Pirkei Avot 4,1

There is a custom to read Pirkei Avot (typically translated as Ethics of our Fathers) in the weeks between Pesach and Shavu’ot. Some say it’s preparation for the receiving of the Torah, others say that the long summer days are an opportunity for more learning on Shabbat. But there really is no need for a special reason to read and study the exceptional tractate of Avot at any time. Exceptional, both in the sense of it being a unique tractate in the Mishna (dealing with ethics and morality, not with laws) but also in the sense of it being a boundless and inexhaustible source of wisdom. I will try to write a few short thoughts about one mishna every week. May these thoughts be in memory of my parents: Shimon ben Chana & David z”l, Shulamit bat Clara & Shimon z”l.

Ben Zoma said:

Who is wise? He who learns from every man, as it is said: “From all who taught me have I gained understanding”.

Who is mighty? He who subdues his [evil] inclination, as it is said: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that rules his spirit than he that takes a city”.

Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot, as it is said: “You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors, you shall be happy and you shall prosper”; “You shall be happy” in this world, “and you shall prosper” in the world to come.

Who is he that is honored? He who honors his fellow human beings as it is said: “For I honor those that honor Me, but those who spurn Me shall be dishonored”.

This mishnah was said by Ben Zoma, third generation of the tana’im and one of the four sages who entered the pardes. Even though he was not officially a rabbi, he was held in high esteem by his peers, who said that if one dreamt of Ben Zoma one should expect wisdom. So it is befitting that the first definition here deals with “who is a wise man”.


To be wise, we need to be able to learn from any person. Easier said than done… If we can overcome our pride and learn from others, that is proof that we value wisdom for wisdom’s sake and not for personal motives. Note that the mishnah does not ask “what is the way to gain wisdom”, but rather “who is a wise person”. A person who reaches this level of accepting wisdom from anyone is fit to be called wise.


In Hebrew we refer to a person who studies Torah and has accumulated knowledge as a תלמיד חכם, literally “a wise student”. On one hand, even if you are only a student, by dedicating yourself to learning you are already called wise. On the other hand, even if you are the most erudite, wisest learner of Torah, you will always be a student. A wise man knows that there is no end to learning.


Many mistake physical strength or military bravery for true might. The prophets and our sages have repeatedly stressed the definition of true might: overcoming one’s evil inclinations. Anyone can be brave in battle; even the Nazi soldiers exhibited bravery in the battlefield. But staying true to yourself and overcoming your basest desires is a much more difficult form of bravery. One version of this mishnah reads “who is the mightiest of the mighty”, to stress that there are many types of mighty people, but this person is the mightiest of them all.


Another pitfall for the mighty is pride. It is said that when Roman generals paraded through the streets of Rome after their victories, a slave would stand behind them and whisper in their ear: “Look beyond you (after your death), and remember you are only a man”. Succumbing to pride after displays of might is what the verse from Mishlei (quoted in our mishnah) warns us about: ruling your spirit is infinitely harder than capturing a city in war.


But our evil inclination is also a necessary reality. The Talmud tells us of the time when rabbis were able to capture and imprison the evil inclination of sexual desires. Soon thereafter, hens stopped laying eggs. This is why our mishnah says we should subdue our inclination, not eliminate it. We should channel it to positive and holy uses, subduing it to our will and not vice versa.


The word for material wealth in Hebrew is עושר. The word for joy or happiness is אושר. They sound the same to the untrained ear. But if you are unhealthy, you cannot be happy. Some allude to this by breaking down the letters in the word rich (עשיר) to: eyes (עיניים), teeth (שיניים), arms (ידיים) and legs (רגליים). When you are not healthy, all the money in the world will not make you happy. The Talmud says that a sick person is defined as poor, even if he is materially rich.


Even if a person attains all above three qualities – wisdom, might, wealth – they are not sufficient for him to be truly respected by others. One needs to respect others in order to be respected himself. Even if we have achieved a lot in life, we should constantly pause and examine whether we have not allowed these achievements to impact the way we treat others.


Pirkei Avot 3,15

There is a custom to read Pirkei Avot (typically translated as Ethics of our Fathers) in the weeks between Pesach and Shavu’ot. Some say it’s preparation for the receiving of the Torah, others say that the long summer days are an opportunity for more learning on Shabbat. But there really is no need for a special reason to read and study the exceptional tractate of Avot at any time. Exceptional, both in the sense of it being a unique tractate in the Mishna (dealing with ethics and morality, not with laws) but also in the sense of it being a boundless and inexhaustible source of wisdom. I will try to write a few short thoughts about one mishna every week. May these thoughts be in memory of my parents: Shimon ben Chana & David z”l, Shulamit bat Clara & Shimon z”l.

(Rabbi Akiva said:) Everything is foreseen yet freedom of choice is granted. And the world is judged with goodness. And everything is in accordance with the preponderance of works. (Avot 3,15)

The short saying by Rabbi Akiva (1st century C.E.) opening our Mishna (4 words in Hebrew: הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה) has been the source of dozens of commentaries, all trying to deal with the inherent paradox of determinism and free will. Rambam states that this saying “includes a great many things, and it befitting for Rabbi Akiva to have said it”.


