4th Temple: Douou-ji

Entering the gates of Douou-ji, we find ourselves on a stone path bounded by a latticed fence on one side and a elegant temple floating above us against the blue sky. Douou-ji was established in the 17th Century, during the Edo period, and belongs to an ancient denomination of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, Jodo-shu, but there is little that is old about this temple or its grounds. The architecture is Modernist and minimalist, by Masaki Ogawa, and the temple was inaugurated in April of 2013. As we approach the ground floor along the path, we see to our right a fountain for performing ablutions and a cemetery where the graves are swept and polished. Families have left offerings for the ancestors before their gravestones: flowers, mochi, fruit, and beer. New Year’s is a particularly important time to give thanks to one’s ancestors. With gratitude for the past, we can face the future without fear.


Douou-ji is dedicated to the future of Buddhism. The lower floor of the temple, housing a community centre where weekly yoga classes are offered, is almost entirely glass, and a Zen rock garden bedded in white gravel extends in a rectangle both inside and outside the windows, connecting the inner sanctum to the outside world. On the inside, contrails in the gravel make lines that suggest the rocks move when you aren’t looking, tracing their own paths in the pebbles. On the outside there are circular patterns, wheels within wheels, descending to a single simple dot. The peaceful atmosphere of the garden and its surroundings make me feel content to sit and enjoy the calm, but we ring the bell and Ranjini tells the voice who answers that we’re here following the Edo Kannon pilgrimage.  The voice instructs us to come up in the elevator.

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The priest meets us upstairs and takes our go-shuin books to stamp, directing us outside to contemplate the Kannon-do while we wait for him to finish his calligraphy.  The shrine is located at the corner of the building, and we approach it along an upper deck that passes in front of windows revealing the main hall of the temple. This Kannon-do is one of the loveliest we’ve seen, with 33 different images of Kannon gathered from temples across Japan, representing her 33 different manifestations (seated, standing, eleven headed, thousand armed), all arranged inside the black box of the shrine. Ranjini sits while I photograph her image reflected in the glass between the camera and the varied Kannon images. Walking around behind the temple, I photograph the fountain and gardens and cemetery below.


Returning for our go-shuin books, we tell the priest how impressed we are by the temple. He’s pleased, and intrigued by the fact that we’ve come all the way from Canada. (Ranjini always introduces herself as from Toronto, even though she’s living in Dubai). The idea of West has a special status in Pure Land Buddhism, as the Pure Land lies in the West. Perhaps that is why Douglas fir from the Pacific Northwest was used for the elegant beams that support the temple. The priest introduces us to his teenaged daughter, who is studying in Canada, and Ranjini tells them that her daughter will also soon be starting University somewhere in Canada. After exchanging email addresses, the Priest offers to give us a tour of the main hall.

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The room is flooded with light. At its centre is a golden Amida Buddha cast in the Edo period. A light tower above the statue showers down sunshine, and the windows behind the Buddha and behind us open the temple to the world and to the gardens and the ancestors lying below. Wooden chairs have been set out for a service. The hall feels open and spacious, with the focus squarely on the central Buddha. The architect, Masaki Ogawa, was concerned that dark and crowded ancient temples had left the Japanese feeling out of touch with their spirituality and so he designed this temple with the idea of renewing and deepening the intensity of a worshipper’s relationship with the Buddha and his teachings.

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3rd Temple: Ryusen-ji (New Year’s Eve)


And so we arrive on New Year’s Eve in Ryusen-ji, home of the black-eyed fire-god.

Our friendly guide leads us through the grand Nio gates, the monstrous horned guardians scowling down at us as we pass. I remember them from yesterday at Senso-ji, but at night, brilliantly illuminated, they are much more menacing.


Once inside, we are met by Fudo Myo-o, every bit as frightening as the Nio twins. Like us, he has come a long way: his origins are in India, as the Hindu god Acala. He perches to our left on a large stone. He has two fangs, one pointing upwards and the other down, and clutches a sword in his right hand, and a lariat in his left. Nearby two small waterfalls flow from a natural spring presided over by another image of the fire-god. Here initiates sometimes perform a purification ritual associated with the god by standing under the torrent of cold water.


We’ve arrived early and our guide and the few others at the temple are just setting up, readying for the celebrants, who will come closer to midnight. No one, though, seems to mind our presence. I snap a photo of Ranjini in front of a tall Kannon statue.

