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Posts Tagged ‘Thailand’

The Bangkok Flâneur

Last week I arrived in Bangkok after 24 hours of travel and despite an initial urge to hustle to the islands in the south, I remained for 3 days, enjoying my solitude and exploring the city. I had horrible jetlag for some reason this time and always found myself awake at 4am, which I realized was actually a wonderful opportunity to see the real Bangkok. The Shanti Lodge, where I always stay in Bangkok, is a little gem of a guesthouse located away from the crazy backpacker/partier haven of Khao San Road, in a nondescript Thai neighborhood. For 3 nights in a row I made my way to 7-11 at 4:30 to buy a caffeinated beverage, then I would wander over to giant outdoor market a few blocks away. By 5 the action was really happening: fish being chopped, spices mixed, things moving this way and that. The mixing smells of raw fish, sewer and red chile to name a few were poignant. Men on motorbikes delivering ungodly amounts of things on their little machines zipped through the narrow passageways . It was clear to me that most of the vendors slept in the back of their little shops, starting each day by immediately going to work. There was such a feeling of aliveness and energy as they prepared for the day’s business. 

Eventually I would return to the TongJan coffee shop across the street from the Shanti Lodge and watch the world wake-up. The proprietors at TongJan were very kind to me, often bringing me free tea and snacks to try. I observed the orange-robed monks move from shop to shop with their begging bowls, seeking the sustenance that they would eat for the day. Students making their way to the nearby University and parents taking their children to school would stop by for a quick coffee or treat. I’ve been returning to the Shanti Lodge since 2009 when I first stayed there; and in most aspects, one could not differentiate this little street corner 4 years later. The same street vendors stood in the same places, the tuk-tuk drivers and massage parlor owners looked incredibly familiar. I thoroughly enjoy this element of timelessness. There is a sense that the folks in this little neighborhood cared little about progress, but treated their lives much more as a daily ritual of work and family life. I appreciated their willingness to allow me to sit and observe in silence.

I continued my days wandering the city, never finding myself too busy for a Thai massage or mango/banana fruit shake 🙂 I noticed how much I enjoy this sort of aimless wandering, and recalled the concept of the flâneur that my Zen teacher has mentioned a few times. I thought it was quite a fitting description of what I was doing:

Charles Baudelaire presented a memorable portrait of the flâneur as the artist-poet of the modern metropolis:

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world – impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are or are not – to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas. Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.

I eventually journeyed to the island of Koh Phangan, where I’m preparing to begin a 12-week, 600 hour Yoga training course at Agama Yoga. I found a nice house to live in and am enjoying a few easy days on the island before the course begins and the intensity of the schedule and practice takes over.   Bye for now!

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Its early October, yet summer lingers here in Boulder. Fall is sneaking in slowly with its changing leaves and cool nights. Snow is in the forecast soon. I find myself in transition along with the seasons. After a whirlwind of travel from Thailand, Holland, Crestone and Seattle, I finally settled in Boulder in mid-September.

I traveled to Thailand with the pure intention to deepen my spiritual practice, to explore different paths and simply to get away for a while. My experiences this summer were incredible. I traveled differently than I ever had in the past. I simply went to one location and stayed put. I rented a house and integrated myself into the local community. I became active in the Agama Yoga school, taking several workshops, two months of intensive Yoga study and practice as well as two 10-day silent meditation retreats. I experimented with fasting and cleansing. I lived simply and slowly.

I set a clear intention that this would be a summer of inner work, that I would not seek social gratifications or female companionship.  Yet one cannot deny the human existence and the powers at play between certain individuals. The most extraordinary element of my summer, and possibly my life to this point was meeting Ingrid at the conclusion of a ten-day meditation retreat together. I could fill this page with all that we’ve experienced and explored together, but as a general rule, I try to keep relationships out of my writing. I must however say that our meeting has coincided with an opening of my heart, with a deep yearning to to be united with someone as inspiring, beautiful and amazing as she is. A wild set of circumstances have collided that have allowed an American man and a Dutch woman to dance on loves stage together.

