In A Flash

This week has been a little rough. I got a phone call from a dear friend of mine who lives in Ishikawa. His name is Gart. His voice on the phone wasn’t his normal exuberant self. Something was clearly wrong.

“Mark is gone.”

Mark E. was our friend. In many ways, he was the glue that held a lot of people together. He was an instigator in gathering different people and being the host to a lot of lunches, hanging out, game playing, and just being silly together. And then, in a flash, he was gone. He had a heart attack while at the hospital for an unrelated treatment. He was only 55 years old.

I met Mark E. a little more than 25 years ago. I was very new in Japan, just a couple of weeks in. I spoke almost zero Japanese and I was just starting the adventure of being here. I had time off and I could explore the area of Terai town, complete with its endless rice fields, hills and mountains, and little roads that went into neighbourhoods. A new friend of mine, Michael, called me up. He was a couple years my senior for living in Japan. He knew the ropes a bit and he wanted to introduce his friend to me. He said, “You’ll like my friend Mark E. He is very cool and has been here for seven years already. He knows everything! Let’s meet and have lunch together at this eel restaurant in Komatsu.”

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Sounded great. I never had eel before and I thought it would be a new adventure in dining. I hopped on the motorcycle which was left behind by my job placement predecessor and scooted off in the direction of Komatsu.

On the way down you need to travel on a main road, called Route 8. It is pretty busy with cars so you need to be a bit careful. I was getting to the intersection I needed to turn and slowed down, making sure to signal. I then heard a groaning of tires on asphalt behind me. I looked in the little rearview mirror on my right handlebar. I saw the grill of a truck.

The only thought that came to my mind was, “I’m dead.”

Then there was impact.

I was thrown from the bike forward and was sailing upside down. My helmeted head hit the road first and then I spun. My knees hit the highway next and I skidded a little. Denim melted away and I rolled a little further until I came to a full stop. I was lying on the busy road looking up.

I’m not dead.

“GET UP!” my brain yelled. So I got up.

Ahead of me, trailing up the front of the truck that struck me, were many fragments of motorcycle lying in a stream of gas. It was a marvellous thing to see. It was marvellous because I was still there to see it. I wasn’t dead. I was, in fact, standing.

iStock-180812046I pulled off my helmet, and sure enough there was a pretty good crack right going from the front edge to the top. A man, shaking jumped down from his truck. In one smooth motion he pulls out his wallet and opens it. He is gesticulating to me to take the money inside. I look at the mess on the road. I look at my bloody knees. I realize that I have no idea what to do next. But I am alive, and I am grateful for that.

I am thinking that I might be late for lunch. So, I figure, I may as well go and eat some eels. I wave the guy off and say the one word I think he will understand, “Go.”

He is startled and unsure what to do. I repeat myself and gesture down the road for him to go ahead. He turns and gets back in his truck and takes off. I don’t even look to see where he goes. Slowly, I pick up the biggest pieces of motorcycle and drag them to the side of the road.

Then I go for lunch.

It was great to meet Mark E. He is kind and thoughtful and generous. I am very much enjoying the time with my new friends Michael and Mark. But then the adrenalin starts to wear off and I start to feel achey and woozy. Maybe it was the eel. Or maybe the beer. But I need to call it a day. I told Mark and Michael about my recent adventure and they take it all in. Mark gives me a ride home in his cool Toyota Sera. I felt guilty about being such a mess in his snazzy car. He didn’t seem to mind. I sat in the tub and checked out all my new purple spots up and down my back and on my arms.

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It was an adventurous way to start my time in Japan.

Mark and I remained friends for the next 25 years. There were gaps in our connection, due to graduate studies, my unravelling marriage and then divorce, and all kinds of other similar nonsense. But each time we reconnected it was great, and there was no feeling of “Why did you wait so long to get in touch?” None of that. It was a very mature and fun relationship we shared. Mark’s politics and opinions about everything were highly informed, biased, and irritating at times, but he was the kind of man who always separated the person from the opinion. Happy to debate and discuss all matters of things, and would listen when you were persistent. But under it all, deeply compassionate and kind to others, often over-extending himself to accommodate people around him, and fiercely loyal.

