The Eagle Huntress of the Altai

アルタイ山脈の女鷹匠

“So, what do you like to do in your free time?” I ask the young girl as we drink tea in her family’s ger, the round felt tent of the Kazakh nomad in Mongolia’s Altai mountains.
“Well, in winter,” she tells me through an interpreter, “I like to ride my horse into the mountains and hunt wolves with my eagle.” “Oh…right…”

Aigerum Askir is just thirteen years old. She lives with her parents, two sisters and a brother in the district of Altay. The closest real town, Bayan Ulgii, is a five-hour drive away over bone-shaking roads. She is a citizen of Mongolia though she belongs to the Kazakh ethnic minority, numbering about 40,000 people. They are followers of a moderate form of Islam, sheep herders, outstanding horsemen who eke out a living in the Altai, some of the world’s most remote mountains.

Hunting with golden eagles is a tradition stretching back into the distant past of Aigerum’s ancestry. The custom has been handed down from father to son, and now from father to daughter, for hundreds of generations. In the regions of Central Asia, it is only the Kazakhs of Mongolia who have kept the practice alive. Other tribes let the old ways slip away as they were forced, in many places, to settle and adopt new ways of life. But here a solitary rider mounted on a small but sturdy horse, clad in furs, can still be seen riding onto the high ridges, scanning the snow filled valleys below for game, with a full-grown eagle perched on his, or her, arm.

Aigerum has been learning how to handle her eagle, named Karan, since she was eight. Her father and uncle, accomplished hunters themselves, have patiently taught her how to train, care for and hunt as their own father taught them.

The eagles used for hunting are always female as they are larger than the males and more aggressive. Fully grown eagles can be caught in the wild, tempted with food and trapped in nets, though more commonly chicks are taken from nests. This is a dangerous job; would-be hunters must climb the most inaccessible peaks or be lowered down cliff faces to reach the nests, all the while risking attack by the chicks defensive and enraged parents.

Once an eagle is caught, it is made an honored member of the family, given a place to roost inside the ger and fed nearly a kilo of mutton each day. The amount of meat required to feed an adult eagle is a strain on the nomads who mainly survive at a subsistence level; this and the time that must be invested in training make becoming an eagle hunter a weighty commitment and not one taken on lightly, even by an adult man, let alone a teenage girl.

Surprisingly perhaps, training an eagle to hunt only takes about three months. The birds are slowly accustomed to flying to their masters or attacking decoy animals made from fox skins by the reward of fresh meat.

Winter is the time of the hunt. Before first light, Aigerum and her father will be up preparing their horses. After a breakfast of milky tea, bread and dried curds, they will wrap themselves in fur coats, hats and pants and ride into the mountains to greet the sunrise in temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius. The eagles are used to hunt marmots, foxes and the bravest will attack wolves. They operate by chasing prey into the open, where it can be shot by their masters, or attacking the animal directly. Wolves are grabbed by the snout and held until the hunters arrive to dispatch the animal.

Once the sole domain of men, eagle hunting has become a sport for women as well. In Mongolia Aigerum knows of about ten other girls who are hunters though there are only two others in the region she lives. Aigerum has competed in eagle hunting festivals, both locally in her area and also in Mongolia’s capital city of Ulaan Baatar. Next year she hopes to compete in a new festival held in Kazakhstan. Hunters are judged on three categories: costume and appearance of the hunters, horses and birds, the bond between the hunter and the eagle demonstrated by how quickly the bird will fly to its master from a distant perch, and hunting ability shown by how well the eagle can catch a decoy fox skin dragged, at speed, behind a galloping horse.

Outside the ger, Aigerum puts on a fox fur coat and climbs into the saddle of her horse. Her father hands her a thick leather glove to protect her from the bird’s razor like talons and coaxes the hooded eagle onto her arm. Using a forked stick to support her arm under the weight of the adult eagle, the young girl turns her horse and races off up the mountainside above her family’s camp. In the valley her father takes a tattered fox skin on a long string and begins to run dragging the decoy behind him. Aigerum removes the hood, needed to keep the eagle calm until it’s ready to fly, from Karan’s head. Karan shrieks a high scream, spreads her wings and launches herself into the wind. Instantly her vision is attracted by the movement of the decoy and she swoops down from the mountain homing in on her prey. The long dead fox has no chance of escape once again as the eagle hits a perfect bulls-eye, latches onto the skin and holds her wings over her prize as if to shield it. Aigerum gallops down to her eagle, leaps from the saddle as the bird proudly cries out, waiting for her reward of shreds of fresh meat. The young lady coos to her eagle and strokes its feathers in praise.

Later, as we drink more tea, Karan watches us from her roost. Aigerum’s father tells me that before the great bird is too old it will be released back into the wild to live in a natural state, flying silently over the peaks and valleys in search of prey of its own. The bird squeals and Aigerum says something; Karan cocks her head as if listening and then remains silent.

 

 

 

 

Raising a Bilingual Child

子供をバイリンガルに育てるには

My son, Bodhi, is a mixed-race four-year-old child. I’m from New Zealand, my first language is English, and my son’s mum is Japanese. When he first began to speak, I was worried about what language he was going to use; my Japanese is very limited and as I was pretty much the only English speaker he knew, I wondered if he was likely to develop language skills only in Japanese, “Will I be able to communicate with my son?”

Naturally, as he grew up in a Japanese environment and went to a local Japanese nursery school and then kindergarten, Bodhi’s first language became Japanese. He is exposed to Japanese language situations far more than he is to English situations. His Japanese is much better than his English; he can make more complete sentences, use prepositions and particles correctly and use more abstract concepts like “dakara” and “demo” However, he is able to communicate most of what he wants to say to me in English, sometimes in more broken English, but he is still effective.