I find it difficult to articulate my experience this summer, as much of what occurred for me was very subtle – shifts in my world views, my relationship to myself, others and the world. Aspects of my personal experience I once had taken for granted or simply dismissed are now accessible to me. There is a sense of surrender to the unknown ahead, a diminishing need to control the uncontrollable future. I consider much more often what is nourishing me in this very moment rather than in some projection of the future. In a practical sense I have no idea where my life is headed, yet the clarity of simply trusting my heart and intuition is very powerful.

Throughout the summer I weighed a large decision for early 2012 – would I participate in a 90-day Practice Period at my Zen Monastery in Crestone, or would I travel to Mexico to participate in a 90-day teacher training program in Yoga and Meditation? Over time the decision became very clear for me – I found myself longing for time in Crestone, to be immersed in the stream of ancient teaching passed down over the past 2600 years. A teacher’s training program might very well be in my future, but right now my path is asking me to spend more time practicing, deepening my meditation practice more so than gaining an intellectual understanding of what meditation is. Helping others bring meditation into their lives and bring their lives to meditation would bring me tremendous of joy, yet right now I feel the most nourishing way for me to move towards such a vision is to live and practice in a monastic setting.

imageIngrid will be joining me for the move to Crestone in a couple of weeks, where we will practice together at the monastery this fall.  In January, I will begin Practice Period and she will travel to Mexico to help organize and teach the Teacher’s Training I nearly decided to attend. You can see this was no easy decision for me! In all I will be at the monastery for at least 6 months, finishing the practice period in mid-April. Other then the desire to reunite with Ingrid at that time, the world is a blank slate, full of possibility.

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Reflections

I had sincerely intended to write a reflection on my two and a half months in Thailand. Alas, I’m out of time on the eve of my next meditation retreat. The condensed version is that my journey has been full of light and beauty, a tremendous opening and affirmation.  I’ve gone deeper into the Self, explored new practices and techniques and have met and shared this journey with some incredible people. In all of this I find myself cultivating a great sense of peace and joy. My heart is big and my mind at ease.  Below is a photograph of my classmates and me celebrating the completion of our third month of study at Agama Yoga, receiving a red sash for recognition of 250 hours of practice and study.

Soon after this retreat I will leave Thailand, stopping over in Europe for a couple of weeks before returning to the U.S. in late August. I’m looking forward to spending my remaining time on the island in silence, contemplating and reflecting on this amazing experience, resting in that profound stillness that pervades everything.

 

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I find myself in a lovely rhythm this week on Koh Phangan. Two weeks ago I moved to a new place, high in the jungle and extremely private. I have a lovely sea view from my bed and French doors that open to a large seating and practice space. The beach was nice place to start, but its energy can be distracting and I’m pleased to have made the move towards a more secluded abode.

I wake early, meditate, do my tapas (spiritual commitments), read, and enjoy a nice breakfast of fruit and tea. I am practicing Hatha Yoga and Pranayama with a teacher and class each day from 12-4. I’ve progressed to level 3 at Agama and am very fortunate to have the wonderful and talented Kirsten as my teacher. She is a true Yogini, very inspiring and dedicated to her students. Her emphasis is on meditation, stillness, and deepening. I feel an affinity with her aspirations and style and am extremely grateful for her teaching.

As you progress in the levels here, the emphasis shifts from knowledge to practice, and I’m loving it. We’ve had several classes of nearly three and a half hours in length, holding asanas for as long as 10 minutes, practicing sublimation techniques, breathing exercises and meditation. I often feel like I might float away when I walk out of the hall. Agama Yoga is an incredibly transformational practice and it’s so beautiful to watch both myself and others open and explore their true nature, remove blockages and fears and journey down the road of realization together.