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We climb the stairs alone to the upper temple and circle around behind to discover Dainichi Nyorai, the Cosmic Buddha, haloed in gold. Ranjini sits while I take more photos. We have no idea that the wrathful fire-god, Fudo Myo-o, is an emanation of this peaceful figure. Once frightened by the fire-god into believing, you are beckoned by Dainichi Nyorai toward the Pure Land.

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People have begun to arrive. At 11:30 a procession forms, led by two men walking abreast in purple robes (are they monks?), followed by eight monks in multi-coloured robes walking single file.  We follow the crowd toward the temple bell-tower, where we stand and watch and listen to the 108 gongs of the bell. I’ve heard it explained that there are 108 human sins and as we begin again in the New Year we are made mindful of them by this ritual. People snap photos on their phones. The final gong comes a moment after midnight.

It is 2016.

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We kiss and join the line and follow the crowd up the steps toward the temple, which houses Ennin’s original sculpture of Fudo Myo-o, now 1200 years old. We pass the dragon incense burner and Ranj directs the smoke over us; throw coins in the offering box, clap our hands twice, and bow. Exhausted, we make our way back down the steps, past the fire-god and through the Nio gates, by the sleeping lovers, who we still do not notice, and plod wearily back to the station to catch our train to the Hotel.



Lee and I make our way up the steps of the main temple. Time on our hands, not exactly sure what we’re waiting for, we begin to circle the temple, turn the corner, and see an immense Buddha sitting in absolute stillness. He is Dainichi Nyorai, especially important in Esoteric Buddhism: Vairocana Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism.

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This New Year’s eve, I pray especially for my father. Last summer, Lee and I had visited my parents in Atlanta.  Sitting out on my sister’s screened porch, my father would say, all-smiles and cheer, “See! See, God!” and point to the trees, or, “Listen, God,” and bow his head before birdsong and cicadas.

“I’m ready to go.”

“Where Daddy?”

His deep-set eyes still bright, “Up there.”


Some weeks before Japan, I had flown again from Dubai to Atlanta and on the day that I was returning to Dubai, we had admitted my father to the retirement home. I pray to the Christ whom my father loves with all his heart to release him from the limitations of his body.  I pray now that my mother will know when to bring him home so that he can leave this world from the bed that they have shared for decades.  I pray that he can transition from this world to the next with her by his side, from their home.

George and Sarah enjoyed a simple love and like the fabulous hikyoduri, they had flown together for almost 56 years.

Lee and I line up, throw coins, clap hands, and enter the temple where the goma fires burns away wooden plaques with last year’s wishes and prayers. I linger before the deities, smoke, and chanting.

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3rd Temple: Ryusen-ji (The Lovers)


East meets West where the Samurai meets the Cowboy: Ronin.

Sometime in the 17th Century the young Samurai Gonpachi got into an argument with his clansman over who had the better dog. A sword fight ensued and Gonpachi, being handy with his weapon, killed his clansman. Forced to flee, he became a ronin: a wandering Samurai with no master to serve.


One evening he slunk into a country inn for a drink, a meal, and a bed.  In the night he was startled from sleep by a gorgeous 15-year-old girl, Komurasaki, come to warn him that the inn-keepers were robbers and villains, intent on murdering him and stealing his beautiful sword. She also revealed herself as the daughter of a rich merchant, kidnapped by these evil men, and begged him to save her. So he sliced up the gangsters, killing them all, and returned Komurasaki to her parents.


Gonpachi and Komurasaki had fallen in love, and father and daughter did everything they could to convince him to marry and take over the family business, but Gonpachi, ever the cowboy, was not through with wandering, so he rode off into the sunset. Back to Tokyo. Or Edo, as it was then called.

Time passed.

Gonpachi began to hear stories of an extraordinary courtesan in the Yoshiwara pleasure district, not far from where Ueno Station now stands. This young prostitute was reputed to surpass all of her competition in beauty and womanly skills. Gonpachi went off to the Miuraya brothel to find out if the stories were true. He discovered that the young woman was his Komurasaki. She had indentured herself into prostitution to support her destitute parents: apparently her father’s business had not done well since Gonpachi rode away.