My lack of Japanese language skills has actually turned out to be an advantage in helping Bodhi to be bilingual. I tried to get my wife to speak English to him at home so that our home environment would also be an English environment. Her English is very good but at the end of a long day at work, when the dinner needs to be prepared, Bodhi given a bath and put to bed, it is just easier for her to slip into her own language of Japanese. If I were more proficient in Japanese, it’s likely I would also use that with him since there is more of a chance, he will understand me. But as I said, my Japanese isn’t very good, so it’s English we use. And as a result, Bodhi has picked up more of this language.

It has been interesting to see how well Bodhi has adapted to growing up exposed to two languages. Very early he seemed to recognize that the way Mummy talks is different from the way Daddy talks. He will say something to his mother in Japanese “Cookie wo kudasai!” and then turn around and say the exact same thing to me in English; “Daddy, cookie please!” Once when I was picking him up from his kindergarten in the summer, one of his little friends was complaining about the heat; “Metcha atsui!”. Bodhi turned to me and said, “He’s too hot!”. He translated his friend’s comment.

Bodhi’s use of language also gave me insights into the way he views the world around him. A year ago, we visited Koya-san in Wakayama and stayed in a small guest house for international travelers. In the evening several foreign tourists sat around in the hostel lounge relaxing and Bodhi, enjoying the attention he was getting, tried to talk to them. However, he spoke to them in Japanese which they couldn’t understand, it seemed he thought I was the only one who spoke English and that everyone else in the world spoke Japanese. In fact, one day when I did speak to one of his teachers in Japanese, he was surprised: “Why did Daddy speak Japanese?”

I have made it a point of never actually “teaching” him any English. I have never made him sit down and recite the alphabet, nor have I ever done something like make him repeat the names of his animal toys in English. I’m sure that if I do this kind of thing he will soon see English as a boring task to be done and resist it. Instead I try to get him to use English as we play and talk.
“Daddy look! Wan-chan!”
“Oh, yes! What’s wan-chan in English?”
“Doggy!”
“Good boy!”
Later, I might check to see if he’s remembered: “What’s wan-chan in English Bodhi?” But if he doesn’t want to answer or gives me a silly answer instead, I just let it go. This seems to have worked as he has recently become curious about English and will ask me;
“Daddy, how to say __________ in English?”

A while ago Bodhi and I visited New Zealand for a three-week vacation. Due to her work Bodhi’s mum couldn’t join us so he was surrounded by only English the whole time. Once again, like at Koya-san, Bodhi didn’t realize that other people spoke English and couldn’t speak Japanese. For the first three or four days he kept trying to speak to my family, none of whom could understand a word of Japanese, in his first language of Japanese. After a few days of getting only replies of; “What?” or “Mmmmm.” he seemed to click onto the fact that no one understood him and that he needed to use English.

After that his English improved rapidly. Even in three weeks he was using new and more complex vocabulary and fuller sentences: “Lovely day, isn’t it?” or “Pretty hot today, isn’t it?” and “Don’t forget that Daddy!” During the time in New Zealand Bodhi’s fluency also improved, his English rhythm and intonation became more expressive and natural as he mimicked the people around him. He did still use Japanese mixed in with his English, he would use the particles “wa” and “ni” and didn’t pick up the English word “because” and still used “dakara” or demo “sa”. And at times he was still confused about who spoke English and who didn’t; in a shop I asked the assistant a question and when we left the store Bodhi asked me; “Daddy, why that lady speaking English?”

Japanese parents have asked me about my son’s bilingualism and how they can replicate it with their own children. Unfortunately, I feel it needs to be a natural process. If a native Japanese speaking parent tries to speak English to their child the effect seems to be limited, it’s just not natural and the child senses this. Of course, this doesn’t mean Japanese parents can’t teach their children English, it just needs to be done as part of play and without expectations of accuracy.

So, my fears of three years ago were never realized. Bodhi is comfortable in both languages; in fact when we returned from our vacation in New Zealand, he seemed a little nervous that he would have to speak Japanese again. In the future I expect him to continue to improve in both English and Japanese though I do wonder if, when he becomes a teenager and seeks his own identity, he will want to speak one language rather than the other. I guess that might depend on where we are living at the time.

 

 

 

 

 

Mongolia’s Naadam, a Horses’ Biggest Day!

モンゴルのナーダム、競馬の最大の祭典

The biggest day on the Mongolian calendar is the midsummer festival of Naadam! Well, it’s actually the biggest three days on the calendar as the festival is usually held over a long weekend, and in fact most Mongolian’s take a long break over the summer anyway, some up to three months if they can!

Naadam has been held since the time of the great Mongolian emperor Chinggis Khan and his ceremonial banner of nine white yak tails is still flown at the festival today in his honor. Naadam consists of the ‘Three Manly Sports’ of horse racing, wrestling and archery. In the past these sports were, as the name suggests, only practiced by men, though these days women competitors have been admitted to horse racing and archery, while wrestling still remains the sole domain of men.

In the festival’s beginnings the three sports were part of the training to prepare men for war as the Great Khans expanded their empire with the help of the sword to stretch from the Pacific Ocean to Europe. These days Mongolians have put away their swords, but the festival is still seen as a great occasion and serious pride is at stake for those taking part. Wrestling champions often go on to fame and wealth as sumo wrestlers in Japan and being the owner of a winning Naadam horse brings enormous respect and honor to a nomadic family.