There is a growing awareness of my subtle body (prana-maya-kosha). This is the one you can’t read about in any school book and science will deny its existence because they cannot measure it. Yet we all know it’s there, and countless sages have spoken and taught about it. You first have to work on modifying blockages at a gross level in your physical body, removing toxins like alcohol, marijuana, caffeine, and focusing on diet, sleep and general lifestyle improvements. Then you have a platform for exploring the intricate energetic phenomena that is our subtle body, a body so much wider and expansive than our physical one. In many ways its like being an infant and learning to use one’s body for the first time – often stumbling and running into things, having difficulty navigating in the world. Yet as I practice more and more with this, there are new pathways opening to me, new ways of knowing myself and being in this world. There is a feeling of coming back home to a true self, not the one we have been taught or believe that we are, but the one that we actually feel and know that we are. This is the body connected with prana (the subtle life force that pervades everything) and begins connecting us with everything else.

Agama is a tantric yoga school – and there is incredible insight into the sexual energies, raising and subliming them towards the ultimate desire of the union of consciousness with its own luminosity, wherein all appearance is recognized as your deep, blissful nature, or true Self. Tantra focuses on the polarities of Shiva and Shakti, their interplay and communion. Last week I participated in an event known as a tantric transfiguration. I first got together with the men to learn how the event worked – after some time we entered a dimly lit hall where 40 women were sitting in a large circle. The men all took their seats and we began. The women were wearing a dress based on their element (earth=yellow, water=blue, fire=red, air=white). All of them looked incredible. The men remained in their seats, the women traveled around the circle. Every three minutes a new woman would appear before me, present her mudra (often a very provocative gesture indicating where her energies were), then I would take her hands, seat her very close to me. We would sit facing each other, staring into each other’s eyes without blinking or looking away for several minutes. I’m not sure exactly how to describe what was happening – but it was powerful. In those few minutes you could see and feel so much: openness, love, rigidity, pain, longing, hurt, passion, confusion, questioning, seeking, wanting, denying, on and on and on. When is the last time you stared into your lover’s eyes for three minutes without moving? Imagine doing this with 40 (mostly strangers) people without stopping. Something happens. From what I understand, transfiguration means to see another as a sublime manifestation of the Divine, to go beyond the limitations set by human personality, to embrace in the consciousness sphere all the perfect aspects manifested or yet unmanifested which lead love spontaneously to elevated, superior levels.

I spend a lot of time alone- focusing on what’s right in front of me. Cooking my own meals, reading and watching spiritual movies. I’ve been careful about my social life here – one can easily lose focus on practice, engaging in the almost nightly events or constant distractions of being on an island in paradise. I’m no hermit either, I enjoy company and have found a small group of people whom I really enjoy spending time with, discussing the simultaneous beauty and suffering of this spiritual journey together, our aspirations and fears. One relationship in particular has actually changed the course of my life and has been a deeply moving, opening and incredible experience. One bestowed with grace, wonder and love. I could fill pages with more about this and the discoveries occurring within me but these words are more appropriate for a private conversation.

Time to go.

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Two years ago I built this website for the purpose of documenting my travels abroad and here I am again, on the cusp of leaving home and seeking something unknown abroad. In one week, I depart for Koh Phangan, Thailand, where Agama Yoga awaits.

My initial pilgrimage sought to explore the world, to uncover hidden corners of the planet, to create new experiences and memories.  My trip in 2009 allowed me to exhaust a long-held myth I had about discovering some form of realization through the accumulation of experience.

Today I have a much different aspiration: Unwinding all of this experience, the false identification of self and my delusion about the actual nature of reality. I realized over time that my journey was much more an inward one than anything external or material. My search has narrowed significantly from the entire world, to the spiritual practices of Zen Buddhism, Tantra and Vajrayana. I’ve discovered that this unwinding process is best accomplished through a life not filled with experience, activities and commitments, rather through self-enquiry and meditation. As Yuan Wu so eloquently stated in my last post:

Sit upright and investigate reality. Within an independent awareness, you must constantly step back from conventions and perceptions and worldly entanglements. Look to the void and trace its outline. Take your head out of a bowl of glue!

If all one needs to do is sit upright and investigate reality, why am I traveling half-way around the globe?  Fair question that I will attempt to answer. Let me back up a bit. 