Reunited, the lovers could not get enough of one another. Gonpachi returned to Miuraya brothel every day. Ronin, though, have no source of steady income and Gonpachi soon ran out of funds to pay for his lover’s favours. Komurasaki would never have kept him from her bed, but Gonpachi was too ashamed to come to the brothel without money, so he killed a man, stole his money, and gave it to Komurasaki. In the days that followed he killed another man and then another and another, showering their money on his beloved. By the time it was finished he was reputed to have murdered 130 men for love of dog and Komurasaki.


In the end, the law caught up with him and he was executed by haritsuke: crucified and impaled by spears.  His body was buried just outside the gates of Ryusen-ji, better known as Meguro Fudo, an important Buddhist temple dedicated to the black-eyed fire god Fudomyo. Komurasaki killed herself on his grave and is buried there beside him.

In Japan these two lovers are symbolized by the fabulous bird hiyokudori, which has only one wing and so must find its other half in order to fly: the incarnation of faithful love.


On December 31st morning in Tokyo, Lee and I make our way from the Grand Prince Takanawa to Sunset Plaza hotel in Shinjuku. As we step out of Shinjuku subway station, I misjudge the height of one of the steps, my weight coming down heavily on one foot. Except for a pang of pain that disappears as I walk on, I am okay.

At 3 P.M. Lee returns, subway map in hand, and suggests that we make it to another Kannon temple. We get off at the Nakana-Fujimicho station and find that Toen-ji is closed. We wander down deserted streets searching for a nearby temple. Everyone seems away for the New Year holiday.  We meet Amy who has learned English from her month in Canada at the University of Manitoba, and she guides us to the subway stop.

At our $100 dinner, there is once again nothing much for me to eat.  Where are the famed soba noodles? Hungry and a little despondent at being pilgrims who cannot find temples or arrive at temples with closed doors, I pick at the margarita pizza that the organizers, belatedly, ordered for their handful of vegetarian participants, while others relish the famous Kobe beef and grilled fish.  In this island country the fish looks delicious, but I remember my joyous dream of fish basket Guan Yin (there is one such temple on this pilgrimage); in a second dream at CTTB, Kannon-like, I’d gathered hallways of dying jeweled fish and returned them to the water: I saved some, but not all.


After dinner Lee and I plan to attend New Year celebrations at a Tokyo temple. I suggest Meiji shrine, interested in seeing its unadorned cypress wood buildings, bronze lanterns, expansive gardens and roof of camphor trees. The temple commemorates Emperor Meiji who transitioned Japan from a feudal to modern society.

Lee suggests the 33rd temple on the Kannon pilgrimage, Rysuen-ji.

“Really? Will they have New Year celebrations?”

“They should. It’s a large temple.”

This evening in Tokyo, his belly may not be full of soba gold, but his heart is pure and his body when we embrace is warm.  I know that he wants this for me. It would be perfect to spend New Year’s in Kannon’s presence.


At Rysuen-ji, we may miss out on gongs and a large-scale celebration, but I am happy to be with him.  In the restroom, I slip out of my dress and slip on comfortable shoes, jeans, and a sweater.  Lee wears a suit jacket with his jeans and I worry that he will be cold.  Dressed almost always in blue jeans, he has something of the cowboy in him.  Fortunately, in our love’s history there are no murders and brothel. Yet, will our love rival the fidelity of Gonapache and Komurasaki?  Against seemingly impossible odds, we are still together.


2nd Temple: Seisui-ji


Seisui-ji could not be more different than its colossal neighbour, Senso-ji. A modest modernist structure built in 1993, we identify it by the golden dharma wheel on the face of the second floor balcony. Bright prayer flags frame an open window on the balcony. There are no crowds. We ring the doorbell and when a young man answers we have the awkward feeling that we are intruding in a private home. Once we’ve shown him our go-shuin books he understands and escorts us to the lovely shrine, leaving us alone there while he takes our books to the monk for inscription.

DSCN0691Despite its modern look, Seisui-ji dates to the 9th Century, though the original temple was located more than three miles away. It was built to house a Kannon statue that, according to legend, saved Tokyo from a terrible epidemic. Marcus Powles’ book tells us that the monk who carved the statue prostrated himself 3 times before every stroke of his chisel. When he finished carving the statue and placed it in the temple, the epidemic ended.