I was shocked to hear of my friend’s passing. I surprised myself as I burst into tears. I hadn’t wept even when my own father passed, but Mark touched my life in a very unique and important way. He was a mentor to me, and a guide. He was always quick to laugh, and was ever thoughtful of his friends. He read endlessly and widely. He loved his wife and son deeply. He was a teacher to many students over the years, and despite all kinds of pressure from many quarters often did only what he wanted to do in the first place. He made me laugh, a lot.

He will be missed. And while I mourn his passing, I am also cognizant of something under all of that. I am grateful. I am deeply grateful for a good friend. I am grateful for a friendship that lasted over 25 years. I am grateful to have had the times together that we did. I am grateful to know what real friendship looks like.

Thank you, Mark.

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Overdue with Updates

Hello friends and neighbors!

Once again I find myself in the position of needing to apologize for being so slow in updating this site. As mentioned elsewhere, I am the head honcho of a group of language schools here, and the Japanese school year ends in March and fires up again in April. As a result, my wife and I spend many many late nights working like crazed ferrets on fire (not quite the metaphor you had in mind, but you get the picture! LOL)!

Anyway, we are now in GOLDEN WEEK (a bit of a misnomer as it lasts less than seven days), and we have some free time to sleep late a few days and let the dust settle.

On the school-side of things, I have the great satisfaction of being able to upgrade our staff substantially. As a young company we made some mis-hires in the past and have made all the necessary adjustments to attract and keep some extraordinary talent. It is nice to go to work with pleasant, kind, thoughtful, selfless, professional, people again. And my faith in humanity has been restored.

This project is hardly forgotten, in fact it has made such an deep and profound mark on my life that I am completely committed to seeing it through as far as I can. There is much work to do, and there is much I can do in the unique position I am privileged to hold. I wonder what I can do to be of service to you as you travel here to Shikoku, and how I can be of good cheer and company to you as you walk the miles. I am keenly interested in learning of your experiences and thoughts, so please do not hesitate to let me know.

There are miles to go before we sleep.

More updates to the individual temples are in the works, and I hope to have the base of this site rounded out so that it reads better, and has a good feel to it.

In the meantime, stay between the ditches, and travel safe.

Yours,

Mark

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The Invitation

At this time we are in the process of getting things formalized for inviting tour groups to come to Kagawa to experience the incredible Shikoku Pilgrimage. We have worked very hard this last year and things are coming together nicely.

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If you are new to this site, and are here to find our more about what the Shikoku Pilgrimage is about, I hope you will take some time to look through some of these pages. There are a few caveats I need to give you right away.

  1. This website is far from complete. Last year I finished the 88 temple pilgrimage and I am still updating information on the site. Last year was a “gyaku-uchi” year, so we traveled the pilgrimage in reverse starting at the last temple, number 88. So, if you are looking for my own journey, please start there. I have been updating the information as I have been going along and I am down now to the early 30’s. I hope to get this all updated as soon as possible. The pages all have photos, just no explanations or history–YET.
  2. I am not a tour guide operator, but I work closely with a group of business people and one of our members is a tour operator. If you are a travel agency, please contact me via email (cometokagawa@gmail.com or englishbiztakamatsu@gmail.com) and I promise to respond in a timely manner.
  3. Should you decide to come to Shikoku, we believe you are going to have an unbelievable experience. Coming to Japan is a marvelous thing in itself, and you will surely enjoy the great sites of Tokyo, Nara, Kyoto, and Osaka. I love all those places myself. But coming here you will find a certain closeness and “hands-on” experience that you will not get in the more high traffic tourist places.

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There are also a few things I want to tell you about our great Come to Kagawa project as well. Some of it is pretty cool so I can start to let the cat out of the bag early on. We have been in conversation with several people who are masters or artisans in their specific fields and each is very interested and keen to share their knowledge and passion for art with groups that will come.

Our team of artists and experts are in the following fields:

–tea ceremony

–calligraphy

–zen meditation

–Shintoism

–udon making

–bonsai gardening

–kimono wearing

We are absolutely blown away with the intensity of interest these artists have in their desire to share their knowledge and passion with visitors. Many have said the same thing, that they have a certain “urgency” to share with others. They have the knowledge of art in their hearts and minds and just want to share that passion with others so that their art will continue beyond them.