Almost one year ago, on May 16th 2010, I returned home from India, completing a year (mostly) abroad. The journey brought me back to the same place I began, yet things had shifted significantly within me. I vigorously began practicing Zen, both at a monastery in Crestone and at the Boulder Zen Center, developing strong relationships with the Sangha (group of practitioners), and the teachers. After spending a month in a rigorous monastic setting in the fall, I considered a longer-term stay, considered joining the annual 90-day practice period in the winter. Yet, worldly entanglements and my own fear of such a practice prevented me from moving forward. I was involved in a romantic relationship that has since dissolved, a relationship that I believe represented many of the aspects of worldliness that I refused to let go of.  Once again ignoring intuition, I was drawn towards societal ideas of what it means to live in this world, to relate to another person and basically all of the shoulds that are based on nothing but one’s own projections of society and ego.

Part of me wants to say that I’ve been idling the past 3 or 4 months, drifting in this sort of purposeless manner. This is true when examined from the lens of normal that society and we produce for ourselves. I have to step back and remind myself that this is all part of a greater process of renunciation for me, detaching from ideas of self and the world that do not benefit anyone, that only seek to perpetuate a process and mode of existence that perpetuates a world of suffering and discontent.  I meditate a lot, I sit upright and examine my experience. I am constantly trying to step back from worldly entanglements and perceptions.  I examine all the presumptions and ideas of how the world works, what is reality and why I am here.  I attempt to infuse intentions of compassion and wisdom into my body, speech and mind.  Despite on paper being a 31 year old unemployed guy from Boulder with nothing going for him, I feel this tremendous sense of change within, of a new world unfolding before me, filled with Possibility, Beauty and Love.

This still has nothing to do with answering my initial question of why go anywhere? My teacher has told me that practicing in a single stream provides the best results- why swim in another? My answer to this is that my exploration of Agama is, while primarily spiritual in nature, also an opportunity for me to pursue a vocation in the world that has meaning for me. I am considering a meditation teachers training in 2012.  My idea involves bringing meditation and self-enquiry to more people, via any channel possible: Yoga, Corporate Training, workshops, seminars, private consulting, blogging, etc.  It is very loose and evolving at this point, but there is a sense of momentum and purpose for me right now. My intention this summer is to explore the school, evaluate the teachers and the programs, to ensure this is the type of commitment I want to make in early 2012.  This summer I plan to take a number of courses, including Vira Training, Hridaya Meditation Retreat, Kashmiri Shaivism and Naturopathic and Yogic Healing, in addition to continuing my second and third month of studies in the Agama curriculum.

There you have it.  I have a one-way ticket to Thailand, a new Yoga mat and a big heart.

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I’m relaxing at my guesthouse in Chiang Rai, Thailand. I’m enjoying the cool breeze and a glass of local whiskey. I’m now a week into my third trip to Thailand in less than a year and once again exploring new places, meeting amazing people and eating yummy food!

On the six hour bus ride to Chiang Rai today I could barely contain myself as I took a step back and looked at how fortunate I have been to be able to take this trip and simultaneously looked forward to the adventure that will follow as I move north towards China and eventually Mongolia. The scenery was once again spectacular – undulating hills, karsts, rice paddies and small hill-tribe villages. A packed bus filled with people in ethnic garb, exuding mystery. I’m IMG_2115 starting to really settle into the psyche of the long-term traveler, with things like ambition, time and duty starting to lose their power over me. 12 hours on an uncomfortable bus? Camping in the mud? Stuck in a torrential downpour while on a motor bike? No problem, its just part of the process. I’ve decided that this trip is much more about the why, how and what rather then the when and where. Each day, decisions are made based on intuition and a few facts. When will I come home many people ask? When I no longer see the beauty and wonder in the every day activities of travel, when travel becomes a burden or feels like an obligation towards some unknown goal. I’m nowhere near feeling that yet.

