Short Trips Around Small Countries: Japan

One could argue that Japan is not a small country, because it has a very large population for its actual size.  But, in this case I describe only a small portion of the country.  I have in fact visited Japan several times, but here I will describe some highlights only on the main island Honshu and off the beaten track.

One time I stayed in Tokyo in the busy Shinjuku district in a hotel that was a tall building consisting entirely of tiny rooms for businessmen.  The “room” was actually a plastic box, no bigger than an average bathroom, that included a bed, a toilet and a shower. Minimal. Most tourists are content to view Mt. Fuji, the amazing cone-like volcano that dominates central Honshu, from nearby Tokyo. But, with a Japanese friend I actually drove up the road that takes you about 2/3 of the way to the top.  At the base is a beautiful shrine where one gives prayers for the journey, and then at the end of the road there is a large wooden château, with a restaurant and other facilities.  We climbed a bit further, but it was misty, so we could not see the view and the ground is like cinder, treacherous.

I had an amazing unique experience when I visited one time, my former student’s pupils were getting married, and since he organized the wedding (that’s how they do it there, someone outside the families is responsible) he invited me. First the bride and groom wore sedate Japanese kimonos and everything was very Japanese.  Then after a break they reappeared thru a mist in Western dress, he in tuxedo and she in white bridal gown, to loud American-style pop music.  It was weird.  They gave out place maps, showing where everyone was to sit and in the middle in English it said “Prof. Jack S. Cohen.”  Since I was his teacher (the sensei of the sensei) I was given much honor.  I was asked to address the guests.  I gave my speech which was translated, I said that every country is famous for something, Germany for its cars, France for its wine, America for its movies, England for its literature, and Japan is famous for its brides!  This was tongue-in-cheek, but I suppose they took it literally.  Anyway it was a wonderful experience.

One of the most interesting cities in Japan is Nara, the old capital, that has many interesting historical wooden buildings, including the oldest in Japan dating to 768 ce. Unfortunately, most of them burnt down over time and were usually replaced by exact replicas.  There are few original castles in Japan, since most of them were destroyed on order of the Emperor during the Meiji restoration in 1868 ce, but Osaka Castle is one of the few original ones remaining and worth a visit.  Kyoto is the jewel of Japan, supposed to have 1,000 temples, and the old palace of the Emperor before he moved to Tokyo.  I remember that the wooden floors were made to deliberately creak so that no assassin could creep up on the Emperor or the Shogun, his military commander and the actual ruler of Japan until the Meiji period.

One time I went south to Hiroshima, and of course visited the Memorial Peace Park commemorating the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945.  My host took me to the other side of the river and on the stony beach there were still ceramic roof tiles that had been melted by the atomic blast, one of which I kept.   From there I took a boat out in Hiroshima Bay to the tiny island of Miyajima.  This is one of the seven famous beauty spots in Japan that all Japanese are supposed to visit.  I was lucky to arrive when it was misty and I saw the large red wooden gate or Torii rising dramatically out of the mist.

Another time I went north to Sendai, a very attractive modern city about 200 miles from Tokyo (unfortunately it was badly damaged in the tsunami of 2004).  By the Shinkansen, the bullet train, this takes only about 1.5 hrs.  In the City museum there is a display devoted to the famous warrior, Date Masamune, who was one of the first to unify Japan in the 1600’s.  His suit of armor is exhibited, including his famous helmet surmounted by its distinctive inverted crescent.  Out in the bay is another famous beauty spot, Matsushima, with hundreds of small green islands. One night my host and his students took me out for a meal, up into the mountains to a special restaurant that served only sea creatures, snails and things you had to extract from their shells.  I think they wanted to see how far I would go.  When they put a long black thing on the plate before me, I stopped, I said no, I can’t eat that! Luckily I didn’t, it was a delicacy, porpoise penis.

Once I went as far east as you can go from Tokyo to Choshi, a major fishing port, where the Yamasa company makes soy sauce.  I visited their factory with a former student. They import most of the soy beans into the port, and and as far as I remember they then mash them and put them in layers between sea weed, then let it ferment in tanks and then squeeze the soy sauce out.  Here I stayed in a ryokan, a Japanese inn, where everything is done in traditional Japanese style.  I had a geisha (servant lady), who prepared my meals served in Japanese style, on the floor in small trays.  She offered to give me a bath, with hot water poured into a small tin bathtub (in which you have to bend you legs), which I politely declined.  I slept on a futon on the tatami flooring.  One distinct feature of this ryokan was that it was actually built on the rocks, and it was a wonderful experience to view the sunrise, with the waves splashing over the rocks and the fishing boats sailing out into the bay.