The paradox between God’s omniscience and man’s free will is exemplified in many verses in the Bible. For example, the prophet Yirmiyahu (23,24) quotes God as posing two rhetorical questions: “Can anyone hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? said the Lord. Do not I fill heaven and earth? said the Lord”. This implies that even in the most hidden of places God knows all. And yet we read in the Torah (Devarim 30,15) God’s words: “See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil”. He sees all, but He still gives us the freedom to choose what to do.


Rambam quotes another verse from the same chapter in the Torah (Devarim 30,9): “And you shall choose life”. We have a choice, but as mortal human beings we do not know this choice in the same way that God knows it. Just as we cannot fully comprehend the existence of God, so we cannot grasp the nature of His knowledge. As the prophet Yishayahu says (55,8): “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, said the Lord.” This inability is the source of the gap between His omniscience and our freedom of choice.


Another way to look at this conundrum is through the concept of time. For us humans, time is a linear concept: past, present and future. But God is beyond time, as described in the Adon Olam hymn: “Eternal master who reigned supreme, before all of creation was made”, and He is also “without beginning, without end.” From God’s viewpoint, all our decisions are known as there is no concept of the future in His eyes.


Some sages reconcile determinism with free will by separating nature from nurture. A person is born with certain traits that were predetermined by God. For example, a person might be born with a proclivity to kill, as the Talmud says in Shabbat (156.): “One who is born under the influence of Mars will be one who spills blood.” But the choice of what to do with this nature is up to each individual (and how his parents and teachers guide him). One may choose the wrong path and become a murderer. Or one may choose the right path and become a butcher (who spills blood, but for a benign purpose).


The continuation of our mishna speaks about how God judges the world with goodness. This is also befitting of Rabbi Akiva, who started studying Torah at the age of 40 from a man called Nachum Ish Gamzu. It is told of this man that he was poor and could not afford to sleep in the city, so he had to sleep outdoors in the wild. The wind blew out his candle, the cat ate his chicken, and the lion ate his donkey. But when he woke up in the morning he found out that the city was overrun by an army and everyone in it was killed. Ish Gamzu then said his famous saying: “Everything that God does, He does for a good reason.”


The end of our mishna speaks about the concept of doing good, and getting rewarded for it. Rambam interprets this not by quality but by quantity. The more a person repeats a good deed, the more he influences himself for good and becomes a better person. One who gives $1,000 to charity once has less influence on his own character than one who gives $1 to charity 1,000 times. Others, like the Maharal, disagree with the Rambam and say that a $1,000 charity is more significant and has more impact, both from perspective of the giver and that of the receiver.


In conclusion, it is worth reminding ourselves of the words of Rambam regarding free will (Hilchot Teshuva ch. 5):

“Every man was endowed with a free will: if he desires to bend himself toward the good path and to be just it is within the power of his hand to reach out for it, and if he desires to bend himself to a bad path and to be wicked it is within the power of his hand to reach out for it. This is known from what it is written in the Torah, saying: “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil” (Bereshit 3,22)”

Pirkei Avot 2,13

There is a custom to read Pirkei Avot (typically translated as Ethics of our Fathers) in the weeks between Pesach and Shavu’ot. Some say it’s preparation for the receiving of the Torah, others say that the long summer days are an opportunity for more learning on Shabbat. But there really is no need for a special reason to read and study the exceptional tractate of Avot at any time. Exceptional, both in the sense of it being a unique tractate in the Mishna (dealing with ethics and morality, not with laws) but also in the sense of it being a boundless and inexhaustible source of wisdom. I will try to write a few short thoughts about one mishna every week. May these thoughts be in memory of my parents: Shimon ben Chana & David z”l, Shulamit bat Clara & Shimon z”l.

Rabbi Shimon said: Be careful with the reading of Shema and the prayer. And when you pray, do not make your prayer something automatic, but a plea for compassion before God, for it is said: “for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, and renouncing punishment” (Yoel 2,13). And be not wicked in your own esteem. (Avot 2,13)

The rabbi of this mishna is Shimon ben Netanel HaCohen, a tana who lived in the first century C.E., a disciple of rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and the son-in-law of Rabban Gamliel.


There is a different version of this mishna that reads: “be careful with the reading of Shema more so than prayer”. The laws are that we have 3 hours (roughly) from sunrise to recite the Shema, but longer – 4 hours – to complete our morning prayers. Rabbi Shimon warns us to be careful not to miss the Shema as its time is shorter.


A Chassidic interpretation of why we should be careful with Shema more than prayer is that during prayer (the shmone-esre) we mostly ask for things we need – health, sustenance, redemption. So we don’t need a special warning to be careful; when it comes to asking things for ourselves we are naturally careful. But the Shema is all about accepting the yoke of God with no reward in it for us, so we need to be warned to be careful with it.