These would be things that visitors could surely enjoy and participate in, in addition to the 88 Buddhist Temple Pilgrimage itself. We think that we are cooking up a very unique and supremely fun experience here. So, if you have received an invitation to come to our fair prefecture of Kagawa, and if you are interested in talking about the specifics, please get in touch with us. We are very much looking forward to talking with you soon.

Yours truly,

Mark

Happy 2017!

Happy New Year! One year ago I decided to start the Shikoku Pilgrimage and I managed to get it all completed in one year. I look back fondly on the experience and I am glad that I did it. Each day out on the Ohenro path was unique and interesting and very special. I have to say that I feel very lucky to live in a place such as Kagawa.

So that leads me to the next thing. Now that I hhappy-new-year-2017-hd-wallpaper-gold.jpgave completed the pilgrimage, what is in store for 2017? As I mentioned before, I never felt comfortable in an existence of continually moving in a circle, not at this time in my life anyway. I feel that there is much for me to do this year, and I have been given something, some knowledge and experience that I need to use to be of good service to others.

One very important thing to do is to get the pages for each temple updated and complete. Well, not “complete”, but in shape enough for visitors to read and to enjoy. There are quite a few (temples 1-52) that still need text and editing done on them. I will work hard to get it done in the days and weeks to come.

The next thing is for us to work aggressively in developing our connections with overseas tourist agencies and local business to be able o host and support overseas visitors to the pilgrimage. Meetings are scheduled for next week and beyond to meet with local business leaders, so I think that we will be able to make some progress this year.

2017 is the Year of the Rooster. It is my year. It is the year of my astrological sign and I am turning 48 this year. I am full of life, of energy, and a passion to bring this project to a greater stage. I welcome you to come along, to advise and suggest what we should do to make this site better, and how we can, as a group and a collective of pilgrims, to make the Shikoku Ohenro something that can serve others and push us forward to the next thing, and to help us carry on, moving forward.

All the best for 2017! Let’s make it good.

Yours,
Mark

Better Late Than Never

http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201701030006.html

The above link is a story in the Asahi Shimbun about an elderly couple who completed the Shikoku Pilgrimage recently. This is just another in a long list of heart-warming stories of people who have traveled long and hard on the path of Kukai.

I suppose that it is never too late to do it. But also, maybe the other side of the statement is don’t wait too long before you do it yourself.

Welcome to Shikoku! Koubou Daishi is waiting for you on the path!

 

Finish Line?

This week I visited the final three temples on the pilgrimage. I “got it done”, so to speak. It was a very nice morning when I headed out, and this time I did not go with the tour group. I got up in the morning, had a quick breakfast, jumped in my car and was at temple number 3 (Konsenji) in Tokushima within about an hour. Simply beautiful. No one was there yet and it was quiet, and peaceful, and perfect. After that I zipped down the road to number 2 (Gokurakuji) and that was nice too. The final visit to number 1 (Ryouzenji) was met with a lot of people, tour buses, and foreign visitors too. I was surprised as to the contrast between number 3 and 1. Of course, it is understandable that at the very first temple people need some kind of orientation, places to buy their ohenro gear, and to get the whole process started, but it was surprising how busy it was, and how the energy seems a bit nervous and unsure as groups lumbered in and out.

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But I “cleared it”. My “noukyouchou” (temple stamp book) was complete, I performed my final sutras (for this trip) and I was done.

Was there an epiphany? Was there a moment of satori (Buddhist enlightenment)? Was there the movement of clouds above while the light of heaven shone down upon my upward beaming (and unshaven) face?

Nope. None of that. But I did feel something, or maybe I just thought something. I can’t be sure. I felt that I had done the thing I was supposed to do. I felt that now that I finished my first pilgrimage around the whole of Shikoku, I was ready to get back to my life.

I felt compelled to leave. I felt like I was given something that I needed and that I now needed to do what I could in my work and my everyday moving about to be of use and purpose for those around me.