I am not a religious man, but that doesn’t prevent me from having spiritual experiences.  One of the most memorable of these was when I visited the large Hozen-ji Buddhist Temple in downtown Osaka.  A priest entered and started to tap a wooden stick at an ever-increasing rate.  Then a double line of monks entered slowly singing in deep voices and then chanting a service.  Although I could not understand anything, the atmosphere, the location and the deepening dusk made the whole experience ethereal.


A Russian Romance?

At first glance it seems strange that US President Donald Trump would be cozying up to Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin.  After all, not only has Russia (under the Soviets) been a traditional adversary of the US, but Putin himself has basically destroyed democracy (such as it was) in Russia, and has turned it into an authoritarian dictatorship.  In doing so he has murdered about 30 journalists as well as numerous politicians.  His chief opponent, Boris Nemtsov, was assassinated in broad daylight in the center of Moscow in 2015.  A clear warning to anyone thinking of opposing Putin.  He has also expanded Russian power and influence by annexing the Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine and essentially taking over Syria.  All this you would think, in a conventional sense, would make Putin an enemy of the US and of Trump.

But, consider what could be behind this strange coupling.  My explanation is one word – China.  In the current ranking of Gross Domestic Product (GDP; i.e total size of the economy), the US is of course ranked #1, and second comes China, and China’s economy has been growing at a phenomenal rate (of 5-10% pa).  In the IMF listing of countries Russia comes 12th in this category. So from the point of view of competition or rivalry for world-wide domination based on economic factors, China must be seen as the major competitor for the US, not Russia.  This is why we have seen Pres. Trump emphasizing tariffs that are intended to make a fair playing field with China, because Chinese leaders have been manipulating their currency and their tariffs to gain advantage over the US, that previous Presidents had essentially ignored.

On the other hand, in the list of most powerful countries in the world, published annually by US News and World Report, after the US, Russia comes second, and China is third.  If you had to choose which country to be friendly with in order to avoid an international conflict and yet improve your relative situation, I submit that it would be better to choose Russia and not China.  China has embraced capitalism (although with an authoritarian system of government) and although it has expansive plans regarding the area of the South China Sea, there is no doubt that Russia under Putin is more expansionist.

I believe Trump’s apparent cozying up to Putin accomplishes two things: first, it sends a message to China that it is possible that the two most powerful states on earth, the US and Russia, can combine against it; second, it attempts to disarm Russia to some extent by undermining the traditional anti-Western views of the rulers of Russia.  This is hard-ball power politics on the international stage.  You certainly don’t want China and Russia to be allies against the US.  Trump is flexing US muscle and playing the game according to new rules.

Short Trips Around Small Countries: Denmark

I visited Denmark many times, partly because I was collaborating with a colleague at Copenhagen University.  In Copenhagen, the main attraction is the Tivoli Gardens, one of the first amusement parks in the world, opened in 1843. One of my favorite memories is attending a meeting of the Benzon Foundation (Benzon is a large Danish pharmaceutical company) that was organized by my colleague.  The attendees were housed in the top floors of the SAS high-rise building (at that time the tallest building in Copenhagen) adjacent to the Tivoli Gardens.. When they had their daily fireworks display it was a novel experience to watch it from above.

Every Day the Danish guards in their tall bearskin hats and smart blue uniforms parade through the city from their barracks adjacent to the Rosenborg Castle (at 11.30 am) to the Amalienborg Palace (noon), where the Danish Royal family reside.  The Rosenborg Castle is relatively small and is really a gem to visit near the center of Copenhagen.  Just north of Copenhagen in Hillerod is Fredericksborg Castle that by contrast a really large Castle .  It is well worth a visit, but in the winter it is very cold, because there is no heating and lighting inside.  The Castle Church has a colorful display of the shields of all the noble families of Denmark going back 1,000 years.  It includes that of Karen Blixen who wrote the famous novel “Out of Africa.”

Kronborg Castle further north in Helsingor (Elsinore) is the site of what was supposed to have been Hamlet’s Castle.  Also on the way north is the Louisiana Art Gallery, which features the interaction of nature and art.  Note that the old castles have the three crown symbol of the Danish monarchy, when they ruled not only Denmark, but also what is now Sweden and Norway.  Not many people are aware that southern Sweden was in fact part of Denmark and wars were fought for hundreds of years between Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

Going west from Copenhagen one first comes to Roskilde, where there is a museum containing a magnificently preserved Viking boat.  To reach the mainland of Jutland one has to cross the island of Fyn (pronounced fun).  Its main town is Odense, from where Hans Christian Anderson came.  On the south coast near Svendborg there is the estate of Broholm, with a castle containing an unusual collection of antiquaries collected by several of its owners.