Additionally, we should be extra careful with both the Shema and prayer because their time is limited. Other mitzvot – such as teffilin or sukkah or shofar – can be fulfilled all day long, so we have time. Furthermore, many hold that Shema and prayer, unlike other mitzvot, require kavanah (specific direction of thought) in order to be fulfilled properly. Hence they require special attention.


What is an “automatic prayer”? The Talmud gives several examples. Either the prayer seems like a burden to us. Or we don’t say the prayer as supplicants before God. Or we are unable to imbue every prayer with something new and different. In short, when prayer becomes a rote chore it is considered “automatic”.


The verse from Yoel includes three types of prayer. “Slow to anger” is a prayer for God to save us from trouble, even if we have sinned. “Abounding in kindness” is a prayer for God to fulfill our wishes, even if we are not worthy. And “renouncing punishment” is a prayer for God to forgive us for our sins. All three prayers can be achieved through one of God’s traits, also mentioned in this verse: “gracious and compassionate”


There is a special mitzvah to say the morning prayer exactly at sunrise (ha-netz). Because the sun rises at a different every day, by following this rule we fulfill the mitzvah of prayer at a different time every day. This ensures the prayer does not become “automatic” (the Hebrew keva also means “fixed”).


The advice not to view ourselves as wicked seems to be counter-intuitive. If are not critical of ourselves, how can we improve? But the advice is not to be overly critical, not to see ourselves as totally bad. If we do so we might give up on correcting our bad ways and thus never make teshuvah. Just like the Talmudic story about Elisha ben Avuya, who erroneously overheard he has no chance for redemption and consequently gave up on himself.

Pirkei Avot 1,3

There is a custom to read Pirkei Avot (typically translated as Ethics of our Fathers) in the weeks between Pesach and Shavu’ot. Some say it’s preparation for the receiving of the Torah, others say that the long summer days are an opportunity for more learning on Shabbat. But there really is no need for a special reason to read and study the exceptional tractate of Avot at any time. Exceptional, both in the sense of it being a unique tractate in the Mishna (dealing with ethics and morality, not with laws) but also in the sense of it being a boundless and inexhaustible source of wisdom. I will try to write a few short thoughts about one mishna every week. May these thoughts be in memory of my parents: Shimon ben Chana & David z”l, Shulamit bat Clara & Shimon z”l.

Antigonos, man of Sokho, received from Shimon the Righteous. He would say, “Do not be as servants who are serving the master in order to receive a reward, rather be as servants who are serving the master not in order to receive a reward; and may the fear of Heaven be upon you.” (Avot 1,3)


The verse in Tehillim says: “Happy is the man that fears God, that delights greatly in His commandments.” The Talmud learns from this verse that we should delight in the commandments themselves, not in the reward we get for fulfilling them.


The Hebrew word פרס is used for a reward a person gives when he has no legal obligation to do so, for example a gift. The mishna uses this word and not the word שכר, which is commonly used when referring to reward for fulfilling commandments, and denotes a reward one is entitled to. This highlights the fact that we should not expect even a gift when we fulfill God’s wishes.


In seeming contradiction to our mishna, the Talmud says that a person who declares “this money I give to charity is for my son’s health or for me to get to the next world”, is a righteous person. He is indeed righteous, but his expectation for a reward is a lower form of worship, as many of us are incapable of the higher form of wishing for no reward. This is related to the famous Talmudic edict: “A person should always engage in Torah study and in performance of mitzvot even if he does so not for their own sake. Because through such acts performed not for their own sake, one will eventually come to perform them for their own sake.”


It is told of the Vilna Gaon who found a nice etrog for Sukkot, but the merchant would sell it to him only under the condition that all of the rabbi’s mitzvot would “transfer” to his own credit. The Vilna Gaon happily agreed, saying that now he has satisfied the edict of our mishna, as he would be fulfilling the mitzva of Sukkot with no reward whatsoever.


In the Torah, the people of Israel are called “sons of God” (“בנים אתם לה’ אלוהיכם”). Children know they can err as their father will always forgive them. Therefore, our mishna tells us to see ourselves as servants, not as sons, before God. We should be fearful that our master will not be so forgiving.


The Talmud tells us that when rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was on his deathbed, his disciples asked for a blessing. He told them: “May it be God’s will that your fear of Heaven be like your fear of mortals.” The disciples were puzzled at this: “is that all?!”, so he explained: “If only it were so! Know that when a person transgresses, he says, ‘May no man see me.’” We often fear our fellow man more than we fear God.

On Kings, Emperors and Dates

Today, May 1, 2019, marks the start of a new era in Japan – “Reiwa”. Japanese eras start and end with each new emperor, and following the abdication of his father Akihito (era name “Heisei”), emperor Naruhito ascended to the throne today.

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 11.19.18

Emperor Naruhito, today

Since the end of World War II, the Japanese emperor is a symbolic role. But the Japanese era name system, known as Nengō, has daily significance for all Japanese. This year, 2019, is both Heisei 31 (marking the 31st year of the reign of emperor Akihito), and Reiwa 1 (marking the 1st year of the reign of emperor Naruhito). Anyone born until yesterday, April 30, was born in the year Heisei 31; anyone born from today, May 1, is born in the year Reiwa 1. Starting January 1, 2020, the year will be Reiwa 2.