Naadam festivals are held across Mongolia at varying dates throughout the summer with the largest being staged in the National Stadium in the capital city of Ulaan Baatar. This version of the festivities is filled with color and ceremony, crammed with tourists and tickets sell out for high prices months in advance. Recently many locals consider the Ulaan Baatar Naadam to be commercialized and touristy and recommend visitors attend a local Naadam at a village far out on the steppe where the real spirit of Naadam can still be found.

And so, I found myself in the village of Altay in Mongolia’s far west, about as far from Ulaan Baatar as you can get in Mongolia, in the heart of the Altai Mountains.
“So, where is the Naadam?” I asked my guide.
“It’s over there.” And she pointed to a single mud brick hut on a hillside in the middle of a vast sweeping valley. There wasn’t a single person there, it seemed we were the first to arrive.
“So, what time does it start?”
“At ten o’clock.” She told me. I looked at my watch, it was already ten-thirty. “Ten o’clock ‘Mongolian time’”, she added, guessing what I was thinking, “so when the people get here it will start.” And not long after people began to arrive, in jeeps, on motorbikes or on horses.

Soon the empty hillside was bustling with people, young and old. I watched as women hugged and men shook hands, exchanged snuff bottles or cigarettes. Many of those attending the festival were obviously related or old friends, and they may not have seen each other for months as nomadic camps could be several days journey apart. The Naadam was much more than a sporting event, it was a time for the people of the steppe to reunite with each other, share news about who had passed away and who had had a baby since the last time they’d met. It was also a time for gossip and flirting, nearby a group of teenage boys giggled and cast shy glances at a group of equally giggly but less shy teenage girls. In the few years these awkward moments could result in a wedding.

Wrestling matches were soon underway. Mongolian warriors in great leather boots with upturned toes but otherwise skimpily dressed in tiny blue or red outfits tussled in battles to throw each other to the ground. The winner of each bout raised his arms as an eagle’s wings and flew over the man he’d defeated in triumph.

But the main event of the day was the horse racing, and everyone kept an eye on the horizon, watching for the cloud of dust that would mark the approach of the horses. The start of the race was an incredible twenty kilometers away with most Naadam races ranging from fifteen to thirty kilometers, and the horses are ridden without saddles. Even more incredible are the jockeys; only children are used from ages six to thirteen years old!
“This,” as I was later told, “is not only because they are smaller and weigh less so the horses can run faster, but also because children have less fear than adults so they’ll try and go faster.”

Suddenly a shout went up and people began to run down the hillside towards the finish line. The horses were coming! As the crowd pushed forward officials shouted at people to stand back and keep out of the way of the thundering but exhausted animals.

Soon the tiny figures in the distance grew and became clearer. Next to me a man shouted and threw his arm around the shoulders of another, his friend’s horse was in the lead on the home stretch to the finish.

As the sleek black horse crossed the line the spectators rushed to the sweat soaked steed; to touch the winning horse is considered good luck and as the boy jockey slid from the horses’ back it was slapped by dozens of hands. The horse was led around and around in circles to help it calm down after galloping for half an hour and was then scraped with a type of wooden spatula to remove the sweat preventing it from cooling too quickly and catching a cold.

I watched as other riders crossed the line. As each horse finished its race, a father or older brother would come forward and taking the reins from the jockey, lead the horse away to cool down and rest. The young boys who had just galloped across the steppe were exhausted; they virtually fell from their horses, and some were so tired and in such pain from the rigors of the ride they could barely stand up. And yet they were ignored by their parents; none of the fathers hugged their sons or gave them a high five, no one said anything like ‘well done’, ‘good race’ or ‘you did your best’; the boys were left to stagger away to find a water bottle. It seems that Naadam is a day only for the horses to shine and be stars!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Giant Leap from Friendly to Friend

フレンドリーからフレンドへの大きな一歩

“What are you doing this weekend?” I ask my student, a senior businessman approaching retirement, at the end of our lesson. “I’m having dinner with some of my old friends from elementary school!” he tells me. It’s remarkable to me that the man is still friends with people he must have first met as a child more than fifty years ago. I have no contact with any of the people I was even at high school with, and I don’t know where they are or what they are doing…nothing!

Japanese people take friendship quite seriously. As the previous example illustrates, friendships once made are held for decades, even a lifetime. I find it admirable that in Japan, in the franticly-paced, disposable world we live in, friends will be friends through thick and thin, and they will share the highs and lows of an entire life: graduations, births, deaths and marriages, retirements, grandchildren and finally each other’s funerals. Here friendships are carefully cultivated and nurtured. From my western perspective, it appears that in Japan, relationships between two peers are approached like a marriage they worked on and cultivated through a combination of mutual respect, responsibility, trust and dependence.

I have been in Japan for six years and I have only two Japanese friends. Both of them live several hours away by train and I haven’t seen either in years although we often communicate by phone. It’s not that the Japanese aren’t friendly or that they aren’t open to making friends with non-Japanese -they are, very much so. In general, people here seem to be concerned that I am happy in their country. In everyday life, people will go out of their way to make things easier for me with my lack of Japanese language and unfamiliarity, even after six years, with the complexity of life here. Offences are forgiven, and allowances are made on account of my foreignness. And yet, as I have found during my years in Japan, often to my confusion and disappointment, to move from friendly to friend is a giant leap that I have almost never managed to make. And in fact, the two friends I do have I met at home in New Zealand where they were studying and working. Both of them had lived abroad and travelled extensively, so they were familiar with western concepts of friendship and perhaps that’s why we became friends in the first place, and why we have maintained that friendship ever since.