Crossing to the mainland of Jutland, one can see many old estates with windmills.  Further north there is the second largest city in Denmark, Aarhus.  I stayed there with the family of a friend.  It is a very busy industrial city with a large port and university.  It’s main tourist attraction is the Old City Museum that contains part of the original Old City, part restored part rebuilt, as it was hundreds of years ago.

Driving north from Aarhus as far as one can go brings you to the famous village of Skagen (pronounced Skayen) on the very northern tip of Denmark  This was an artist’s colony where the famous Danish artist Michael Ancher had a studio and a house that is very well worth visiting. Nearby is the buried church that is sinking in the sand dunes. Skagen is where the North Sea and the Baltic Sea meet, and the currents are very unpredictable.  Also, the light there is supposed to be special.

Returning down the west coast of Denmark one goes thru the small towns of Ringkobing and Ebsbjerg (lovely names) and then to the Danish border with Germany. Of course, Denmark used to be much larger, until in the 1860’s Germany (Prussia) occupied the southern Danish counties of Schleswig and Holstein and then annexed them  The Schleswig-Holstein question vexed Europe for many years, but now it is a forgotten issue (as one day will be the West Bank).  Ah, well, all is peaceful there now.

Aliens in Store

I visited a store with my daughter to buy a vacuum cleaner.   I was shocked by the vacuum cleaners that were available.  They looked like aliens.  It was quite frightening. They were tall, on stands, and had long thin necks and hideous looking heads and bulbous bottoms.  They were nothing like your father’s or mother’s vacuum cleaner or the vacuum cleaners I have known and used.  This is a good example of the advance of technology, thanks to Dyson, and the intense application of modern industrial design.

The one I bought is of Japanese make and it is really clever.  It has a stand on which it sits and the electric battery is charged all the time.  When you take it off the stand it is cordless.  Furthermore it has a colorful main pipe, metallic red or blue, and the motor sits on top with a plastic “face” where it collects the dust and is very light.  You can vacuum the floor or carpets with an attachment at the bottom of the long pipe or easily replace the pipe with a series of other short accessories.  In that case you are holding the motor with the accessory directly attached to it and the feel is totally different from the previous generations of vacuum cleaners.

The one I bought sits in our spare room and I feel it is watching me.  I wouldn’t be surprised if aliens landed on earth and when they got out of their spaceship they looked like a bunch of these modern vacuum cleaners.  The attack of the vacuum cleaners from space.

Israel Shoots down Syrian Plane

The Patriot missile system was activated Tuesday to intercept a Sukhoi -22 bomber of the Syrian air force that flew 2 km into Israel. The plane was shot down and crashed in Syrian territory on the other side of the Golan.  IAF radar monitored the plane as it took off from the T4 airbase in Syria and flew straight towards the Israeli border.  Whether this was deliberate or a mistake is not known.  The Russian military in Syria were immediately notified, but it was not their plane.  The body of the Syrian pilot was captured by the ISIS forces fighting against the Syrian regime on the Golan.

Also on Tues two Russian SS-21 missiles were launched by the Syrian army in their battle against the rebels on the Golan Heights. From their trajectory they were expected to land in Israel, in or near the Sea of Galilee.  As a consequence two David Sling anti-missiles (longer range than the Patriots) were deployed .  But, when the Syrian missiles failed to enter Israeli air space, one of the David sling missiles was ordered to self-destruct, but the other crashed in Syrian territory.

On Weds the IAF struck targets in Syria after two Grad rockets landed in the Sea of Galilee.  It was reported that they were fired by the Islamic State fighters, but this was not confirmed.  The IAF struck the site of the rocker launcher as well as the IDF firing artillery into the area.  At the same time there was fighting around Gaza because of sniper fire directed by Hamas at IDF soldiers on guard in Israel.  One soldier was hit and injured.

These incidents show how close to actual combat the situation is on the northern front, even though PM Netanyahu has repeated that Israel has no intention of becoming involved in the Syrian conflict.  However, the 1974 separation of forces agreement between Syria and Israel under UN auspices still applies, and Israel will not tolerate Syria deviating from that agreement.   Further, Israel maintains the right to attack any cache or convoy of advanced weapons that Iran is bringing into Syria, with the express purpose of using them to threaten or attack Israel.