Why is this important? Because many official documents in Japan use the Japanese era calendar dates. For example bank documents, government forms, driving licenses. So every Japanese (and foreigner residing in Japan), needs to be aware of both the Gregorian date and the Nengō date.

I heard someone today say this is unique to Japan. That is incorrect. The Hebrew calendar is used not only for religious purposes, such as holiday dates or life events (birthdays, deaths). The State of Israel has a law, dating back to 1998, mandating that all official documentation shows both the Gregorian and Hebrew dates. But one important difference is that today’s Hebrew calendar (which is lunisolar) is fixed, and it aligns with the Gregorian calendar (which is solar) on a 19-year cycle. The Japanese calendar, on the other hand, “resets” itself with every new emperor, resulting in the transition years having two dates.

Interestingly, the Japanese Nengō system is similar to an ancient Hebrew calendar system, mentioned in the tractate of Rosh HaShana in the Mishna (Jewish oral law). The tractate opens with the list of four “new years” in a year, one of them being the “new year of the Kings”. This new year begins in the month of Nissan following the ascendance to the throne of a new king. That year is given the new king’s name and the numeral 1. From the following month of Nissan, it is year 2, and so forth.

This system was used primarily for financial purposes. Debts were recorded in promissory notes that were used to collect the debt on the expiration date (either personally or though a court of law). To avoid confusion regarding when the debt was entered into, the date of the “king calendar” was used. It was therefore common, as is the case in Japan today, for a regular calendar year (starting on the month of Tishrei, six months before Nissan) to have two “king year” dates, if a new king rose to power in that year. Promissory notes issued in that calendar year could have one of two dates: the old king’s year if issued before Nissan, and the new king’s year if issued from Nissan onward.

So there you have it. Japan today retains a calendar system that recalls a system used two millennia ago by Jews. It was not a unique system; in fact, Nengō was adopted (in the 7th century C.E.) from an ancient Chinese system, used more or less at the same time that Jews were using it in ancient Israel.

Tactile Paving (-)

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

This series is about Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise. But even in Paradise there is, occasionally, some trouble.

It’s time to talk about tactile paving in Japan.

Tactile paving is a system of textured surfaces on the ground that guide the visually-impaired. These lines and bumps help blind people find their way, and warn them of dangers such as stairs or road crossings. Japan’s pavements, train stations and buildings are blanketed with these yellow-coloured bumps:


The intent is clear. And our natural reaction is: how very considerate.

But I beg to differ. These ubiquitous pavings are a terrible nuisance, especially in stations and airports. People carrying luggage with wheels (i.e. almost everybody) are unable to wheel their suitcases without encountering these obstacles every few metres. It slows them down. Sometimes, it knocks their luggage over. I travel almost every week and these bumps are driving me nuts. Last time I waited for my son at the airport, every single person who came out of customs got stuck immediately after exiting the door. The heavy luggage trolleys got stuck at these protruding lines.

Don’t get me wrong. I too believe accessibility for the blind is important. But the excessive amount of tactile paving, and the thickness of the lines and bumps here, raise the question of the cost-benefit of this system. My guess is someone is lining their pockets as a result of over-regulation.

By the way, in my many years in Japan, I have not once seen a blind person take advantage of this paving. I saw blind people, but they all walked with their guiding sticks without using the paving. That is, until last week. At Nishinomiya station I finally saw the person for whom this system built. I had to take a photo.



Construction Site

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

This is a photo I took from my hotel room in Tokyo of a construction site of a new building. It is a simple example of how clean and safe Japan is. Please pay attention to the following details, marked with red arrows on the photo. I’ll work from bottom up:


  • The site is completely sealed off from the street with a spotless white partition, so that passerby are not inconvenienced in any way.
  • The entrance to the site is closed, with a combination lock.
  • All the belongings of the working crew are placed in a dedicated area. (Rest assured that their mobile phones are in the bags throughout the day).
  • The construction plans, progress charts, regulations, etc. are posted up clearly and neatly.
  • A windsock is installed on a high pole, to indicate wind direction and speed.
  • Ladders and other equipment placed on top of the construction trailers are secured with a rope, so they don’t fall off accidentally.
  • All workers walk around with safety helmets at all times. No exceptions.
  • A temporary electricity pole is erected inside the site, pulling electricity off the main line on the street.
  • Construction tools and other materials are stored in a dedicated area, and blue tarpaulin sheets are readily available (folded) to cover the area in case it rains.
  • The entire building surrounded by nontransparent sheets.

What you cannot see in the photo is how the workers begin their day, by gathering around their manager, listening to the day’s plans, reviewing safety instructions, and then cheering loudly and encouragingly to each other before commencing work.


Kyushu: Miyazaki to Oita

Seeking warmer weather, I spent this year’s end-of-year holidays in Kyushu. This time, on the eastern side of the island, Miyazaki and Oita prefectures. I didn’t find much warmer weather, but I did find a beautiful corner of Japan I had not visited previously.