Part of the difficulty in making friends here lies in simple logistics. Like myself, anyone of a similar age as me is working full time; they have families, children who take up their weekends with sports events and outings, parents who need their help and company on a Sunday, and their own Japanese friends with whom they also want to spend time with. I have experienced the early demise of possible friendships simply because we were never able to organize the time to go out for a beer, a meal or a hike. One or the other has always been busy when the other was free and eventually the time between invitations to catch up or have a night out get longer and longer until they cease altogether.

Aside from that, I have felt myself, when trying to initiate a friendship in Japan, enter into the minefield of Japanese social etiquette. My casual comment of “hey, you up for a beer on Friday?” can be taken as a formal invitation that must be accepted at the risk of causing deep offence. From my western cultural background, I’d be completely content and unhurt with a response of “nah, got something else on, next time?” but it has happened that my ‘invitation’ has been accepted only for me to find out later that my acquaintance had to cancel another arrangement with his family to be able to join me. This has made me feel guilty; have I spoiled his precious family time? And uncomfortable; perhaps he didn’t really want to join me at all? And finally confused; why couldn’t he say “sorry, I’m busy, but next time?” So, when next time comes, I hesitate to ask him knowing that he’ll say yes even if he had already promised to be elsewhere. Conversely, when I have been invited for an evening out by a local and haven’t been able to make it due to prior arrangements and despite my promise of ‘next time’, another invitation never comes. Is he thinking ‘oh, I won’t ask him again, he doesn’t want to go’? This leads to constant and tiring second guessing, over-analyzing and reluctance, to the point where I sometimes think that it’s too difficult and complicated and I just give up.

All this doesn’t mean I don’t have any friends here, as I have several good non-Japanese friends. In most cases we became friends quickly and naturally; we come from familiar cultural backgrounds, we are all sharing the similar experience of a gaijin living in Japan, and most of my friends and colleagues here, like myself, have Japanese wives and children. None of us take ‘nah, I’m busy, next time?’ as a slight or read anything more into it than is intended at face value. We will ask them again, and if they are still busy next time, we’ll ask them another time! However, I feel I’m missing something from my experience of life in Japan by not forming close friendships with Japanese. Spending time with other foreigners is enjoyable and often cathartic but it also serves to isolate me from the Japan I am surrounded by. Perhaps my western cultural point of view causes me to see friendships as something far more fluid and transitory than the traditional Japanese perspective; after all, I’m living in a foreign country, I probably won’t be here forever, so what’s the point of making deep friendships that will one day and inevitably be broken by circumstance and distance? And perhaps, quite rightly, it could be argued, the friendly Japanese I meet see it the same way?

 

 

Marriage across Culture

異文化結婚

“How did you meet?”
This is a question my Japanese wife and I have often been asked in Japan. I often make a joke that I won her in a poker game with gang members! The real story of how our now fifteen year relationship began is much less exciting. My wife was studying English in New Zealand where I am from and we first met at a yoga class. We started dating, decided to live together in Auckland, New Zealand and then got married in 2011.

“What language do you use with each other?”
This is the next question we are usually asked. Again, I make a joke; ‘We don’t talk!’ In fact, for the most part, English is the lingua franca of our relationship. Her English is far, far better than my Japanese language skills and it always will be, and so our daily conversations (if we have any!) and day to day exchanges of necessary information about what time we’ll be home, who’s cooking dinner and who’s turn it is to pick up or drop off our four-year-old son, Bodhi, from his kindergarten are all conducted in English.

“Do you ever misunderstand each other?”
Naturally the answer is ‘yes’. There are times when we have completely missed the meaning of what the other was trying to say and it sometimes leads to tension and arguments. However, having spent a lot of my life travelling in places where English isn’t spoken at all, I have developed a skill for communicating with others who speak little or no English. And it’s simple; speak directly, clearly, without nuance, and use words that are unlikely to be confused or misunderstood: ‘Yes, I will take our son to kindergarten in the morning’ or ‘No, I can’t pick him up, you have to.’ Phrases like this, blunt though they may sound, are far more effective and less likely to cause complications than what I might say if my wife were a native speaker: ‘Yip, I’ll swing by after I knock off and grab him.’

Being direct and clear is especially important in a romantic relationship where a single careless word or sentence, even within couples of the same culture and language, can have dramatic results! This became particularly important when she and I started talking about making the biggest decision of our lives, having a child. It was an emotional topic for both of us and we agreed from the start that we would both speak openly and frankly on the subject, that we would avoid saying things that might cause the other to try and guess what was meant, to guess what the other was feeling, and what we thought or wanted. I had experienced the Japanese concept of ‘chimmoku’, silent communication, where meaning, desires and intent can be inferred from a response of silence and which is pretty much alien to direct-and-to-the-point westerners. This was banned from any baby discussions!

“Are there cultural differences?”
Despite being from opposite hemispheres and from very different upbringings and cultures, we don’t experience many problems. Again, having travelled a lot, mostly in Asian regions, most points of Japanese culture that I encounter in daily life are not such a mystery for me, taking off my shoes at the door, bowing, using a Japanese bath and eating with chopsticks aren’t a big deal. I like these customs, I’m happy to use them and after nearly seven years in Japan, they have become second nature to me. I hardly spare them a second thought.

