Keiko & Kenichi Visit Los Angeles

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In July 2013 my YogaPlus colleagues from Tokyo, Kenichi Nemoto and Keiko Tanaka, made their first trip to Los Angeles to visit various Yogaworks studios. Kenichi (Ken) a student in my first TT in Tokyo (2012), is now a very popular teacher at Yogaplus. Tall, talented, and a former professional vocalist who notably performed in a touring company of “Phantom of the Opera.” Keiko Tanaka, whom passionately oversaw the expansion of the Yogaworks trainings at YP, was the quintessential programming director.

They were encouraged to come to LA and experience the thriving yoga community here and spent a glorious week filled with an intensive program of classes at a number of Yogaworks studios in Santa Monica (Montana Ave. & Main St.), South Bay, Westwood and Hollywood; and mandatory sightseeing.

Keiko and Ken were able to practice with so many popular Yogaworks teachers, including: Vinnie Marino, Mia Togo, David Lynch, Birgitte Kirsten, Chad Hamrin, and Alexandria Crow. At the Montana Avenue studio they took Lisa Walford’s Iyengar class and had a special meeting with her afterwards. They dropped into David Kim’s class at Westwood, and my class at Southbay. In addition, the two made a special visit to Gurrmukh at Golden Bridge Yoga in Hollywood; Exhale, Sacred Movement in Venice; and Yoga Loft in Manhattan Beach for a kid’s yoga class with Grenville Henwood, who has developed “Groovy Kids Yoga” trainings that are taught internationally. Both Chad Hamrin and Grenville Henwood would carry out successful trainings and workshops at YP.  Finally, a special treat for Ken was to be featured in one of David Kim’s class segments on “My Yogaworks.com.

Food became a secondary focus, although Californian fare isn’t as stellar as Japanese cuisine, there are plenty of popular spots in L.A. On our fist evening together we had dinner at Annipurna, a popular vegetarian restaurant in Culver City. Pumpkin Pie at Urth Cafe became one of our favorite treats–their salads were second best. Ken also insisted that we try Unami Burger—Unami is the “fifth flavor”–which often is the secret undistinguishable essence in a dish that makes it delectable.  Additionally, Ken and Keiko had their fair share of ubiquitous Mexican food, claiming they ate more tacos and burritos than they could stand, but we insisted they try Wahoo Fish Tacos. We were able to squeeze in our last lunch of wholesome sandwiches at Fundamental.

For more fun, Ken and Keiko toured the city from Hollywood to Venice Beach. One evening we drove up and down the mountainous Malibu Canyon Road and then headed north on Pacific Coast Highway towards Pt. Dume, where we spent a fantastic evening hiking the bluffs, then viewed a spectacular sunset over the Pacific Ocean.

In all, Keiko said that she was impressed by robust yoga culture in Los Angeles, which is diverse in many ways: people of all ages and backgrounds practicing yoga; lots of men, not just women taking classes (which tends to be the case in Japan). They were both very surprised to the large audience of yogis attending filled classes here at each studio, literally back to back. I told them that yoga is part of the mainstream environment  in Los Angeles, with so many choices of styles at dozens of studios, and of course great teachers, it makes it impossible to not to pick up your mat and participate. Once people see the benefits of consistent practice, they keep going. Furthermore, the studios become a social outlet and mini-communities are formed.

I was delighted that Ken and Keiko were able to visit Los Angeles and gain insight on how they could positively influence the yoga program at their studio in Tokyo, recognize the growing potential of partnerships, and the abundant opportunity for collaborations.

 

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Big Island Day Trip: First Stop Hilo!

Our retreat featured a grand expedition that would take us to the eastern coast of the island to visit the bustling Farmers Market in Hilo,  Volcanoes National Park and Big Island Candies. I started the day off with an invigorating yoga class with handstands (Adho Mukha Vrksasana) as our peak.

Once again, Mo packed up special meals for us to take on the road since we would be gone all day exploring sites on a tight schedule.  We loaded up the vans and headed out on Highway  200 traveling about 80 miles (2 hrs) across the Big Island to the densely populated city of Hilo where the lively market was in full swing.  We were joyfully struck by the vibrant medley of produce –lychee, bananas, squash, melons, pineapples, musubi and more fruits and vegetables that were exotic to us but native to the island. There were also flowers of all kinds in dazzling colors, including orchids and anthuriums.