The original statue was destroyed in a fire, but before us is a Kannon that dates from the 14th Century. All the way back to Chaucer’s time, I can’t help but think.  It was Canterbury Tales that introduced me to the concept of pilgrimage. The thought of the Knight and the Miller and the Lady of Bath takes me back to memorizing the opening lines of the poem in high school. As I sit, trying to let go of these thoughts and to meditate, I am finally overwhelmed by my bladder. That beer I had with lunch. My body getting the better of me. I tell Ranjini I’m going to look for a washroom, but I can’t find our host, and the urgency of my mission makes me leave the temple altogether, telling Ranjini I’ll meet her there in a few minutes. She agrees and goes back to her meditation.



We would not have recognized the temple if it had not been for the gold wheel of the dharma chakra, a symbol of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path of Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Standing with Lee by the bare plum tree with the Zen garden to one side, we are disoriented by the smallness of Seisui-ji. We are the only pilgrims here.

DSCN0693.jpgOn the first floor, I admire a scroll with the Heart Sutra.  A young man guides us to the shrine and shuts the door behind him. The shrine is gold leaves and flowers, candles, black lacquer and hanging lanterns. After the millions of pilgrims at Senso-ji—the bronze-roofed incense burner, thick smoke, roof of 70, 000 bronze tiles, falling oracle sticks—here, there is silence. When Lee leaves in search of a restroom, I remain seated before a many-armed gold Kannon. To the side of this elegant altar, I spot an unusual looking Japanese Kannon: she is around two-feet tall, a young woman with straight-black shoulder length hair and a gold disc of a seated Amitabha on the crown of her head.

DSCN0697Now, the young man returns with our go-shuin books and it is 4:30 pm and closing time. I wait outside for my Beloved.  When Lee returns, we cross the road and enter a store stacked with beautiful bowls. I am drawn especially to a bowl with the image of an orange phoenix, mythical bird, fire and ashes, symbol of endings and new beginnings.  I am bone-weary of the rapidity of the many beginnings and endings of my life and I walk away from the beckoning phoenix. Tired of packing and unpacking, disposing and giving away things, storing and shipping things, I am also trying to buy less, own less.

DSCN0701.jpgOn Kappabashi Dogugai Avenue, we stroll past plastic food displays—steak, sushi and fruit baskets, and a cut-out of a chef floating high above a corner building. In a tiny store cluttered with stainless pots, I spot a small crème plaster-of-paris Kannon, right knee raised, seated on a lotus in regal repose: six U.S. dollars.  I ask the old woman if she has a second Kannon similar to this, and she rummages, unearths a box.  For 10 U.S. dollars, I buy two Kannons—one for each of us to take back to our separate homes to mark the first day of our pilgrimage.


1st Temple: Senso-ji


Even if you’re not on pilgrimage, Senso-ji is an appropriate place to begin a visit to Tokyo. It’s the city’s oldest temple, dating back before the city existed, almost 1400 years to 645 AD. It’s doubtful that anything but the Sumida River remains from that time, aside from the statue of Kannon that the original temple was built to house. The brothers Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari were fishing on the Sumida and caught the statue in their nets on the morning of March 18th, 628. As they were eating their breakfast, they couldn’t have imagined the city that would grow around the statue they were about to find; they couldn’t imagine us imagining them on that sunny morning.


Even the statue remaining as evidence of their presence on the Sumida River that day must be imagined. Shokai Shonin, the Priest who built the original temple, had a dream warning him that no one should see the statue and it was not seen again for over a thousand years until, during the Meiji period, suspicious government officials came to verify its existence. The officials opened the altar and made sketches of the statue while the monks averted their eyes. The Bodhisattva has not been seen since, but we trust s/he is there, hidden, surrounded by the city s/he founded and the hundreds of millions of lives s/he holds in her heart. A good metaphor for faith.


The trains aren’t crowded on this 30th of December, and when we exit the subway we have no trouble finding the temple: signs everywhere point the way. By the time we reach the enormous red-and-black Japanese lantern of Kaminarimon, “The Thunder Gate”, we are submerged in a sea of humanity. On any given day Senso-ji is a popular spot, attracting 30 million visitors each year, but today is only one day before New Year’s Eve. Coming as I do from a farm in Saskatchewan I feel as though I’m surrounded by all 30 million. At least I’m taller than average, whereas Ranjini sinks into the crowd. Nervous that I’ll lose her, I grasp her hand and we follow the procession through The Kaminarimon Gate, imitating the others who reach up and touch the dragon carving fitted into its base. I suspect we’re doing this for luck.