Certainly, our home life is not typically Japanese. I spend more time in the kitchen than she does, I don’t hand over my salary to her every month and she doesn’t give me weekly pocket money. I don’t go out drinking with my company friends three or four nights a week, I don’t expect her to do all the house work as we share that more or less evenly, and we split the bills at the end of the month more like roommates than a married couple.

The reason why the above situations work for us is likely due to the fact that she has also spent a considerable amount of her life living in other countries; she lived in New Zealand for ten years where she embraced, enjoyed and appreciated the much slower paced, more laid-back and individualistic Kiwi way of life. And for this I’m lucky. I have foreign friends married to Japanese who met their wives in Japan, and those women, while obviously open minded and progressive enough to marry someone outside their culture, have not lived abroad or perhaps even travelled that much. From what I’ve heard some of these friends talk about over after-work beers on a Friday night they experience more instances when cultural differences become a problem.

Of course, there are times when I am frustrated with life in Japan, but these times are usually due to factors outside our relationship:
‘Why do I have to get up at six in the morning to put the garbage out? Why can’t I put it out the night before like we do in New Zealand?’
‘Because this is Japan and in Japan that’s what you have to do!’

“What did your parents think when you told them you were getting married?”
Again, we were lucky that this wasn’t an issue for us. Both our families were comfortable with us marrying and certainly after we had both met our respective in-laws we were welcomed into each other’s families and we quickly became friends, comfortable and familiar. This isn’t always the case from what I’ve heard from my friends here. There can often be apprehension from Japanese parents when they find out their adult child is going to be living a future possibly quite different from the typical Japanese home life they had always imagined: ‘How will we communicate? Where will they live? Does he know how to use chopsticks? Can he eat rice?’ Though, like she and I, most of these doubts are laid to rest once parties have met each other and it’s obvious the stranger isn’t so strange after all.

Any marriage is hard work, and a marriage across cultures is, of course, no exception. I have always felt that the difficulties we do experience due to language and customs aren’t insurmountable and with a little more patience and care perhaps, an open mind and respect for each other’s backgrounds and heritage, a happy, fruitful and harmonious family life is easily achievable. By the way, just to mention, today is our seventh wedding anniversary and I’m pretty sure she has forgotten! Again!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Koya-san: Temples in the Clouds

高野山:雲の中の寺

On a massive elevated superhighway, we scream past the city of Osaka at a height that gives the sensation of low altitude flying. The grey skies mirror the concrete sprawl below. We’d hoped for a sunny day to visit the mountain temples of Koya-san in Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture but it wasn’t to be. Our distance above the city hides the intricate details of Osaka, a place where, if you know where to look, you can find everything.

The occasional urban rice paddy lies between the housing blocks like a piece of the past someone forgot to clean up. Rivers very slowly flow between neat concrete river banks lest they step out of line and try to overflow. With the mass of humanity that is Japan, everything must be kept in order.

After paying tolls at an off-ramp, we exchange the highway for tiny lanes through residential areas until we find the right turnoff to Koya-san. The streets are narrow, so narrow in fact that as our car passes, I must only be a couple of metres from the people inside having lunch or watching TV. I can’t see anyone. Japan was once an insular nation and although it may have opened to the world, the Japanese live much of their lives behind closed doors. The shutters are always shut, the curtains are always drawn.

Soon the houses get larger, the roads smaller and the rice and vege fields more common -the spotless, gleaming fast food joints and convenience stores less frequent. Compared to the city behind us, the mountains rising ahead are dark and empty. Suddenly we are in forests of very old cedar and big bamboo with real streams free to take their own course. Once upon a time companies of Ninja hid and trained here.

The narrow, winding road to mountaintop Koya-san is busy but everyone’s coming down at the end of a public holiday. By the time we arrive in the late afternoon, the place is nearly empty. The Daimon gate guards the entrance to Koya-san township, a village with only one main street. The massive gate has been rebuilt several times, and the present edifice was completed in 1705. Hokyo Uncho, guardian deities on either side, protect the area beyond. In the tiny smoky tourist office next to it we pay for our accommodation for the night. Most visitors to Koya-san stay in one of the 53 temples which offer shukubo, traditional lodgings for pilgrims or travellers.

Koya-san is described as an ‘alpine basin’, a thousand metres above sea level and surrounded by eight holy peaks. Like the petals of a lotus flower, the village and temples are in the centre, and it is one of Japan’s most sacred places.

The Buddhist master Kukai (known as Kobo Daishi after his death) founded the Shingon school of Buddhism here after travelling to China in 803 to receive the teachings from masters in present day Xian. Shingon is more closely related to Tibetan Buddhism than to the better known, ego-snapping Zen most often associated with Japan. Under the exceptional guidance and influence of Kukai, the region flourished, and at one time there were 1500 monasteries, but today there are still an impressive 117. Over the centuries the peace of the mountains has been frequently broken by the usual overthrows and upheavals; however, Koya-san is still a very active centre for Buddhist study and is far from being just a tourist attraction, something that could be said of the more famous, urban based temples of Kyoto.

Up a steep driveway we arrive at our lodgings for the night, the temple of Fudo-in, consecrated in 1150. Getting out of the car, two young monks trimming a hedge with an electric prunner stop what they’re doing and address us with deep bows and polite greetings. The obo-san or head monk, a young man in grey robes, comes to show us to our traditional tatami room (room covered with rush mats) with sliding paper screens, low tables, scrolls of elegant calligraphy and a flat screen TV. After we are settled in, the monk tells us we can nominate anyone we wish him to pray for, for a fee which is adjusted according to the frequency and length of the prayers.