Even a few days later I still have the same feeling. So, there are few things to get done.

  1. Keep working on this website and fill in as many gaps as possible. Promote this website and invite other to contribute where they can. The pilgrimage is something that is best shared, and although many have private feelings and reasons for doing it, there is something of a communal experience that occurs and needs celebrating.
  2. Keep doing the job I am doing in building and growing our language schools for kids. I am lucky to have a job where the results of “giving” to others can have very quick and tangible results. Teaching is a noble and important job. I am delighted to work with a great team of teachers in building our schools and serving our community. There is much more to do, so I need to get back to doing it.

The Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage is in a circle. The metaphor is not lost on me. You finish the circle, but you could easily go through again and again and find more to learn and discover. I appreciate that, and I find it beautiful and attractive. I can see why there are people who are dedicated ohenro and why they walk this path for as long as they can put one foot in front of the other.

But for me, I am perhaps not designed to be in a circle only. I come from a culture where linear movement has its own value and place. In a circle you can let the situations and circumstance “be” while you move through them, and you are changed in ways you do not realize or fully understand. A linear movement is more like a rocket trajectory perhaps. I feel compelled to move in this way, for now.

My work, our schools, the students who need our help and service wait. If I am to remain in the circle they would not be there by the time I went around again. For me, it is time to come out of the circle and to use what I have in my mind and heart to do what I can to get kids better in English. I have a privileged position in this world, and I intend of leveraging my abilities for these kids. They need it and deserve it.

After the trajectory of these years to come may falter and slip, I will need to come out of the linear world again perhaps when I am forced to retire. I know where there is a circle where I can walk and think and reflect on the person I am, and how I may participate in the world around me. I know where I could start, and the path stretches out ahead, like an old friend who is inviting you to come along for the walk of your life.

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Sleeping with the People Who Sleep with Fishes

I am a member of a Facebook “Ohenro” group and there are some very nice people on that list. Several of them have reviews of their websites here, and it is very clear from their participation that they are passionate and thoughtful about their pilgrimage experiences.

There was one recent posting to the group admonishing, in some vague manner, about how to “behave” in Japan. Typically, I find such kinds of admonishments stiff and condescending. They are usually proffered by someone who has been in Japan for several years, has a good mastery of the language, but somehow and someway kind of lost their own identity in the search of being more “personally acceptable” to an imaginary Japanese “standard” of what is passable to the “typical” Japanese person.

Wow. That is a lot of apostrophes for one paragraph.

Part of the irritation I experience, at times, is the self-aggrandizing passive aggressiveness of these typical pieces of advice. They are well-meaning, I suppose, but they are coupled with a superiority complex that is hard not to see. They often begin with a phrase like, “The Japanese people are ….”, as if one person can understand how an entire nation thinks…. or “In Japanese culture you must …”, followed with a series of instructions you need to follow, lest you bring great shame upon yourself, your family, the Emperor, and all civilized people. Usually, it is all a bit much.

For me, having been around a bit myself for the last couple of decades in Japan, I tend to tune out such advice. It is often dull and uninspired, humorless and preachy.  I hope you can take it from me that there is really only one thing that you need to do, well, maybe two.

  1. Be nice.
  2. Don’t be a jerk

That’s it. Just like back home, wherever home might have been before you came here. You know what good manners are, and you know what bad manners are. Figure it out. Use the golden rule. Recall you girl scout or boy scout code of conduct. Be friendly. Be yourself. That should keep you in good shape.

But… the aforementioned posting by one of the members did in fact have one thing that he mentioned that really stood out. And that guy was totally correct. He had heard through friends of his on the ohenro trail that some foreign travelers were, and get this, SLEEPING IN A CEMETERY. 

Great Scott.

That one is a new one on me. That is pretty stunning I think.

I had no idea that there were actually people out there on the ohenro trail who thought that sleeping in a cemetery in a country not their own would be a good idea. Do we really have to tell people NOT to sleep in the cemetery? Really? I mean, how dumb can someone be? That is pretty rude, and to some, very serious behavior.