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Once through, we swim with the crowd up Nakamise-dori, slowly approaching the temple. This narrow street, lined on both sides with a multitude of stalls selling food, crafts, kimonos and t-shirts, cheap and expensive souvenirs, makes me realize that pilgrimage is about more than faith. It’s about separating the pilgrims from their money. I don’t voice this to Ranjini, knowing she won’t appreciate the cynicism of this sentiment, but it is undeniable that the economy created by the pilgrimage is, perhaps, as important in understanding it as faith. Money may not make the world go round, but it does make people gather, and it creates cities and civilizations. All that is made manifest in the crowd pressing against us as we edge our way toward the Hozomon Gate.


Hozomon means “Treasure House” and this gate marks the boundary between the profane world of commerce and the actual temple grounds. Two Nio statues guard the gate, and the 2nd floor of the treasure house contains ancient copies of the lotus sutra and the Issai-kyo, an ancient manuscript of Buddha’s teachings. We stop at a stall near the Hozomon Gate, where a nun sells incense for 100 Yen, and ask where to buy our go-shuin book. These are used to record the visit to each temple: a monk or lay-worker stamps a page and adds beautiful calligraphy that contains a mantra, the date, and the temple’s name. The nun draws a map and Ranjini buys and lights some incense, leaving it as an offering in the huge metal incense burner. She flutters her hands like birds to direct the smoke over her body and bows to the beautiful young Buddha.



After Marie introduced me to Kuan Yin, I was confused by my overwhelming devotion to an unknown goddess.  One night after I prayed to Kannon—“Am I on the right path?”—I dreamed of her.

She stood before me. “Hello, I’m Kuan Yin.”

She was in her thirties, medium-height, beautiful, slender, dressed in gray robes, her black hair coiled in a topknot.

“You must be very busy,” I said.

She smiled at my words. “Yes,” she said, before taking off, one leg gracefully folded like an Indian goddess, flying like a dakini into the air.


I am used to crowds but I sense Lee’s difficulty as we press forward to the ancient temple of Senso-ji.   Since that dream encounter, I have been on pilgrimage.  Yet, this is my first formalized pilgrimage with 33-stops and a go-shuin book. In the souvenir stalls, there are no postcards of the ancient (and hidden) Kannon statue that we have come to visit; there is not even a replica of her in the main shrine room.


In the foyer outside the main shrine, we bow to the deities through the glass and light candles and buy good luck charms. I slip off my shoes and attempt to gain entrance into the main hall but a monk politely gestures me out.

There seems to be no way to meet Kannon.

I know that she is here, infinite, vast, limitless, endlessly compassionate, and it is silly this yearning to touch, to take home, or at the least, to see.


Sakura Gardens


There are no cherry blossoms at this time of year, but the late morning is a pleasant 10 degrees Celsius, and the garden is large and green and lovely. There is a meditation room with tatami mats and a small shrine, so we slip off our shoes and sit a while listening to the birds singing the dharma and the distant hum of traffic, my brain floating off in all directions with the giddiness of the time-change and the dislocation of being in this beautiful and unfamiliar place.

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When we continue down the path we come to a small shrine. Peering through the glass we see her: Amida Buddha rests in her crown, a vial containing her tears clutched to her heart with her left hand, and her right hand open in her lap to accept our offering.

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We have come upon Kannon, the goddess of compassion, by chance in this sakura garden in Tokyo. Last night Ranjini reminded me that she was to be an important part of our trip. We were to visit some of 33 temples dedicated to her on a pilgrimage that would lead us all over Tokyo. Ranjini had a book to guide us.

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I agreed. It sounded like a fun way to explore the city. We’d see how many we could do in our week in Tokyo.

After our walk through the garden, we go for a brunch of noodles and when we finish I think we should go back to the Hotel to check on our luggage. When we do, the jetlag hits me and I lie down for a rest. By the time I realize Ranjini isn’t pleased it’s too late. She’d hoped we might visit the first temple on our pilgrimage.

I promise we’ll do one tomorrow.