Given the fact that I’m staying in a religious institution, I ask the monk if there are any rules guests are expected to follow?
“Rules?” he looks somewhat puzzled by the question, “No, there are no rules here.”
As he stands to leave, he remembers to tell us that dinner will be served at six o’clock, “And would you like beer or Japanese sake with your meal?”

We are then left in peace to sip green tea. The sliding screen closes, his footfalls shuffle away. I look at my friend, something is very odd around us; “What’s that sound?” It is the sound of one hand clapping! Silence! A rarity in Japan, Koya-san must be the quietest place in the country and without realizing it from now on we tend to speak in whispers.

The temple of Okuno-in is Koya-san’s main site. It is reached by a long stone path through a forest of massive cedars hundreds of years old. The walk is actually through a cemetery containing the ashes and bone fragments of hundreds of thousands placed there over a thousand years. Covered in moss among the trees and lost in the undergrowth are acres of stone lantern-shaped monuments and granite memorials like giant chess pieces. Tiny and not so tiny stone Buddhas line the route, some so ancient the trees have begun to grow around them.

Small groups of Shingon pilgrims pass in white robes and round cone shaped straw hats. They are at the end of the 24 kilometre Choishimichi path described by the tourist brochure as ‘the journey and climbing of this path is a true test of faith and a gesture of worship’. On the path, they have counted 180 stone markers set 109 metres apart, and the walkers look tired but content.

Monuments in memory of different groups of the dead are found amidst the general deceased. From one dedicated to aborted babies to another that commemorates the lives lost in World War Two in Borneo; Japanese, local Borneans and Australian troops. Compassion is limited only to the number and variety of sentient beings, and is therefore limitless.

My earlier disappointment at the dismal weather turns out to be a perfect Koya-san day and far more atmospheric than if it had been sunny. Quiet and stillness pervade the trees, mist drifts around the graves and peaks beyond are thick in clouds. The rest of Japan below is blissfully cut off and the frantic city I woke up in that morning has no reality here. I feel disorientated and quite unsure of where I actually am with no static points to give myself a reference. All I can perceive is the place and time I am standing in right now, everything else seems momentarily irrelevant.

The pathway reaches the Toro-do, the Lantern Hall, lit with hundreds of lamps, two of which are said to have been burning continuously for nine hundred years. Behind the Toro-do is Kobo Daishi’s tomb, a small wooden structure covered in moss and reverently set away from the limits visitors can go. No one speaks in more than a hush, and photos are not allowed for the Great Master inside is said to be not dead at all but merely seated in a state of deep perpetual meditation for the last 1172 years. He waits for the coming of Matreiya, the future Buddha. So seriously is this belief held that breakfast and lunch has been offered in front of the tomb daily since his entrance.

Returning along the cemetery path, night is already falling. Japanese avoid the place during the dark hours. They may have created the most modern nation on Earth but old superstitions run deep and with the number of graves, this place must surely be haunted. Mist thickens with the quiet, only crows call in the treetops and somewhere unseen a deep gong tolls.

Early in the evening the monk takes us to another private tatami room where dinner awaits us. Over the centuries the temples of Koya-san developed a unique style of food preparation known as ‘shojun-ryori’. No meat of any kind, no animal products and no garlic or onion; these vegetables are said to hinder the development of meditative states. Trays are laid out with a dozen tiny dishes, none appear to be more than a mouthful but collectively they make a satisfying and non-excessive dinner, subtle and delicate tastes of sesame tofu and tiny wild mushrooms. And despite the auspicious surroundings there is a vending machine stocked with cans of beer in the hall.

Back in the room futons have been mysteriously unrolled and bedding prepared. The TV remains silent. Evenings are early here and mornings are even earlier. At 6am I am following the monk again to Fudo-in’s main temple for morning prayers. While not mandatory, attendance is a rare opportunity to experience the daily workings of a Japanese temple. Inside the dark ninth century temple I kneel on bare tatami. Buddhas shine from within the darkness surrounded by dozens of ritual symbols and objects. The monks chant rhythmic prayers and strike deep metal bowls, sounds that linger long after the syllables are completed. I burn incense and make prayers before returning to my knees. Western joints are not accustomed to such postures for long but the pain and resisting the desire to move are all part of the lesson.

Breakfast is laid out in our room when we return, intricate dishes of I’m not sure what prepared by the obo-san’s wife.
“I studied for two years,” the monk tells me “to get my license and then took over Fudo-in from my father, this temple has been in my family for…” he tries to work out the dates from the Meiji Era when Japan first began to open to the outside, “… a long time!”
I ask him about being married as in most other Buddhist states marriage or any kind of sexual contact is off limits for the ordained.
“Monks like me are lucky these days, and for a long time, we weren’t allowed to have a wife. At Koya-san, until 1872, women were forbidden from even coming here.”

On the drive back to Osaka, we take the back way around the mountain. Just beyond the town, we are the only vehicle on the road for the next few hours, something I wouldn’t have thought possible in Japan where the car is king. Somehow, we get lost and climb back into the hills of dense cedar forest, and soon the road is almost too narrow even for our tiny vehicle. Tree trunks crowd to the road’s edge with barely enough room to squeeze through, the canopies block out the sky, and it’s more like driving through a tunnel.

Oddly the landscape reminds me of Tibet, a land mostly devoid of greenery. In the darkness and quiet there is a primeval air, surprising in ultra-modern Japan. Perhaps it is the presence of holy Buddhist sites? Or perhaps it’s the fact that, like Tibet, Japanese culture was founded on shamanism? Trees, earth and water have a spirit and life force of their own and away from the panic-pace of the cities, the imps and elves still rule. Again, Japan has opened itself to the outside world but what is really Japan lies hidden somewhere, some would say this is the same as the Japanese psyche.

