gave way; but principally and first of all, the bookcases right behind her swooped forward and the contents threw her down, with her left leg horribly twisted and breaking underneath her. There, in a tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.”

Crushed by books in the first moment of the atomic age. It is a scene powerful and alive with meaning. The world changed. But Hersey’s telling of that story is given further resonance because we have come to know the place. And the place that is Hiroshima in 2019 tells of the horror not only of 1945, but of the potential horror today and in the future if the world refuses to learn the lessons from this act. The places we choose to preserve, even when they are of unspeakable tragedies, have the power to tell us about who we are as a people and what we can do differently in the future. Pearl Harbor, Normandy Beach, and Hiroshima provide individual and collective memories, connecting over a continuum of time, to create identity for individuals, communities, nations, and the world. We can choose to shape that identity because Hiroshima remains as relevant today as it was in 1945.

But we have to want to learn the lessons, else we are destined to repeat the mistakes.

More to come…

*Professor Sollors and Professor Alide Cagidemetrio are currently at work together on Face to Face with Antiquity, which examines visitors to global sites of antiquity.