This was my itinerary (clicking on a day will take you to the relevant section). If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment or email me:

Days 1-2: Miyazaki City

Day 3: Miyazaki > Nichinan > Cape Ito

Day 4: Sekino-o > Tsumagirishima > Saito > Mimitsu > Hyuga

Day 5: Tachihiko > Mount Aso > Yufuin

Days 6-7: Yufuin > Beppu > Kitsuki > Oita

Day 1: Miyazaki City

I flew from Kansai Airport (KIX) to Miyazaki Airport (KMI) on Peach Aviation, the LCC subsidiary of ANA. At check-in, I was asked politely by the attendant “if I would mind” sitting in the emergency row. I believe this is the first time in my life someone asked me this, without me asking first… Of course I said yes. It’s a very short flight (less than 1 hour) but the extra leg room is always welcome.

Miyazaki City is the capital of the prefecture, and with a population of 400,000 it is a small city, even by Kyushu standards (7th largest on the island). The only reason I spent 3 nights here was because I had to stay put for Shabbat somewhere, and my schedule dictated it be Miyazaki.

I spent Friday visiting the main sightseeing spots, and Saturday walking along the Oyodo River. Trains are not an option here (there is only one line crossing the city and trains are infrequent), so it’s either buses, bicycle or walking. I chose the latter as the distances are not big and the sunny (yet brisk) weather was conducive to walking.

My hotel was centrally located, on the main thoroughfare, Tachibana Street. This is where one finds all the action, with the side streets bustling with shops, restaurants, nightlife spots, etc. A couple of shopping arcades (shouten-gai) cross the main street.


A side street, off Tachibana street

In the morning I headed north towards the Miyazaki Prefectural Arts Museum. I was too early and the museum was closed, but the building itself and the surrounding open spaces were nice to see nonetheless.


Grounds of the Miazaki Prefectural Art Museum


The Miazaki Prefectural Art Museum

A bit further north on the same road I entered the vast grounds of Miyazaki Shrine. It is said to be 2,500 years old. To get to the shrine one walks through a quiet forest that puts the bustle of the roads behind. When I visited, the staff were busy setting up stalls and preparing for the big crowds expected the following week. During the first three days of the year many people flock to shrines for hatsumode, making their wishes for the new year. But during my visit (December 28) the shrine was almost empty. Wooden lanterns line up the way into the shrine, and the shrine itself, made of unpainted cedar wood, blends in well with the surrounding forest.


Lanterns Leading to the Shrine


Miyazaki Shrine


New Year Wishes

North of Yamazaki Shrine lies Heiwadai Koen (Peace Park), sitting on a small hill and also built 2,500 years ago. The park is dominated by a large monument, the Peace Tower, erected in the 1930s. I wrote a separate post explaining about this monument’s history, as I had an interesting encounter there with a fellow tourist.


Heiwadai Park – Peace Tower

On the way back to the hotel, before Shabbat, I had lunch at a vegan restaurant called Chago. I didn’t expect much, this being Miyazaki… but I was positively surprised. A beautiful Japanese decor and a delicious lunch. It is situated right behind the art museum.


Lunch at Chago Vegan Restaurant, Miyazaki

I booked at the last minute so there weren’t many choices left (this being the holiday season), but luckily I found a room in Miyazaki at one of my favorite mid-class hotel chains, Dormy Inn, which have an unbeatable advantage: a hot spring public bath. I immersed myself in the outside bath to wash off the 12 kilometers I walked today.

Day 2: Miyazaki City

Shabbat, so all I did was take it easy, stroll along the Oyodo river (braving the bitterly cold winds), take more soaks in the hotel onsen, and finish the book I’m reading…

Day 3: Miyazaki > Nichinan > Cape Ito

First thing in the morning I picked up my rental car from Nippon Rent-A-Car at Miyazaki Station. After making sure the navigation system was set to English, I headed south to explore the southeastern corner of Kyushu.

My first stop was Aoshima Island. This small island (about 10 acres) sits right off the coast, about half an hour’s drive south of Miyazaki City. It is easily accessible on foot via a short bridge, and a walk around the island takes about 30 minutes. The rock formations in the shallow sea waters are quite remarkable: long, thin stripes of rocks extending into the sea. They are called Oni no Sentakuita (devil’s washboard). The shrine on the island is very colorful and is apparently popular among newly-wed couples, who buy clay disks which they then throw and break for good luck. The shrine extends from the beach into the sub-tropical forest at the center of the island, offering a nice contrast between the sunny, sandy beach and the dark, cool forest.


Aoshima Island


Entrance to Aoshima Shrine


“Devil’s Washboard” Rock Formations


Aoshima Island Shrine


Broken Clay Disks

Next to Aoshima Island is a small Botanical Garden, featuring both outdoor and indoor (glasshouse) plants and flowers.