To the people who thought that it might be okay to sleep in a Japanese cemetery, “What the hell were you possibly thinking?” Were you tired? Did you have a long day walking? Big deal. Everyone has those. Did you not plan your trip properly? That is your fault. Don’t foist your crap on someone else. Didn’t you think that some people visit their loved ones at the cemetery regularly, and that to them it is holy ground? Don’t you think that for them, finding your lazy carcass sprawled out next to their dead family members might be a problem?

Frankly speaking, I think that sleeping in any cemetery, in any country around the world is  not a good idea. Really. What kind of person sleeps in a cemetery? Are you some kind of zombie? Don’t you have any common sense?

I guess my own two pieces of advice, be nice and don’t be a jerk, needs one more. Here it is:

3. Don’t be an idiot by sleeping in a graveyard.

Walking and exploring the ohenro trail should be a good experience. It should be good for you. It should be enriching and expansive for your soul. It should be good for people you meet on the way. How can we be of benefit to those we meet? How can we serve or uplift our fellow humans? This nonsense of sleeping on someone’s family grave just feels wrong,  because it is. That behavior comes from a spirit of “taking”, whether the people doing it are aware or not. There comes from some people an immature feeling of “getting something” or “taking something” wherever you go. “What can I get?” and “How much for me?” is the underscoring tone. If you feel sleepy or tired, get yourself further down the road to a place you know you can stop at. If you have to pay for a bed, do it. If you have to slog on, keep going. That is just how it has to be. That is the world of responsible adults. You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it.

I think that these feelings of greed and entitlement need to be turned around. You don’t need to give all your worldly possessions away and live like a beggar, but when you meet someone, when you meet anyone, the thought of “What can I do for this person?” is simply a better, and happier, way to live.

So, that is my rant for today in its entirety. For those chowderheads sleeping on graves, knock it off. For the rest of you kind friends and neighbors, have a great day and travel safe.

 

Mark

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Down To The Single Digits

Wow.

It has been a very busy year so far. Yesterday I got back home after the last pilgrimage installment. There are only three more temples to visit, and then I will have been to all 88. When I think about that it is pretty amazing, and also I am so grateful that I have been able to update this website throughout the year as I went along. There is so much to see, and so many temples to learn things about and explore. By laying things out here, page by page, I can clearly explore and remember each more clearly. It is also my great hope that this site and blog will be of good help to visitors as well.

I just uploaded the photos up to temple 4, down from 88, so that is a start. There is still much to do for including information, background, history, highlights, and folklore for each. I will keep puttering around with it until it is done.

I am also working on a close reading of the Heart Sutra, and hopefully a helpful guide to reading it aloud, and a mild dissection of each part so that you can understand more and enjoy more of this beautiful thing. I have to admit that I am enjoying pondering the ideas and expressions within the sutra. Like many westerners, I grew up where linear logic is praised, and where clear lines of discussion and argument can be expressed and debated. The Heart Sutra is having none of that, so this is quite interesting.

But I promise also not to go off on all kinds of esoteric tangents that serve more to confuse, than to explore together. That would just be plain…. rude.

My last impression of the most recent journey is that the pace of the pilgrimage is a bit overwhelming. It is hard to put everything in careful perspective when so many temples and countryside is whizzing by. At Kirihataji (temple 10) I met two very nice French visitors. We did not have a chance to talk much, but they sure seemed interesting. They are only here for a short visit, to see a handful of temples, but they could both speak very passable Japanese. Years ago, as students, they used to live in Japan and are now back for a visit. I would have liked to talk more, but the road called them forward and our tour bus took us onward. I  liked that they chose to do fewer, rather than more. They wanted to enjoy and know more of what they were doing, rather than racing to a  finish line to “get it done”.

In the same way, I feel that about this site. This is the first time through, but it feels like preparing the background of a picture I am making on canvas. The first pass needs bold lines and blocky shaded areas. The forms will take shape over time. They will have their own hues and tone. Then the details, slowly and meticulously will fill the finer gaps within. Who knows what it will look like later.

Something entirely unexpected I suppose…

 

Pilgrims in SPAIN!