Especially the Golan Heights close to Israel is considered a no-go area for the Iranian military as far as Israel is concerned.  Russian Pres. Putin has offered to keep the Iranians 100 km from the border, but Israel has said that is not enough given the range of their missiles and wants them out of Syria altogether.  This remains to be seen.  Meanwhile the situation in the north is tenuous.



Short Trips Around Small Countries: Wales

An American friend of mine came back from a short visit to the UK and said he turned on the TV and they were speaking a completely incomprehensible language.  He had no idea what it was.  It was Welsh, one of the original Celtic languages of the British Isles, before all the Latin, French and German speakers came along and changed it to English.

The Celts now only reside in the periphery where they were pushed by the invaders, in Wales and Scotland and Ireland, where they speak Gaelic.  Wales is a small, hilly country which was the first “colony” to be conquered by the Norman French invaders in 1282.  Welsh is now only spoken as the first language in the northern-most mountainous regions of Wales.   There is a Welsh nationalist movement called Plaid Cymru (Cymru being Welsh for Wales) and a devolved National Assembly that meets in Cardiff, the largest city in Wales.

Just over the Welsh border on the River Wye are the atmospheric ruins of  Tintern Abbey, one of the most famous Church establishments that were destroyed by Henry VIII in the 16th century on the establishment of the Church of England.  Its ruins have been celebrated in poetry and art.

A trip to the lesser-known sites of Wales should include a visit to Hay, that is the village in the county of Powys, near the English border, that has the largest number of book stores per capita in the world.  There are hundreds of book stores and they have a famous literary festival every year in May that is a must for bibliophiles (ironically it is all in English of course).  Nearby in central Wales is the lovely town of Llandidrod Wells (remember that “ll” in Welsh is pronounced “th”) that is the capital of Powys.

On the north-west coast of Wales is the famous Harlech Castle, that was built in the 13th century by the Norman invaders under King Edward I.  There was a famous battle at this castle that is memorialized in a national Welsh song, “Men of Harlech.”  It is well-known that the Welsh love to sing, especially in choirs.  Every year they hold the National Eisteddfod, that is part celebration of the Welsh language and part music festival.

Further north along the coast is the fantastic village of Portmeirion, that was constructed from 1925 by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis in the form of a Mediterranean village, supposedly modelled after Portofino, but all the buildings are built in about 2/3 normal size.  It is a really charming place to visit, highly decorated and very unique.  One of its attractions is its highly decorated pottery with colorful flowers, butterflies and insects.  The Village is famous for having been the location of the British TV series of the 1960’s called “The Prisoner.

On the north-west corner of Wales is the Island now known as Anglesey, but in Celtic times it was the center for the Druids, the indigenous pagan religion, but was destroyed by the Romans.   Nearby are two magnificent castles built in the 13th century by the Normans.  Their masterpiece castle,  Conwy Castle and Caernavon Castle, a beautiful site where the Prince of Wales, the heir to the English throne, is invested.  This was begun by Edward I to ensure the loyalty of the Welsh to the English monarchy.

Over the border in England is the wonderful city of Chester, that has some of the most intact Roman architecture in Britain.  But, that’s another story.

The Portman Paradox

Natalie Portman has turned on her original home country Israel, and has become a supporter of the anti-Israel leftist organization BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), and she is now reported to be denying the Holocaust (that story made up by the Jews to get sympathy).

What would turn an actress into an anti-Israel propagandist?  In Hollywood, in order to be accepted, it is fashionable to be anti-Israel.  “That apartheid fascist state is occupying/ persecuting/murdering the Palestinians, who were the poor native people of what should be Palestine.”  Only there never was a Palestine, the Arabs (who call themselves Palestinians) came from Arabia and conquered the Land and expelled and murdered most of the Jews.  Some remained, but then were subsequently massacred (as in Hebron in 1929) by the violent, repressive Muslims.  But, Portman is not interested in facts, the left don’t need them.  They have the Palestinian narrative to guide them, its all a  question of the colonialist, imperialist countries like Israel and America, repressing the poor brown natives.  So simple, but so false.

How is it that it is Hamas that keeps attacking Israel with missiles and fire balloons and shot an Israeli soldier the other day? How is it that Israel was accepted 70 years ago as a sovereign member of the UN, who is she and her kind to question that?  How is it that the PA has proclaimed that in any peace agreement no Jews will be allowed to remain in Palestine (where will they all go, oh, don’t worry they have a final solution for that).  Even she would not be allowed to live here.

She is not only a Black Swan, she is a black sheep.  It may help her with her Hollywood crowd, but it won’t help her career.  If she boycotts us, let’s boycott her movies!