Aoshima Botanical Garden

Continuing south along the coast, I arrived at Sun Messe, a place that looks so out of place in Japan it’s almost surreal. It is unclear what this place is exactly, something in between an amusement park (for families) and an outdoor museum. The raison d’etre of this place are the seven Moai statues, replicas of the world-famous originals on Easter Island. The site boasts (over and over again) that these are the only replicas allowed in the entire world! The statues have been there for 20 years now, and they are a real attraction, judging by the number of people praying to them, taking photos with them and generally milling around them. I haven’t had the chance to visit Easter Island yet, so this is second-best I guess…


The Moai Statues in Sun Messe


The Moai Statues on Sun Messe


Me and my Two Big Brothers…

My next stop was a few kilometers down the coast, and one of the most popular spots in Miyazaki: Udo Shrine. It’s located inside a cave, on a cliff overlooking the ocean (yes, it’s as beautiful as it sounds). Women hoping for a child, or expecting a child, come here and drink water from the rocks, as legend has it that Emperor Jimmu (the first one) was nourished from these waters. Another practice is standing on the terrace overlooking the ocean and throwing clay pebbles (100 Yen for 5 pieces), trying to hit a circular target marked by a rope down below. Women throw with their right hand and men with their left hand. If you hit the target, that’s considered good luck. I hit 3 out of 5, so I guess it’s so-so luck for me. In my defense, I am right-handed…


The Cliff of Udo Shrine


Good Luck Pebbles


Trying to Hit the Target…

From Udo Shrine my plan was to head inland towards Obi City, and see the Obi Castle ruins. But on a whim I gave Obi a skip (I figured I saw enough castle ruins in Japan…) and instead continued south along the coast to reach the southernmost tip of eastern Kyushu, Cape Toi.

The area is famous for the wild horses that roam the area. And they are indeed roaming wildly; you can see them as you drive, on either side of the road. There is also a museum about the horses in the visitor center. The cape itself has a large, white lighthouse and offers beautiful ocean views. Another attraction here is the Misaki Shrine, which was built on the mountain face in the 8th century. Due to mudslides, the climb up to the shrine itself is prohibited, but you can reach the bottom of the cliff on foot and get a view of the shrine.


View from Cape Toi


The Three main Attractions in Cape Toi


Cape Toi Lighthouse


Wild Horses at Cape Toi

That was it for day one. I headed back north to Nichinan for my onsen hotel, perched on a hill overlooking Kitago valley, and offering outdoor baths with this view. Pure bliss.


View from Hotel to Kitago Valley

Day 4: Sekino-o > Tsumagirishima > Saito > Mimitsu > Hyuga

Today started off cloudy with a little rain. I didn’t mind much as this day was planned for a longer drive between sightseeing spots, and not so much walking.

My first stop was Sekino-o Falls near Miyakonjo. This is one of the widest waterfalls I’ve seen in Japan. Apparently it has the largest pot holes in the world (I wish I knew what that was…). There’s a suspension bridge that allows you to cross the entire waterfall and then you can make your way up to the top.


Sekino-o Falls


Sekino-o Falls Suspension Bridge


The Top of Sekino-o Falls

A short drive from Sekino-o Falls is Tsumagirishima Shrine (alternative spelling: Tsuma Kirishima). This is a most interesting shrine, as it combines Buddhism and Shinto, as well as demons (Oni). The climb up to the shrine is very steep, large stairs made of large rocks. The legend is that the demon (a statue of which guards the entrance) built this massive staircase in one night. For those who need help, there are bamboo sticks available to help the climb. Alternatively, one can climb using more conventional stairs and ramps, from the parking lot area. The shrine itself looks very old, made of unpolished wood.


The Demon (Oni) Guarding the Entrance


The Stairs to the Shrine


Tsumagirishima Shrine


Bamboo Sticks to Help with the Climb

I continued on to Saito City, to see the Saitobaru Burial Mounds. These date back more than 1,000 years and are spread over a large area, which was excavated archaeologically only 20-30 years ago. Frankly, there’s not much to see here, and after you’ve seen a couple of burial mounds you kind of get the point…


Saitobaru Burial Mounds

Continuing my drive northwards towards Hyuga, I decided to stop and check out the old port town of Mimitsu. I was very glad I made this detour, because this tiny (and almost completely deserted) town turned out to be the highlight of this day. An enchanting port, preserved old wooden houses, an old shrine, and many small details that made my afternoon stroll through the narrow streets of Mimitsu a most enjoyable one.


Mimitsu Post Office


Electric Goods Store


Ready for the New Year in Mimitsu


Mimitsu Port

Before getting to my hotel in Hyuga City, I drove to Hyuga Cape, to watch the sun set over the bay. A popular spot here for romantic couples is Sea Cross, where the rock formations down below in the sea are in the shape of a cross. Regardless of couples and rocks, the views here are stupendous.


Sea Cross at Cape Hyuga


The Sun Setting over Cape Hyuga


Hyuga City

Tonight is New Year’s Eve. Hyuga City, a sleepy town (population 63,000), is hardly the place to look for places to party into the new year. Which suits me just fine. It was a long driving day and I’m tired. I read in bed while listening to the bell ringing 108 times at the nearby Buddhist temple (to symbolize getting rid of the 108 human sins before the new year).

