Eternal meditation



I recently had an amazing, educational and spiritually enlightening experience. A friend and I stayed at Koyasan (Mount Koya), a UNESCO World Heritage site, about a 1 ½ h train journey south of Osaka.

Koya is an old Buddhist town founded by a monk called Kobo Daichi some 1,200 years ago and even though there used to be many more temples, due to some monks’ happy-go-lucky attitude with candles, today there are 117 temples in Koyasan’s 4 km x 2 km area.

When we got to Koyasan we were hungry to see as many temples as possible. But instead of visiting all 117 temples, we managed maybe about 15 after which we, surprisingly perhaps, felt desensitised to all the picturesque buildings, smell of incense, aesthetic temple rock gardens, lovely little ponds and their carps and ever so friendly monks smiling at everybody.






So, we decided to go back to our lodgings and meditate with the monks.

We stayed in a pilgrim’s lodgings (Shukubo), which is a temple that has rooms for people making a holy trip to this extremely important spiritual place in Japan.


Our room


My friend and I are not Buddhists, in fact, neither one of us are religious, but after having spent a weekend in Koyasan, we agreed that if we were religious, Buddhism, its positive attitude and concrete real life application would be the one we’d be most likely to go for. Apparently, one way to be a good Buddhist is to start by cleaning your home! Due to your ‘soul’ being connected to the ambient world, a clean and tidy home equals a clean and tidy soul. I love this kind of practical stuff, which doesn’t really strike me as religion but more like common sense. Related to this, our temple lodgings were spotless!

The food at the temple was vegetarian and sooo good – even fried tofu that usually tastes like a wet woolly mitten was to die for! After dinner, two young monks came to clear away the food trays and replaced them with our beds. I asked them whether or not they cook the food themselves. They said that they have a chef who does all the cooking (the monks just make beds and do other household chores, and presumably meditate, pray and engage in other Buddhist routines). I’m guessing the chef used to work in a Michelin star restaurant. I’m not kidding. I’m still drooling over that tofu.




After dinner we went on a night tour led a monk to one of the most sacred places in Japan, Okunoin.


Okunoin is a Buddhist cemetery consisting of 200,000 tombs, the most important of which is that of Kobo Daichi’s (the monk who is the father of Koyasan). Well actually it is not his ‘tomb’. You see, in the 9th century, at the age of 63 years, Kobo Daichi entered a room underneath one of the temples for eternal meditation. Supposedly, for the past 1200 years he’s been there but only the reigning head monks of the temple, when bringing him his daily meals, have seen him in his deep state of meditation. One British tourist asked the question that might be on some of your lips: Is he still alive? By the monk’s ever so diplomatic answer, I assume that was not the first time someone asked that question. He said: Some people believe that he is still alive, but most people assume that he lives in this temple in spirit.

The cemetery surrounding Kobo Daichi meditation temple was breath-taking. In the dark it looked magical but also a little spooky. It didn’t help that the monk told us that a well half-way through the cemetery was believed to indicate whether you were to die soon. Apparently, if you couldn’t see your own reflection in the water of the well it meant that you would die within three years. We decided to wait until the morning to have a look – we really didn’t want to risk it at night with hardly any light. The monk added that a flight of steps next to the well were also an indicator of your longevity. He said that if you slipped or fell over on the steps then you would die within three years. Maybe this was just a way for the monk to get a group of Westerners (who hardly resembled graceful gazelles) to pay attention and not break their necks on the slippery steps (and maybe sue the temple!). After all, before we got to the cemetery and its slippery steps one lady in our group had already ended up on her all fours. Luckily nobody fell over on the fall-over-and-your-a-goner-in-three-years-steps, and as far I am aware, the lady didn’t sue the temple for the earlier tumble either.


The steps at night



The steps at day


We slept on the tatami floor on a relatively thin futon. I didn’t sleep very well. Not because of the thin futon or nightmares about Okunoin and life-ending wells but, due to the walls in old Japanese buildings being essentially paper, I could hear a guy three rooms down the corridor snore and the couple in the room next to us breath. But I didn’t mind too much really – a bad night’s sleep is a small price to pay for experiencing Koyasan!