An hour later we are back on the superhighway and heading into Osaka under a hazy orange sun as the city settles down and starts up for the night. The temples of Koya-san I left that morning seemed impossibly distant, the darkness of the forests unreal, and in Okuno-in, Kobo Daishi meditates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Into the Taiga, a Journey in Siberia’s Heart

シベリアの奥地、タイガへの旅

Siberia, the heart of the Great Russian Wilderness, is a place where one can travel through thousands upon thousands of miles of forest broken only by rivers and lakes. The Taiga forests, known to the locals as Taiga-a-a-a, they lengthen the word as if to emphasize the endlessness of the landscape. For Russians who remember the days of the Cold War and the reign of Stalin, Siberia was the stuff of nightmares, of gulags and wretched cold. Siberia was where you were sent to slave labor camps until you were worked to death, and for most, it was a sentence of just a few weeks. Even today the word is whispered, as if saying the name of the place aloud will bring its curse down upon you.

This is where I chose to spend the summer of 2016. Years before someone had told me of breeds of horses that live there in winters of minus 50 degrees or even colder, surviving by entering into a state of semi-hibernation to conserve their energy. Here there were reindeer herders who called the empty wasteland their home. There were also tribes who still worshiped the God of Fire, the God of the Hunt, tribes with names like Nenet, Yakut and Evenki. My plan was to rent or buy one of these legendary horses and ride alone into the Taiga. And despite having already made long solo horseback journeys in Mongolia, Tibet and Afghanistan, the thought of Siberia terrified me. In the other places I had ridden, I had always found people, possibly days apart, but always someone and somewhere, willing to take me in and provide me with food and shelter. In the Taiga there would be no one. However, two simple statistics drew me; its total land area was 3,083,523 square kilometers, almost the size of India, yet its population was a mere 950,000.

I flew into Yakutsk, the capital of the Yakutia, also known as the Republic of Sakha. For a few days I explored the pleasant little city with its mammoth exhibits and diamond museums, before heading north on a non-stop twenty-eight-hour drive to the village of Tomtor in the heart of the Taiga. In contrast to modern Yakutsk, Tomtor was a ramshackle dot on the map with wide mud streets and wonky houses. Here I slept only one exhausted night before taking a truck ride out of town along the Road of Bones, so named because the forced labour that built it were buried beneath their own handiwork when they expired, to where a horse was waiting for me.

“Katchula!” the man said and pointed to the white horse tethered to a post, “His name is Katchula, it means ‘money’ in Yakut language.” The man, a member of the ethnic Yakut minority who had migrated from regions around Mongolia a thousand years before, had Oriental features and spoke his own dialect. We settled on a price per day to rent Katchula and he lent me a saddle and bridle. I loaded my saddlebags onto the horse and climbed onto the animal’s back.
“Be careful of bears!” the man called after me as I headed back down the road and onto a muddy track that led straight into the Taiga.

Despite the cloudy and sunless sky, I soon realized I had a shadow. A white Yakut dog with a curled-up tail had followed me from the farm where I’d met Katchula. Along the road I’d tried several times to send him back home knowing that I hadn’t bought dog food to support him, but he kept coming. And as we entered the Taiga and the landscape’s vast emptiness had started to hit me, my attempts to send him away became weaker and weaker. That night, my first camp in the Siberian wilderness, I made a fire from dry larch wood and cooked rice in which I mixed in a tin of meat. I shared half my meal with the dog and our little expedition team of three was settled. Later I would find out the dog’s name was ‘Dogor’, a Yakut word meaning ‘Friend’, so now I had Money and a Friend, what else could I need?

Three mornings later that question would be answered in dramatic fashion; a shot gun! After a breakfast of hot tea, I saddled Katchula and started loading the saddlebags onto his back when a commotion broke out in the forest just above my camp. Dogor lit up with a frenzied barking, something was chasing him through the undergrowth growling, grunting and puffing; a bear! The two foes burst from the scrub with Dogor just inches ahead of the magnificent brown bear’s jaws. The bear, suddenly spooked in the open without cover, turned and fled back into the safety of the trees with brave Dogor snapping angrily at his heels.

I stood with shaking knees next to Katchula as he snorted with fear while Dogor and the Taiga’s largest and most feared predator sparred back and forth in the forest. I tried calling Dogor away but he had been trained as a hunting dog and in his mind was just doing his job - he was also probably wondering why no one was rushing to back him up with some serious firepower. After several minutes of combat without a clear winner, the bear seemed to give up and wandered off into the forest, still with Dogor yapping after him. I climbed, on wobbly legs, into the saddle and headed off in the opposite direction.

That day, which had begun with a bear in my camp, ended in the company of new friends, with good food in the safety of a warm log cabin. I reached Lake Lybunkur which stretches from north to south between two mountain ranges about eighty kilometres south of Tomtor village. The cabin, owned by a Yakut semi-hermit called Ruslan, was actually a rustic hunting and fishing lodge. His guests were a couple from Yakutsk, Alex and Sakhayana, who had flown in by helicopter a few days before to go fishing and duck shooting. The lodge was equipped with a wood-fired bathhouse and sauna, solar panels for electricity and, amazingly for such a remote location, wifi!

I spent three days at the cabin waiting for a storm to pass, eating, sleeping and enjoying simple conversations with my hosts. Ruslan was a true mountain man, he would spend ten months a year at the cabin where he supported himself with fish from the lake, game from the forest and bread from his own stove. Rifles hung on every wall of the cabin and traps were stacked in a corner waiting for winter when the region’s oldest profession, the fur trade, would begin again.