Handmade crafts, jewelry and clothing suitable for the tropical environment filed the outer lying stalls. Everyone left the market with bags loaded with treasures and I couldn’t resist the pareros buying more to add to my growing collection!

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Day 3: An Afternoon Hike in the Pololu Valley

IMG_3084After our morning program, we decided to stay on the North Kohalo Coast and spend the afternoon hiking in the spectacular Pololu Valley. After driving north of the center on Hwy 270 through Kapa’a, we parked our vans and began our descent on the trail, taking a moment to gaze at the vista from the Pololu Overlook and take in the dramatic coastline of black sand contrasted by a lush and serene terrain.

I found out that some scenes from the movie Jurassic Park were filmed here, I can see why–the sweeping landscape, with steep sloped emerald-green valleys with misty clouds hovering above, appeared surreal: like a lost forbidden land that would most certainly reveal spectacular surprises, such as, prehistoric dinosaurs, if you were to venture into it. We continued down and lingered around the coast, walking along the rocky beach. Rough surf swept in and literally knocked Julie from her feet!

Afterwards heading back up, we made a short visit to another nearby town—Kapa’au and took a picture with the great Hawaiian Chief Kamehameha I who was born in the nearby Waipio Valley and was courageously responsible for uniting the Hawaiian Islands in 1810.   A brief time was spent walking around the few shops in tiny  and charming town of Kapa’au –but we made a unanimous decision to swing by Hawi for ice cream at Tropical Dreams.

Later on that day, I led a backbend workshop, which was followed by wonderfully delicious dinner.

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The Retreat Day 2: Hawi Town and the Mauna Kea Observatory

David and I kept on schedule to offer a balance of daily asana practice, workshops, and sight-seeing excursions. The North Kohala Coast is surprisingly remote and commercially undeveloped so the quiet, miniscule town of Hawi became our favorite place to visit during breaks throughout the week. Hawi, just a few miles down the road from the retreat center on Highway 270, consisted of a cluster of historic buildings dating back to the 1800s when there was a prominence of sugar plantations and trade in the area. The Kohala Sugar Co. founded in 1863 by Reverend Elias Bond, was in operation until 1973. Still to this day, Hawi town seems untouched and frozen in time, with just the right amount of necessities: an ice cream parlor, Kona Coffee, a couple of boutiques, galleries with goods made by local artisans and a handful of restaurants. By the time I had left the Big Island, I had brought three hand- blocked pareros in a local shop and all of us had eaten our generous share of delicious and exotic flavored ice cream at “Tropical Dreams.”

David Kim's Inversion Workshop

David Kim’s Inversion Workshop

On Highway 200 towards Mauna Kea

On Highway 200 Towards Mauna Kea

On the second day or the retreat after a full day of: morning class, a visit to Hawi, and an afternoon Inversion workshop led by David, we headed off to the Mauna Kea Observatory around 4:30 p.m. Mo packed some snacks in our coolers and we bundled up in layers in preparation for the frigid temperature at high altitude.

We drove off on a scenic Highway, 200, which cuts across the middle of the island, inching higher and higher to the top of the Big Island as darkness fell. Ascending slowly to Mauna Kea, which is 13, 796 ft. above sea level, the landscape noticeably changed to vast desolate acres of lava, stark, lunar like and barren.

Mauna Kea Summit Road, photo by Donnie MacGowan

Mauna Kea Summit Road, photo by Donnie MacGowan

Mauna Kea (White Mountain), which Hawaiians refer to as the “sacred realm of the Gods,” is a dormant volcano and the site of the world’s largest astronomical observatory.  It is also the highest island mountain in the world and the highest point in the Pacific Basin.  The summit of Mauna Kea is above 40% of the Earth’s atmosphere. The extremely dry atmosphere is cloud free, inky dark sky, making it ideal for observing the faintest galaxies that lie at the very edge of the universe. Night viewings are held at the visitor’s center.

Towards the end of our long drive, David called me on his cell phone to tell me that his van was out of gas and running on fumes! We inched our way up to the visitors center at 9,000 ft. Luckily the camp at the top gave us enough gas that would help us make it back to Waimea!