In the morning we go down to the lobby and in the sunlight I see the gardens. We sit in the meditation room, and walk until we see her: Kannon. She is in a miniature temple of white walls with red trimmings, green window shutters and silver-gray shingle roof. The sun reflects off the glass, and to see her I have to shield my eyes and press my face to the glass. This is the eleven-headed Kannon, rare in China but more common in Japan.

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After lunch, we head to our new room. I use the hot water dispenser and make roasted green tea.  At 4 p.m., the gong in the sakura garden sounds. Ten chimes.

Listen to the sound of the bell. It is the voice of the Buddha, inviting us to go home to ourselves.

The sign says that the bell has been rung once each day since April 1, 2009 at the occasion of our hotel’s 55th anniversary: March through October the bell is rung at 5 pm and from November through February at 4 pm.


4:30 pm and it is already dusk.  I climb the stone steps that lead me to Kannon. Once there, I see that the shrine is lit up. She is so beautiful and my eyes fill with tears.

I have been on pilgrimage ever since a woman, Marie, came up to me at the Buddhist temple on Millcreek Drive in Mississauga, Ontario—“I feel I have to talk with you”—and introduced me to a goddess with toenails and fingernails painted pink, one foot stepping forward, holding a vase and the wish-fulfilling jewel of the enlightened mind.

Kuan Yin.


I sit on the window ledge of our room, 1256.  Ornamental “finished’ carp lie still at the edges of the koi pond—silver, orange, red, white skin jeweled with red and blue, sleeping with eyes open: emblems of compassion. The wooden fish drum, mokugyo, is used during the recitation of sutras.

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In this city of the 33-temple Kannon pilgrimage, she is there, hidden, behind red doors.

Please let me see your temples, Kannon. 

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My lover lives on the other side of the earth.

I slump on a bench at Haneda Airport, Tokyo, leaning against my laptop, strapped over my right shoulder, my small duffel bag at my feet. Ranjini thinks I’m crazy for carrying a duffel when I could use a suitcase with wheels that I wouldn’t have to lug everywhere, charging across airports like a fireman slinging a child out of a burning building. Most other passengers, with advancing technologies of wheeled suitcases, might agree my choice of luggage is mad if they noticed me at all.

I’m not crazy. I’m a creature of habits and rituals, and carrying this duffel bag is one of my rituals.

I close my eyes.


It feels good to rest in sitting position, my laptop supporting me. I’ve found a bench near the trains, behind the elevators to Departures and restaurants and shopping, and protected by those elevators from the flow of pedestrian traffic. No one else sits on these benches, though passengers constantly stream by on their way to the parking lot. Once a young Japanese woman teeters in her spiked heels to the far end of my bench and perches, her wheeled suitcase at her feet. She scans her phone briefly before continuing on her way. Otherwise I am alone in Tokyo.

It’s 10 p.m. on December 28th, 2015. I left Toronto on Sunday morning, December 27th, and, though my flight left the ground less than 24 hours ago, I lost 14 hours of this Monday when I crossed the Dateline over the Pacific a few hours ago.  I’ll sleep tonight, though my body will be confused about the time. After landing I found a restaurant and had a bowl of soba noodles and broth with seafood and a large Kirin beer, which has made me tired. That is, the food and beer and the fact I have barely slept in over 24 hours have made me tired.


Soba noodles, made from buckwheat, are part of New Year’s celebrations in Japan. This tradition is apparently related to the length of the noodles, which symbolize a long life, but also relate to them being soft and easy to cut, which symbolizes cutting off the struggles of the old year and beginning again. There is even an interpretation that the tradition relates to Japanese jewelers at year end using soba balls to gather the gold dust that fell on their workbenches and accumulated over the past year: thus soba symbolizes the accumulation of wealth.

A stomach full of gold makes me sleepy.  The upper part of the airport, where I ate dinner and killed time strolling about looking at New Year’s wishes posted on blocks of wood (“I wish for a good husband and happy family”), is lined with naked trees lit up by bluish white light, Christmas/New Year’s decorations, but there are none here on the Arrivals floor, where I’ve settled to wait after using the machine to buy our tickets on the Keiyu Line to our hotel near Shinagawa Station. Ranj’s flight from Dubai is due to land soon. The slight elation, endorphin/adrenaline-high, at the anticipation of seeing her has taken over my brain and is perhaps the only thing keeping me awake.