Backing up – I landed in Bangkok last week to find my old friend Wei waiting for me at the airport. It was a great feeling to see someone I knew at a place so far away from home. Wei and I went to high school together and just recently reconnected on Facebook. I mentioned in the last post that through the magic of Facebook we discovered that riding horses in Mongolia was a life-list thing for both of us. We figured teaming up would help with trading horses and guns on our way up into the wilds of Central Asia.

Bangkok was Bangkok – a great place to take care of business, but loud and stinky and after a quick couple of nights we were off to the north. A random highlight this time was finding a place called Fashion Mall where there were 30 different shops full of lady boys offering hair extensions and massages… we did indulge in a foot massage but skipped the extensions.

The morning we left one of the lowest moments of my trip occurred. As Wei and I jumped into a taxi, another taxi driver was stuffing our bags into the trunk. We were in the back seat before he closed the trunk and we both heard what we thought was a zipper sound. I looked out at the guy as we drove away and he was slightly turned away but didn’t appear to have anything in his hands. We looked at each other, agreed it was a zipper sound but for some reason ignored our intuition and agreed to continue. Bad idea. When we reached the train station, Wei’s pride and joy, her large SLR camera was gone. We drove back, talked to the police but knew it was hopeless. Wei is a photographer and that was her single most important possession. I have to give her credit that despite this great loss she is not letting it deter her at all – she is staying positive and not dwelling on it. We both learned a powerful lesson that morning: trust your intuition. If you hear a zipper, it probably is a zipper. And never take your eyes off your bag, even for a second. We agreed that getting out of Bangkok ASAP was the best way for Wei to feel a little better, so after missing our train dealing with the police we made our way to the bus terminal.

The northeast corner of Thailand was our destination this time – somewhere untouristed (the locals in Bangkok didn’t even know what city we were talking about!), natural and somewhere neither of us had been before. We targeted a city called Nan for its proximity to a large national park called Doi Phu Ka. Our first bus only made it to a town called Phrae, rather uninspiring but with a great night market and a few decent temples. The next day we did reach Nan, spent one night and rented a motor bike the next day. It was a Yamaha with a retro design, and Spiderman insignia where you put your feet – off we went on a 100k journey through windy roads (and yes torrential downpours on the way). We eventually arrived at the park after one of the best drives I’ve ever taken ( I know I JUST said this about Bali but its true!) on a newly paved road along the Laos border. No traffic, just mountains and greenery. And the occasional pack of goats or cows you have to stop for.

Eventually reaching the park – we were the only visitors that evening in a large place that could have slept hundreds in various bungalows and tents. Wei IMG_2139 brought camping gear so we headed for the campground despite the curious questions from the park staff. They were wondering who in their right mind would camp at the height of the rainy season? Despite a very soggy campsite, it felt great to sleep outside, watching and listening to the thunderstorms and the forest. The morning was brilliant and we enjoyed a sunny start to the day. I figured out a 3 or 4 mile hike we could take and we took off on a muddy trail. About 30 minutes in I felt the first leech sucking on my ankle. Before we knew it, they were latching on faster then we could pull them off. If I hadn’t had my first experience with leeches on my trek a couple of months ago I would have not been as cool as I was. Wei found a couple right on her stomach and we both shrieked, realized we were losing the battle and hightailed it to the campsite to pick the rest of them off of us and get out of there. Hiking in the jungle will not be easy until we get farther north and out of the monsoon season. Leeches don’t carry disease but they are simply disgusting as they latch onto your body to suck your blood until they are so full IMG_2130they fall off… We drove back to Nan for some civilization and spent the evening watching the locals train for their boat racing festival in October.  It was quite a site – 40 men in one boat paddling in unison, shouting and grunting as the literally flew along the water.

Phew – that was a lot. We are now plotting our next move – maybe into Burma but more likely towards northern Laos where it will be easier to make our way into China. The journey with no end goes on.

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** Note: I typed most of this on July 17th but haven’t had a good Internet connection since.