Day 5: Tachihiko > Mount Aso > Yufuin

Today I spent most of the day in the place that prompted me to visit eastern Kyushu in the first place, Takachiho. I read about it in several travel blogs and it receives unanimous accolades. So I set out early from Hyuga, driving through mostly deserted streets shortly after the first sunrise of the year.

Takachiho is meaningful to many Japanese people as it is identified with the mythological Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun and the universe in the Shinto religion. The Japanese Emperors lineage also apparently started here. So it is no wonder that Takachiho Shrine, on January 1, was already packed with worshippers at an early morning hour. I joined the crowds and lined up politely to enter the shrine. From an architectural perspective it is not a very impressive shrine. The more impressive ones in the area are Amano-Iwato and Amano-Yasugawara shrines, both of which I skipped because I didn’t feel like standing too long in lines (and because I figured I already saw enough shrines on this trip).


Entrance to Takachiho Shrine


Waiting in Line to Pray at Takachiho Shrine

From the shrine it is a short drive to the main attraction: Takachiho Gorge. This narrow gorge with its tall, sharp cliff edges made of volcanic rock, is indeed very impressive. There is a footpath along the gorge, which takes about 20-30 minutes to walk (with pauses for picture taking), and provides a view from above. At the head of the gorge there’s a small boat pier, and people can row back and forth along the gorge, providing a view from below. There’s a waterfall about halfway through the gorge. It was too cold for me to attempt the boat ride (I left my gloves in the car), but I did enjoy walking back and forth along the pathway. The photos do not do the place justice…


Boats under Takachiho Gorge Waterfallhttp://www.aso.ne.jp/~volcano/eng/


Takachiho Gorge


Entrance to Takachiho Gorge Footpath

From Takachiho I took the long drive to Mount Aso, hoping to see the various craters of this active volcano. The roads to Mount Aso were partly closed down after the April 2016 Kumamoto earthquake and opened again only recently. Before going, one needs to check whether the area is crater area is open to the public; sometimes it’s shut due to high levels of poisonous volcanic gases (check here).

It’s a steep drive up this 1,600m mountain, and about halfway it started getting foggy. Getting to the crater is possible either by ropeway, shuttle bus or private car. The fog at the summit became so thick the ropeway was not in operation, and the advice was not to go up (by bus or car) as visibility is zero. I drove up anyway (fee: 800 Yen), only to get the following view. Oh well… I guess I’ll see the crater another time.


Entrance to the Crater Area at Mount Aso


A View of the Crater at Mount Aso (it’s there, behind the fog)

The drive back down the mountain was somewhat scary, as visibility was reduced to only a few meters.

That concluded my day of sightseeing and I headed north to Yufuin, where I plan to spend the next two days mostly relaxing and soaking in hot spring waters.

Days 6-7: Yufuin > Beppu > Kitsuki > Oita

This is my second time in Yufuin, and you can read my impressions from my first visit here.

Yufuin is mostly an onsen town, with not much to see if you don’t enjoy hot springs or want to spend time jostling with Korean and Chinese tourists in an over-touristy shopping street. I stayed 2 nights in a small ryokan with a private small onsen bathtub and a view of the town.


A View of Yufuin


Another View of Yufuin

On the second day, after checking out, I had a whole day before my flight back. So I made my way slowly through the mountains to Beppu. After arriving there, I took the ropeway up to Mount Tsurumi. The summit is reached after another 30 minutes or so climb. The views of Beppu and the surrounding countryside on this clear day were stunning.


The Climb to the Summit of Mount Tsurumi


Mount Tsurumi Summit


View of Beppu from Mount Tsurumi

I had read online about Beppu’s “hidden onsens”, that is onsens that are not easy to reach and do not have any facilities attached to them. I wanted to reach one of them, so I headed up Mount Nabeyama to reach Nabeyama-No-Yu, a rotenburo (open-air onsen). The road to the onsen is closed off, because a woman was murdered here 8 years ago; signs warn people about this. So I had to hike up the mountain for 20 minutes or so to reach the onsen. It was well worth it as I was there completely alone most of the time (until a local couple turned up), soaking in hot water and surrounded by nothing but nature.


Sign near Nabeyama-No-Yu


Nabeyama-No-Yu Hot Spring

My last stop before Oita Airport was a  castle town called Kitsuki. There’s a small reconstructed castle tower with information about the local warlords and some history. Not much to look at, but as I had time I stopped here and took in the views.


Kitsuki Castle Tower


View from Kitsuki Castle Tower

From here I headed to Oita Airport, returned my rental car, and took a JAL flight back to Osaka (ITM airport).

Miyazaki prefecture is a great place to visit if you want to see rural Japan and avoid the well-trodden touristy paths.

“Jewish Power” in Japan

On a visit to Miyazaki city (Kyushu), I met a man from Tokyo, Testsuro, also touring the area. He spoke good English and offered to explain a bit about the Peace Tower dominating Heiwadai Park.