At 6am our alarms woke us up to go and take part in our temple’s morning service and fire ritual (gomakito), which they hold routinely every day, rather than as a gimmick for the tourists. The purpose of them is to pray for our ancestors and to cleanse negative energies and thoughts. These ceremonies were very interesting and to me a little bit moving, partly because of what I wrote on my soegomagi – a piece of wood that the monks burn in the morning fire ritual for a contribution of 300JPY (€2.50). What I wrote was a wish that there would be a cure for Type 1 diabetes. Maybe it was the incense, the powerful beating of the taiko drums, the chanting of a mantra by the monks and the thought of my Type 1 diabetic daughter that made me feel so emotional. In any case it was lovely (and I am looking forward to the cure for Type 1 soon).

The only things that distracted me in the morning service and the fire ceremony was an approx. 10-year of daughter of the British lady who had asked about 1,200 year old Kobo Daichi’s vital signs at Okunoin temple. The daughter loudly farted during the morning ceremony and the family giggled for 5 minutes after which the daughter and their 8-year old son lay down on the floor, I presume expressing boredom and/or tiredness.


Morning service


Fire ritual


After breakfast (and some more tofu, Yay!) we went back to the Okunoin cemetery. Some of the oldest tombs have stood there in the middle of the forest, in the morning mist for 900 years. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything quite like that.





One of the oldest tombs in Okunoin




In addition to the beautiful old tombs and a tranquil atmosphere, there were also some more modern tombs and even some slightly quirky ones, like a rocket, a teacup and a termite tomb.



Apparently, anyone can have a tomb in Okunoin; you don’t even have to be a Buddhist. You just need to have a thick wallet to pay for the spot and to have a tomb made. But even though Okunoin was amazingly beautiful, I think I want to go into my eternal meditation back home, in England or Finland.




Jizo (if you would like to know more about jizo, click here)



Fathers are as good caregivers as mothers




This was more difficult than I thought. I’ve just left the children for the first time ever for longer than a short conference trip, and thus smudged my mascara big time when curling up next to them at 4.30am this morning and giving them the last hug for the next 4 ½ weeks.

Not only do I miss them all already but I also feel like a bad mum sitting here at Frankfurt airport waiting for my connecting flight. I feel as if I was abandoning them and making their life a misery.

But why should I feel like some kind of a non-maternal she-devil? I’m going back to Japan for work (an important part of most parents’ lives) and my children are staying at our home with their father (my husband) going about their daily routines in a similar way as if I was there. Ok, they will not see their mum for a month. But they will see their dad. So, I don’t really know why I need to feel like a bad mum. My kids love me, and I love them. And importantly, my husband loves our kids as much as I do. But for some reason, society tends to assume that that’s not the case (for instance, when it comes to maternity/paternity leave or custodial rights), and therefore seems to value mothers’ contribution and care higher than that of fathers’.

Regardless of what society might think, my husband is a great caregiver. He’s not the best cook in the world, but he is capable of boiling some pasta, making a Spanish omelette, turning the oven on for some fish fingers and using the toaster – and in emergencies, walking to the nearest curry house to feed the kids. He’s also not as tidy or obsessed with cleanliness as I am, and if we didn’t have an au pair, I’d expect the house to look like a tip when I am not there. But more importantly than him being Nigella Lawson or Kim Woodburn (or any other domestic goddess) he does an amazing job at being a parent. He spends his weekends putting up tents in the garden and sleeping in them with the kids, he takes the kids climbing at a local climbing wall, creates a dinosaur cage out of old cardboard boxes or a secret den by using dining chairs, a throw and some cushions, and even on a school night after work he helps our son with his Terracotta army homework or our daughter with her phonics, and afterwards lies underneath our dining table with the kids pretending they are in a cave and reads to them.

My point is that children don’t really care whether they have beans on toast for dinner on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and a Spanish omelette the rest of the week, or whether or not there are toothpaste marks on the bathroom mirror or a build up of dust on the sideboard. Children just want to have a caregiver who (in addition to proving a safe environment) spends quality time with them, and my husband, like many other fathers, is perfect in providing just that.


A display of people's names at a temple in Nara

The most pedantic nation


A display of people’s names at a temple in Nara



I feel I need to write a few words about Japanese people’s obsession with doing things perfectly and constantly aiming to achieve the most functional and aesthetically pleasing end result. This might be partly due to peer pressure where by doing things the ‘wrong’ way will result in you becoming a social outcast. I always thought that the Finns were the most prescriptive nation, that they seemed only too happy to comply with strict rules and regulations to the best of their abilities.  However, after having lived in Japan for 2 ½ years the Finns are starting to look as rule abiding as a litter of 8-week old Boxer puppies.