When I told the others of my bear encounter they warned me that further to the south, where I was heading, there were even more of the feared beasts. Ruslan told me that earlier in the year he had seen thirteen in a single day. I was worried about going on, not only about the bears but the fact that Ruslan’s cabin was the last human settlement for hundreds of miles. There were no towns anywhere else in the region, no camps, no roads, not even any proper trails, just the silence and solitude of the Taiga. I realized how vulnerable I was and how much I was at the mercy of the landscape. I had no satellite phone, no emergency beacon, no GPS, and no gun. If something went wrong no one would ever know. ‘In the Taiga’, as the locals say, ‘there are no witnesses’.

On the third morning the storm had passed. Ruslan restocked my supplies of rice, flour and sugar and I loaded Katchula ready to go. I knew if I stayed any longer I would lose my nerve and never leave the comfort and safety of the cabin. Ruslan told me that if I travelled south and then crossed the mountains to the east I would find the valley of the Khalkan River, here he told me, though I could tell he wasn’t completely sure, I would find camps of tipi dwelling Evenki reindeer herders. These mysterious tribes still lead a nomadic lifestyle with their reindeer supplying them with everything they need to survive in one of the harshest environments on the planet.

Handshakes from Ruslan and Alex and hugs from Sakhayana were my farewell. Riding off into the forest around the lake shore, I looked back to see my friends waving, they were the last people I would see for nearly three weeks.

The way ahead was even more rugged than that I had already passed through. Due to the permafrost, a meter or so below the ground, snowmelt and rainfall has little chance to drain away, and the result is a waterlogged landscape of bogs and swamps, inches thick layers of slippery mosses, fallen trees and thick scrub. Progress was slow and the terrain mostly too rough to ride on, so for days on end we picked our way through the shambles a few meters at a time.

A few days after leaving the cabin it started snowing heavily and didn’t let up for 48 hours. This added knee deep powder snow on top of the already soggy ground. So exhausting was the slog through this cold, wet nightmare that I was reduced to forcing myself to take 50 steps at a time counting each one, and then rest for 25 breaths before taking 50 more, but by this method we inched our way across Siberia.

The snowfall marked the end of the short Siberian summer and the beginning of the great cold that would soon blanket the land. Almost overnight the green needles on the larch trees turned to a stunning golden, beautiful to see but difficult to enjoy as the temperature dropped each day. Nights were painful; tormented by the cold, I would sleep in everything I had to wear with Dogor curled next to me and I’d still freeze. In the morning my boots, wet from the previous day, would be frozen solid, I would have to light a fire to thaw them out.

We finally made it into the valley of the Kalkhan River. Standing on top of a ridge, I scanned the vastness below desperately hoping to spot an Evenki camp, looking for the movement of a reindeer herd or rising smoke from cooking fires. But there was nothing. And even without visual confirmation, there was a strong sense of the absence of human life anywhere in the valley. I could just feel that there wasn’t a soul to be found, that apart from Dogor and Katchula, I was completely alone.

And yet the valley wasn’t empty. We twice more encountered bears, but thankfully these wanted nothing to do with our little caravan and fled into the forest leaving me with only a glimpse. I saw herds of wild reindeer, a young moose wandered past my camp one morning, I found wolf tracks in the snow, ducks and geese inhabited the many lakes we passed and turkeys and other game birds would burst from the undergrowth throughout the day. But there were no people, not even any sign that anyone had ever come this way, no tracks, no old camp sites, no garbage. Nothing.

Without finding the Evenki I was faced with another problem; I was almost out of food. My supply of rice and flour steadily dwindled and the chocolate bars I had brought in case of emergency were soon just a regular part of the menu. Often in the afternoon I would hit the wall, completely drained of energy, and I would find myself in a state of not even being able to take another step or climb onto Katchula’s back. The squashed and mangled bar of chocolate in the bottom of my bag was literally a life saver, giving me the strength to get through the rest of the day.

One evening we camped next to a small lake as the darkness of another freezing night fell. I made a fire and boiled water for tea with Dogor beside me waiting expectantly for his only meal of the day, half of my rice ration.
“I’m sorry boy, it’s all gone.” I told him. He kept sniffing my cup but finding nothing gave up and crawled into the tent. For the next four days we lived on throat lozenges raided from my medical kit and blue berries that grew in carpets on the hillsides. Dogor was so hungry that even he ate them, although at times he was able to catch small rodents which he would dig from the ground and swallow whole with a crunch.

Finally, one beautiful morning, we crossed the hills above Lybunkur Lake and the red tin roof of Ruslan’s cabin came into view. An hour later Dogor was wolfing a bowl of fatty reindeer meat and I was doing the same to a plate of pasta. We’d made it back to safety, warmth, good food and friendly company. After resting a few days, I said goodbye to Ruslan once more and we rode back to Tomtor to complete a journey of five weeks and 450 kilometers.

Saying goodbye to Katchula and Dogor was heartbreaking. They had both become friends, bravely enduring the hardships and never letting me down, and together we had made it through the toughest time of my life. Saying farewell to the Taiga was easier; I had found a beautiful but cruel environment, unspoilt but unforgiving, stunning in its vastness, silent and majestic but uncaring of those that wandered into it. The Taiga is nature at its rawest and indifferent, anything living that enters it or is born there, man or beast, is subject to the same laws and rules, whether one survives or not is not the Taiga’s concern.