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Friday, June 08, 2007

Konichiwa!


I am writing from the beautiful and historic city of Hiroshima, Japan, where I'll give a presentation on hemophilia tomorrow. In the last 24 hours I have been on a plane, train, taxi and boat!

I arrived in Osaka, Japan yesterday at 5 pm local time, after 19 hours in transit. After being greeted warmly by my guide, Yuko, we both set off to the hotel for the evening. This morning we caught the "Bullet Train," the official name for the Japanese railways, dubbed the fastest on earth, for an incredibly smooth and delightful 90 minute ride to Hiroshima. Hiroshima is picturesque, lush and sparkling clean, nestled in the hilly landscape that hugs the Seto Inland Sea.

Today was my free day, so Yuko and I decided to visit the island of Itsukushima, or more familiarly "Miyajima," which means "Shrine Island." We hopped on a ferry and in 15 minutes landed on this holy island just as the sun finally broke through the clouds. Our first photos were with the numerous deer that populate the island, and which are very friendly; too friendly. While I posed with the deer, waiting for Yuko to snap my picture, one of them decided to munch on me, while searching for some tidbits of food!

We toured the ancient Itsukushima Shrine, a red-laquered, single story complex of rooms and walkways. The shrine was created in 806 AD, when the monk Kobo Daishi ascended Mt. Misen and dedicated the site for the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Although almost all Japanese declare themselves followers of the Shinto religion, Buddhism is also followed, and Buddhist temples exist peacefully next to Shinto shrines. Shinto is the native religion of Japan. It involves the worship of numerous kami, or spirits. There is no image of any of the gods--no statues or paintings. And there is no concept of one god. Yuko tells me there are 8 million gods in the Shinto religion. Some kami represent objects in nature, such as mountains.

I think Miyajima's best known symbol is the famous 16 meters tall "O-torii" gate, which seems to float on the water. It has been reconstructed 17 times since it was created, after natural disasters have toppled it. If you have ever visited DisneyWorld, and toured the Epcot center, you'll recognize the replica of O-torii in the Japan exhibit, which graces the rim of the lagoon around which Epcot is seated. Tonight I'll have dinner with my hosts from Novo Nordisk, and learn more about hemophilia in Japan.

(Photos: O-torii, Laurie mobbed by hungry deer, Itsukushima, prayer paddles)

Tip: visit http://www.cs.indiana.edu/~port/teach/relg/shinto.sketch.html for a brief description of the Shinto religion.

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