I could probably name a hundred examples that demonstrate Japanese people’s attention to detail but instead of a hundred, I’ve listed 8 examples below.


1. Children’s indoor playgrounds are immaculate in Japan. You see the staff go around the area with lint rollers getting rid of specks of dirt/dust every 20-30 minutes. This contrasts with the indoor play areas in our hometown in England that have not even seen a hoover in decades. I suppose a lint roller would not be an effective tool to get rid of the build up of dust in English indoor play areas. A spade would.




2. Those same lint rollers are frequently used on hairdressers’ floors and doormats to get rid of (particles of) hair that might have fallen on the floor during hair treatment. It seems that managers of Japanese hair salons would not tolerate a single hair anywhere other than on the customers’ (and staffs’) heads.


3. Many companies specify that you need to write your job application by hand. This is of course an extremely laborious task as no errors, crossing out or erasing are allowed. That is, every time you make a mistake, you need to start again. I’m guessing the reason for this (in addition to it being a historical convention that the slow changing Japanese society is reluctant in abandoning) is that it shows commitment to the job applied for but also demonstrates that you have an eye for detail and can obey rules regardless of how inefficient they sound, such rules being the cornerstones of the Japanese workplace.


4. Every Japanese person carries with them a hand towel (and a face towel during the scorching summer months to wipe off the rivers of sweat that cascade down their faces). They’ve learned this obligatory practice at school and take it as God’s word. My Japanese friends’ towels get ironed after washing and are folded nicely back into their original origami-like state every time they are used. My crumpled towel on the other hand goes straight from the washing machine into the bottom of my handbag and gets chucked back in the bag after use. See photo below of examples of hand towels in a shop, for some reason my friends’ hand towels continue to look like this i.e. brand new, whereas mine looks like road kill.





Road kill


5. Similarly to towels, Japanese people fold their umbrellas. Numerous times I’ve sat on the train or arrived at work to observe in a kind of trance the preciseness of how a Japanese person spends two or three minutes carefully folding each individual strip of fabric (and the underlying metal bit) into a neat, immaculate, and crease-free umbrella.


6. Everything in Japan has a place and those places are carefully considered for function and aesthetics (this is the case with everything other than public rubbish bins, which do not seem to be part of Japanese councils’ agenda). But for example sweets and food are pretty much always carefully arranged into their boxes (see photos below).




Osechi, New Year’s Eve’s ‘bento boxes’


7. We recently let our apartment go in Osaka (as the children moved back to England) and I’ve moved into a flat share. As I was moving from a 3-bed apartment to a single room, we needed to get rid of most of our furniture. In Japan, you can’t do the British classic: dump your unwanted furniture/household items outside your building and wait for a neighbour/passer-by to walk off with it. I suppose (a) unwanted furniture would make the street look messy (something that the Brits are not all that particular about, but the Japanese would view with similar surprise as an English person noticing that some passer by or neighbour, had walked off not only with their unwanted sofa but also the very much wanted front path cast iron gate). Also, (b) having someone else’s old furniture in your home doesn’t seem to be a popular choice in Japan, partly because the Japanese seem to be too infatuated with consumerism to consider buying something second-hand. (see photos below of some dumped items that I noticed on my way to the pub in Brighton, UK the other day).



Second hand mug, tray and bottle of olive oil up for grabs.



This photo was taken in September. I’m guessing this item of Scandinavian Christmas decoration had been standing there since January.


As dumping our furniture on the street was not an option, a friend arranged a local recycle shop to come and collect our furniture. When the recycle company arrived the day before we were due to move out to collect the furniture I got a bad feeling as soon as I opened my door to this extremely grumpy guy with only half of his teeth left in his mouth. Toothless walked into the bathroom to have a look at our washing machine, opened the washing machine’s detergent compartment, found some residual washing power in it and started shaking his head. It seems that even though the guy had a somewhat more lax approach to dental hygiene he was extremely particular about washing machine detergent residual. In any case, there I am standing in the bathroom thinking: Wait until you see the fade line of orange marker on the armrest of our grey arm chair, or the fabric of the sofa on the sunny side of the living room where the Japanese sun (comparable to the Star Wars’ Death Star in its incinerating power) had slightly bleached/faded the fabric. As predicted, Toothless tells us that he doesn’t want any of our furniture (even though we were giving it away for free) – apparently he would struggle to find anyone who would buy our damaged stuff.