We’ve developed a New Year’s custom of meeting in places that neither of us has visited before.


28 December 2016, Dubai

It is 6:35 am in the morning and the sky is a navy blue, not yet fully light, and the moon is still shining brightly and three-quarters full.  I step out of the cab, place my foot on the curb and, at my feet, see a wreath of small white flowers, brown stems and green leaves.  I pick it up. The flowers are not real but “fake,” a child’s tiara perhaps.  Recently, I have been finding such things on my morning walks on Jumeirah Beach: a tassel of faux pearls, a sand dollar—five-pointed flower on its underside, bleached peach-white, on the sand. Now, I slide the white flowers into the front pocket of my red suitcase, and head into Terminal 3 of Dubai International Airport for my 9-hour Emirates flight to Tokyo.


The stewardess says that there are 300 seats free on this flight—most people who want to be in Tokyo for winter break are already there.  I am glad for the rest. I am very tired—the work has felt overwhelming. I am always hurrying and behind.  I want to just be.  Next year June, I will be leaving Dubai.  I welcome these changes but I also fear them—this letting go of the struggles of my past and beginning again.

I turn to Kannon, the Bodhisattva of compassion, for refuge.

I read Marcus Powles’ book on the 33 Tokyo Kannon Pilgrimage and map possible routes.  I’m not sure how readily Lee will embark on a 33-temple circuit. But if there is one thing that I know about him, it is his overarching gentleness and generosity, his genuine desire to understand and love me. He sees me. I see him.

I love Lee.

A couple of temples will do.

At Haneda Airport, I step out, and there he is, my Beloved.

I smile.


Up the Ladder to the Roof

After all, the roof is closer to heaven.

There was a stairway to the roof of my father’s house when I was growing up. It was one of Dad’s somewhat eccentric architectural flourishes added when he cut off the peak of the house in his renovations. There was and is a sort of deck up there on the north side of the house, but it’s a bit too steeply inclined to comfortably recline on a deck chair, unless you nailed down the chair and roped yourself in.

DSCN5143At the beginning of the new millennium Dad started building an addition onto the northwest bedroom (which used to be Ray’s and mine), with a plan to make it into a display room for his gramophones. The addition cut off the staircase to the roof, which was no longer functional anyway.

DSCN5165Dad was diagnosed with asbestosis before he could complete the plan. What was it John Lennon said in that song about his beautiful son? “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” Or, eventually, death is what happens to you.

DSCN5145When I started this…thing–I suppose it’s a blog, but I like to think of it as a story with pictures–I conceived it as a way of talking about impermanence and loss: about losing my father, and losing my youth, all of which is tied up in that house.  Dad grew up and died there and it still stands, somehow physically containing all of those memories: his memories and my memories and the memories of everyone who lived there.

DSCN5149While I was writing this thing, we lost my mother, and it became about that loss too. Last June, the day after she died, we all went home to the farm and I climbed up on the roof and took these photos. When I look at the tin roof over the kitchen I can’t help but think of lying in bed listening to the patter the rain made against that tin. And I can’t help but think that maybe this would be a good place to end.

DSCN5151After all, if it’s a story it needs an ending. Problem is, I’ve never been good with endings. Maybe too much of that Modernist sensibility in me that endings should be ambiguous in order to accurately reflect reality–the problem being that most readers end up thinking, “What was that all about?” and tell the next reader that it just wasn’t worth it in the end. Or simply shake their heads and say nothing at all.

DSCN5157So what was it all about? What is it all about? I guess if I had to say, I would say it is about how my father and my mother taught us the importance of making beautiful things. Or trying, at least. Human things, beautiful at times in their ugliness and in their mistakes. Just do your best to make those things as beautiful as you possibly can. There is not so much to regret in a life dedicated to the making of beautiful things.




Aunt Shirley

Aunt Shirley was with Aunt Carmel when she saw Bobby Hill, the rodeo clown, perform at Frontier Days in the 40s, and both went home and started practicing their roping. They shared a bedroom at the top of the stairs, along with their older sister Juanita, and there must have been competition between them as they sharpened their skills. Carmel once told me that Shirley was the better roper when they were girls. Here’s a shot of Shirley doing a trick with two ropes that you probably won’t want to try at home.