I’m typing this from the deck of a long-boat cruising the Mekong river from Huay Xia to Luang Prabang in Laos. Its a two-day journey along this ancient river that runs from China, past Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and eventually Vietnam before existing into the sea. IMG_1031Although not the most exiting journey (there really is NOTHING out here), it has been very peaceful. I finished reading Siddhartha last week and for those who have read it,  I am starting to understand what it means to listen to a river. Time slows, scenery blends, and its just floating in the moment, literally. Although crammed on the boat with many other travelers and locals, there is this sense of camaraderie that exists as noted when a monsoon rain hit and we all had to shift seats as the front half of the boat became flooded. We have been passing small fishing villages, rice fields and a whole lot of jungle. Some may laugh, but ‘floating down the Mekong’ was one of the mini-goals I had before leaving. I’m not entirely sure what Laos has in store yet, but from my research it appears that boat travel is often faster than road travel during the rainy season.  How did we get here you ask? Not easily.

IMG_0979 Two days ago we left Pai, Thailand, taking a nauseating overnight mini-bus to the Thai/Lao border where the next morning we were herded like cattle towards the ferry. There are about 10 tourist scams you have to pass through in order to get your Thai exit stamp, Lao visa and boat ticket. A group that we met on the mini-bus stuck together and we managed to get through with only a slight premium to the hawkers. So now we float down the river for two days, stopping at a small town halfway for an evening, and then landing in Luang Prabang tomorrow. Then its off to explore Laos.

Backing up a bit to Pai – Autumn and I spent 4 nights there and really enjoyed it. Its a bit of a traveler’s mecca, a small town of about 3 or 4 thousand nestled between hills and winding rivers. We found a nice bungalow on the river and decided to stay put and do some of the things we had been looking forward to doing in Thailand – Elephant riding, rafting , Thai massage and cooking school. Pai is definitely on the tourist trail, and apparently can be packed during the high season (Nov-Mar). While there were a lot of tourists, it felt like a small town that I could imagine spending a lot of time. There were still plenty of locals doing there thing, and thanks to the tourism boom there is healthy competition amongst guest houses and restaurants, making for quality accommodation and great food. There were definitely a lot of long-term western visitors, and after going to Chiang Mai last year I have to say that Pai has all of the cool aspects of Chiang Mai without the big city annoyances. I’m not sure I’d want to be in Pai during the high season as the town looked like it could turn into quite a party scene, but in July it was nice and slow, and we got used to seeing the same people walking back and forth around the towns 3 or 4 streets.

The bad news first – I spent the first day and night wandering between my bed and the toilet. I can no longer say I have never gotten TD (Traveler’s Diarrhea), something the CDC says gets 30-50% of travelers within 2 weeks of going to a 3rd world country… I cant complain as I had been breaking all of the rules – ice, fresh vegetables and fruit… I also drank water from the hill-tribe villages. Fortunately it wasn’t horrible and I didn’t have to go as far as taking Cipro (strong antibiotic). I was out of commission for a total of about 36 hours but it left as quickly as it came and I was glad to be in a comfortable town where I could be sick and still have a nice view 🙂

Now the good news! We had several adventures in Pai – first we spent a day at an elephant camp, riding and swimming with elephants. I honestly was skeptical at first but Autumn really wanted to do this. In the end I had an incredible time – the elephants would flip you over their back with their noses and let you try to ride them as the shook you off in the water. They were incredibly gentle and our guides were quite amusing as they ate what I think were magic mushrooms growing out of the elephant poop along the trail… the next day we took a cooking class at Pai CookingIMG_1015 school where we learned how to make (and eat!) five different Thai dishes.  Our chef Daew also took us through the local market and explained many of the exotic things for sale to us. Those were the highlights – there were of course massages and fantastic meals. We found a small restaurant called “the House” where we became daily regulars. As I did in Japan, I found it necessary just to exist for a few days, catch up on sleep, eat healthily and exercise.

Not too much as for ‘insights’ in this post – I must admit having a travel partner has taken away a bit of my dependency on blogging as a therapeutic outlet!Autumn and I have been having amazing conversation about our experiences, our paths and this journey. Not too mention I’m simply not sitting around comfortable trains and hostels with my laptop open as often as I did in Japan.

I promise to bring all my faithful blog followers up to date soon!

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