Well, dear friends and neighbors, I just got back from Spain. It was, as you may already know, a very very cool place to visit. It was my first time to Spain and I have not been to Europe for many years. Everything was interesting and everything was new for me.

I had set out with a local group from Japan with the purpose of promoting the Shikoku Pilgrimage. There was a lot of moving around, and I had to drive quite a bit during this journey, but it was totally worth it.

Our first stop was to Santiago de Compostela. This is the “end” of the Spanish pilgrimage for many, but it was our first stop. It is a very inspiring place to visit. Here are a few of the pictures I took when there:

 

After that visit, we were off to the city of Sarria to meet the mayor there. This was a great time and opportunity. The mayor, Ma del Pilar Lopez Yanez, was tremendously graceful  and very classy. After a lunch together, she invited us to her office where our group was able to talk about the pairing of the Spanish portion of their pilgrimage, from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela, with the Japanese portion of the 88 Buddhist Temple Pilgrimage, from Kannonji to Okubouji. Initial discussions were very fruitful, thanks to our stellar translator and travel support, Shoko-san.

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After some time with the group in Santiago de Compostela, I decided to make my appointments in Barcelona with various travel companies to promote a business connection and cultural exchange opportunity. Some meetings were good, but one meeting was spectacular. We are looking forward to exploring a project together of inviting pilgrims from both Spain and Japan to venture out and experience each other’s pilgrimages. It has great potential and I am absolutely thrilled to be part of the process to help facilitate these experiences.

I have always felt that the weapon against hate and ignorance is knowledge and travel. We learn more about other people when we walk on their roads, eat the food they eat, drink the things they drink, attempt in our feeble ways to use their language to communicate, and find things that we can enjoy, share, and laugh about. I am dismayed to see so much hate in the Western media and ignorance in both speech and deed with those who pretend they should lead us. So, in response, I think we should make pilgrimage in a foreign land a mandatory activity for anyone fit to travel.

It surely is a step in the right direction, wherever that direction takes you.

Getting Closer and Closer to the Beginning

It has been another great couple of sessions for getting out on the pilgrim’s trail. This blog has not been updated for a little while (sorry about that), but sometimes my work takes on a life of its own and needs my attention. But it sure was nice to get away for a little while to visit temples, to study more about the Ohenro trail, and see some things that were unique, elegant, beautiful, and surprising.

It has also been very interesting to see a few more foreign pilgrims on the road. The most amazing thing that has been similar with several is that they have come to Shikoku with limited or without any proficiency in Japanese. They just get out on the trail and start walking, filled with a spirit of determination and a lot of guts. I really admire that. I think it is awesome. I had a chance to stop a few and ask how they are doing, ask where are they from, and ask what they would like to see for some changes or improvements to the whole experience. Some travel by foot, but I also met a family that just came here, rented a car, and started driving all over the place. How cool is that?

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There is usually a brief comment about how the current English guidebook is not enough, but then another quickly following comment that the guidebook is indeed indispensable. I could not agree more. The guidebook is GREAT, but a guidebook cannot, by its very nature hold all the information that a pilgrim would like to have. So, we will do what we can here to chip away at what people want to learn and know more about over time. For me, I am still learning, so we can learn more together, and talk, and share ideas, and try to figure out a few things along the way.

There are also comments about how the trail could be better identified and also for some better computer maps. I think that those things are coming along, and in my time talking with some of the people in the Shikoku Ohenro Friendship Society, a lot of volunteer man-hours are going into those exact things. I think that despite the frustrations that pilgrims have today, things will be better for people who are coming later in the weeks and months to come.

For me, on this first time around, we got to Temple 12. Coming in reverse order this year that means that I have visited 76 temples so far. That is a lot, and they are beginning to blur a bit around the edges. From now I have to kick things into gear and get more updates on each temple. I would like to include more folklore, locals sights and sounds and flavors, and all of that will take time. But this project has given me much more than I have given it. Must get back to it to balance that out a little better, if I can.

There are a couple more outings yet scheduled, so I am looking forward to those. And then off to Mt. Koya. I am, as you can imaging, pretty jazzed about that.

Hope this blog finds you well, safe, and dry on this rainy day here in Shikoku!

 

Yours,

Mark