Our unsellable armchair


8. In Japan (and actually also in Finland) people do not wear shoes inside their homes (or other places they hold should be clean, like primary schools). Wearing shoes indoors is seen unhygienic and thus walking indoors with outdoor shoes on is not an option even if removing your shoes was inconvenient. If, having put your shoes on in the porch, you realize that you’ve left your mobile phone in the kitchen you are expected to (a) remove your shoes and get the phone (b) remove one shoe and hop to the kitchen to get the phone (c) leave both shoes on but get on your all fours and crawl to the kitchen on your knees, (d) leave the phone where it is but be miserable about it all day.


I kind of like the order and attention to detail in Japan. After all, I am Finnish. Bearing that in mind, you might wonder why I choose to live in England where order and attention to detail is restricted to the queue formation at the bus stop. -Well, the reason probably is that the rebel in me deep down loves England’s overall disorder, occasional chaos and widespread messiness.

Defensive armadillo



I never used to be a big fan of rice – I’m more of a potato and pasta person. That was until I moved to Japan. The reason being that Japanese rice is ooh so delicious even without the sweet and sour sauce or chicken tikka masala that most Westerners would demand with their rice.

I grew to like Japanese rice so much that one time on my way to an important academic conference (you can read about it here) I was so nervous about my presentation that I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. So when I went to a supermarket before the presentation to buy a bottle of water, I walked out not only with a bottle of water but also with a £40 rice cooker and some Japanese rice.

Even though buying a rice cooker on a conference trip was maybe slightly crazy, I think that that rice cooker was one of the best buys of my life, given that after the purchase, our au pairs used to lug huge 10-15kg bags of rice from the supermarket back home on a regular basis.

I loved my rice cooker and it became a bit like a pet to our household, after all instead of your usual Western rice cooker, I think ours looks a little bit like a defensive armadillo curled up in a ball (see photo above). My husband, who is going through a midlife crisis and is considering buying a motorbike, has however been eyeballing the rice cooker as a potential crash helmet.

My rice cooker (like pretty much all Japanese rice cookers) cooks the rice always to perfection – just as sticky as Japanese rice should be. And if you decide to leave the cooked rice in the cooker, it keeps the rice hot up to a day or two. My Japan and Japanese rice cooker experience have left me wondering why on earth had I been cooking rice in a saucepan on a hob all those years before we moved to Japan (even when correctly cooked, it just does not compare to the rice produced by a Japanese rice cooker!). So, when me and the kids came back to England a couple of weeks ago (me for a holiday, the kids to stay for good), I decided to bring the armadillo with me to our home in England.

We managed to fit the cooker in my suitcase (at the expense of many of my clothes ending up in the bin to make room for the hefty armadillo), transport it in one piece from Japan via Finland to England, place it on a central place on the kitchen counter, plug it in… to hear a loud pop and observe fire and sparks shoot out from underneath the rice cooker. It had not occurred to me (or my husband) that the current in Japan is only 100V whilst in England it is 240V. The poor armadillo got somewhat an electric chair treatment, and now we are worried it did not survive the warmer than necessary welcome to England.

In the hope that the armadillo is still alive and kicking, my husband went to buy a transformer to make it compatible with the current in England, but it turns out that the transformer would set us back by £130 (recall, I only paid about £40 for the cooker in supermarket in Japan). Not only that, the transformer was apparently a huge black-and-yellow piece of equipment you might see builders carrying around (and thus not something I want on my kitchen surface even if it would mean saying goodbye to the rice cooker).

I’ve just had a look online as to whether or not I could find a new Japanese rice cooker in England and found that our £40 armadillo’s identical twin costs £200 on Amazon! Like I said, I have really grown to like Japanese rice – we all have, so much so that we’ve got a draw full off all sorts of moulds for my children and my husband’s sticky rice (see photos below).


But I don’t really know what to do… £200 for a rice cooker just seems quite a lot to me, partly because we haven’t been able to find Japanese rice in Brighton anyway – the only ones we have found are either Italian or American approximations of the real thing, thus in my eyes (and probably in the eyes of most Japanese people) unacceptable copies.


So, the task for the next couple of weeks is to (a) buy an affordable Japanese rice cooker, (b) locate a shop that sells Japanese rice in Brighton and (c) find a rice-loving builder (who owns a suitable transformer) in order to rehome our beloved armadello, or alternatively hand it over to my husband to be used as a crash helmet.