The park was constructed in the 1930s in honor of Japan’s first emperor, Jimmu. The inscription on the tower says Hakko Ichiu (“Eight Regions Under One Roof”), a slogan used by the Imperial Army, which at the time was bent on conquering and dominating large swaths of Asia. To symbolize this imperialistic dream, army posts around Asia sent stones that were embedded in the tower. These stones carry the names of the places they were sent from: Beijing, Shanghai, north China, etc. After the war, when Japan shed its imperialistic past to pursue a path of peace, the tower and park were renamed Heiwa (“Peace”).

After Testsuro explained all this, he proclaimed: “this is a very important place for Japanese people”, and then gave me a meaningful look. I gave a noncommittal nod… Now, most Japanese would say this and mean: “we used to be a bad nation, but now we are good”. But a small minority will say this and mean: “we used to be a great nation, and now we are useless wimps”. I wasn’t sure where Tetsuro was leaning, hence my hesitation. But it turns out that he was with the majority. A peacenik.

Then our conversation took an interesting turn. Asking me if I was Jewish, he said “we need Jewish Power, please keep helping Japan, like you did a long time ago”. He then asked me if I knew what he meant. I replied, “you mean Jacob Schiff?”. His eyes lit up and he nodded eagerly. Schiff was an American Jewish banker who financed Japan during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905.

Tetsuro then went on to lament how many Japanese don’t know enough about history and how strong the Jewish people are, and how much the Japanese owe them. This was a good example of how the myth of global Jewish power still lingers in the Japanese mind, especially among the older generation.

I smiled and did not correct him. We parted ways amicably and I assured Tetsuro I will do my best, as a Jew, to help Japan.

Miketz – Whose Dreams? (Hanukkah)

ויען יוסף את פרעה לאמר: בלעדי, אלוהים יענה את שלום פרעה

(בראשית מא, טז)

The ending portions of the book of Bereshit tell the story of Yossef. It started last week, in VaYeshev, and continues this week, in Miketz.

Last week we met Yossef as a young man, the prodigal son, the loved son of the loved wife. His father, Yaakov, favours him over his brothers and gives him a unique, multicoloured coat. But at the end of the parasha we find Yossef in prison, after he was thrown into a pit by his brothers and later sold into slavery in Egypt. A bitter reversal of fortune.

This week we see another reversal of fortune, in the other direction. We start with Yossef still in prison, but he is released and by the end of the parasha becomes the Grand Vizier of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. He is also now the new leader of his family, rescuing them from famine and bending their behaviour at his will.

What is the determining factor behind this seesaw motion? What brought about Yossef’s bitter downfall and what brought about his miraculous rise to glory?

Bereshit is the book of dreams. All of our forefathers had dreams, and our parashot are no exception. In VaYeshev, Yossef dreams about himself, about how his parents and his siblings all bow down to him. He is self-centered and self-absorbed. It’s all “me, me, me”. He hears nobody but himself. But in Miketz it’s all about Pharaoh’s dreams. Yossef listens to the king’s distress, empathizes with him and provides sound advice. It’s no longer about himself, it’s about helping others.

When we think only about ourselves, the downfall will surely come. But when we think about others, when we silence ourselves in order to listen to the plight of others, the rise to leadership is possible. This explains the reversals of fortune that happened to Yossef.

Within this context, the dreams provide us with further lessons.  In VaYeshev, God is absent from Yossef’s dreams. God is also absent from Yossef’s speech when he recounts these dreams to his family. But in Miketz, when Yossef listens and interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, he constantly mentions God. He attributes everything to God; the self-centered Yossef is gone:

And Yossef answered Pharaoh, saying: ‘It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace.’

(Bereshit 41, 16)

Furthermore, Yossef had two “God-free” dreams in VaYeshev, one earthly (the sheaves in the field) and one heavenly (the sun, moon and stars). In contrast, his father had one dream, about a ladder connecting heaven and earth. Central to Yaakov’s dream are God and the angels. Yaakov recognized God and his presence in heaven and earth, and his single dream reflected this belief. Yossef, as a young man, is too self-centered to let God into the picture; at that early age, he missed the connection between his earthly aspirations and heavenly guidance, two separate dreams. But as an adult, Yossef comes to the realization that it is all in God’s hands, it’s all a heavenly plan, and that is what enables him to grow and to rise from the depths of his misfortune to the heights of leadership and wisdom.

VaYeshev and Miketz are the parashot of Hanukkah. The Hellenist Greeks promulgated an anthropocentric ideology, where man is in the center and God is absent. The Jews who fought them held a theocentric view of the world, one where God is in the center. The victory of Hanukkah is first and foremost a victory of theocentricity over ethnocentricity. Just like Yossef’s fortunes rose after he shifted his focus from man to God, so the Jews prevailed against their enemies thanks to their belief in God.

May the stories of Yossef and the Maccabees serve as a lesson to us all.

The idea for this week’s Parasha Thought is from R. Shlomo Riskin.