They kept on practicing and in the 50s, as I recounted in an earlier post, Shirley and Carmel led The Swift Current Boys Band to victory at the Calgary Stampede:


When she was 17, Carmel started a career in show business that stretched through many decades. I’ve told that story in three more previous posts starting with this one:


Much to Carmel’s chagrin, Aunt Shirley gave up the ropes and chose a different path.

Shirley and Carmel

Why give up something for which she had such talent? According to Shirley, her body made her stop. Even by her early 20s her back was giving her problems. Carmel herself once told me that jumping up and down for so many years had pounded her spine to the point that she was an inch shorter than when she was younger. So why was she so critical of Shirley? Because she believed Shirley actually gave up roping for a man, and if there was one thing Carmel couldn’t stand the idea of, that was giving up anything for a man.

mom and dadVital Monette was barely a man when he met Shirley: only eighteen, she being the older woman. Carmel had already run off to join the circus, so he didn’t have to deal much with her direct animosity, but there was still the rest of the Gowan family: Irish Protestant Orange stock who were more than a little suspicious of his French Catholic roots. In spite of the less than enthusiastic reception, they married and moved into my father’s house, then still my grandfather’s house, where the family could keep a close eye on him. They likely suspected he was one of those fabled latin lovers who would run off and leave Shirley the first chance he got.


If so, they were wrong. Shirley and Vital bought some land and ranched a few miles from the farm where I grew up. They had three kids: Cindy, Roy, and Carol. I remember visiting them or them visiting us on many a Christmas Eve and other family celebrations. Last summer I saw them at Mom’s memorial, and while Aunt Shirley and Uncle Vital had slowed slightly, they had as much of that vitality contained in his name as ever. Shirley even demonstrated that she doesn’t always like having her photo taken.


Introducing The Beautiful Place

In ancient Egypt The Beautiful Place referred both to the underworld where the dead went to live and also to the embalming studio where the Pharoahs’ bodies were prepared for the afterlife. Their organs, except the heart, were removed and their bodies were rubbed with oils and perfumes and stuffed with sawdust, then wrapped in linen.

egyptian-mummification-egyptian-mummification-life-science-centre-education.jpgFlash-forward a few thousand years and around the globe to Saskatchewan in 1924.

Sinclair Ross was sixteen years old when he got his first job working for The Union Bank (soon taken over by The Royal Bank) in the tiny town of Abbey, Saskatchewan. Today it would take you about an hour to drive from the farm where I grew up to Abbey.

Ross began writing stories in the early 1930s and published a collection set during the dust-bowl, or “The Dirty Thirties” as my father called those years of his youth which so shaped his view of the world. The collection was titled The Lamp at Noon. The most well-known story, “The Painted Door”, was so widely anthologized that my favourite Doctor of English Literature, Dr. Ranjini George, remembers reading it when she was studying in India during the 1970s.

In 1940 Ross published his first novel As For Me and My House. The novel takes the form of the diary of Mrs. Bentley (we never learn her first name), the minister’s wife in the prairie town of Horizon, a place which perhaps reveals some similarities to Abbey, Saskatchewan.


When I moved to an apartment on Comox Street in The Westend of Vancouver in 1985, Sinclair Ross lived in a condo two or three blocks away from me. I may have passed him on the street, but if I did I did not recognize him. I had no idea he was living there.

Seven years ago my boss Ed Carson, at The University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies, suggested I should make my next novel a sequel to As For Me and My House. I took Ed’s inspiration, put a little twist on it by adding a Sci-Fi element, and wrote The Beautiful Place. The main character, Matthew Bentley, the grandson of Philip Bentley, is the sales manager of The Cryonics Corporation of Canada. The company’s highly secure state-of-the-art facility where they store the bodies of their frozen patients is called The Beautiful Place.

I’m still looking for a publisher, but I’ve just had an excerpt from the novel published in a cool new online magazine called Don’t Talk to Me About Love. The passage is set in Vancouver just prior to Expo 86, and describes Matthew Bentley’s first meeting with his grandfather Philip, who abandoned Mrs. Bentley, and went on to become a famous Canadian artist. I’d like to acknowledge Keath Fraser’s wonderful memoir As For Me and My Body as a source of inspiration for this passage and for my novel.


You’ll find the link to the excerpt below:


Enjoy and wish me luck in finding a publisher in 2016.