Shivering in the bitter cold and windy night, we meandered around the visitors center to peer through a handful of telescopes that were set up and directed towards brilliant stars and planets. Apparently 85% of all stars visible from the earth can be seen here. Peering through the various telescopes I saw: Saturn encircled by rings, Venus, and the Moon, which loomed so large and close, we could almost touch it! An astronomer pointed out the many constellations in the night sky with a laser.

We made the long trek back to the retreat center, arriving there sometime after 9 p.m. 

Photo Credits:

Image of Moon: http://blog-de-phil.blogspot.com/2015/02/big-island-kona-adventure.html

Star Gazing Program at Mauna Kea: http://www.ifa.hawaii.edu/info/vis/visiting-mauna-kea/star-gazing-program.html

Saddle Road towards Mauna Kea: https://lovingthebigisland.wordpress.com/tag/saddle-road/

Place of Healing Stones: The Hawaii Island Retreat Center

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I had never been to the Hawaii Island Retreat Center and therefore didn’t know what to expect.  With just a few glossy promotional images to rely on, I put my trust in David who assured me that all was good. Yet, to my surprise, the stunning, rural setting and uniqueness of the property far exceeded my expectations.  Overall, the HIRC turned out to be an exceptional contrast to the pricey, massive commercial resorts on the Big Island. Situated on the North Kohola Coast, two miles of Hwy 270 outside of Hawi, The Hawaii Island Retreat Center is owned and managed by Jeanne Sunderland and Robert Watkins who spent years building this impressive oasis with the help of their two children. Jeanne said that she and her husband purchased the 50 acres with a vision of creating a sustainable farm and retreat center. It then took over 10 years to draw up plans, acquire permits and then start construction. The center is powered by its own windmills, solar panels and water provided by natural springs. Jeanne and Robert have a congenial staff of talented people who keep up the vast facility, gardens and animals.

Mo, Yuri and the baby goat

Mo, Yuri and a rambunctious baby goat!

All of the food that is eaten at the center is grown on the property. Free roaming goats and chickens provide fresh goat milk, cheese and eggs. In addition, large steer, cattle and wild pigs scampering about, however since meat is not served, I think they are just guest who love living on the land!  Jeanne also said that she is hosting a program that supports organic gardening. An abundant variety of fruits and vegetables are served daily–including, mangos, papayas, lychee nuts, bananas, pineapples, avocados, eggplants, lettuce and other greens. Exotic flowers were growing everywhere, from plumeria to flora I’d never seen. The main house has a “Colonial Plantation” feel, with open verandas, dining and living rooms. Even “Yurt Village” was stylish and equipped with bathrooms. I really enjoyed staying in my yurt in a remote location near the pool and hearing the natural wonders in the darkness of night–rain, birds and other wild animals. A resounding chorus of chirping birds and crowing roosters would wake me up at sunrise.

Romy, Mo & David

Romy, Mo and David

We ate our meals in a richly painted red airy dining room decorated with beautiful antiques and paintings. The table was always set impressively with white linen table cloths for dinner. “Mo” our chef from Morocco would whip up tasteful vegetarian meals with flair. Jeanne  gave us a tour one evening  and told us about the amazing history of the site also called “Ahu Pohaku Ho’maluhia” (Place of Healing Stones) due to the culturally relevant ancient stones dotting the property: the primeval stone circle where Hawaiian Chiefs once congregated and held council;  the magical fertility rock that  women from near and far would come to sit on as part of ritual in hope of bearing a child; and the stone amphitheater for hula performances and concerts held long ago. There were also the mystery of two old massive stones that found their way down a hill to line up perfectly. These legends dated back centuries and Jeanne allows traditional Hawaiian ceremonies to be held among the revered stones. It is possible to stay at HIRC for many reasons: yoga, silent and meditation retreats, writers and artists also make extended visits to work on projects. There were even a pair of young newlyweds on their honey moon who joined us for dinner occasionally. With 50 acres of idyllic tranquility available, it is possible to lodge at the center for days and not leave–everything you need is right there.

The Hawaii Retreat Yoga Begins…

Morning practice with David Vira II facing the ocean With David Kim

We didn’t waste anytime getting on track with our yoga schedule.  Jeanne Sunderland, the founder and owner of the Hawaii Island Retreat Center,  greeted us and welcomed our group on the first morning. We were privileged to have a wonderfully spacious asana room overlooking the ocean. We practiced each class with the large french doors opened to allow  warm  ocean breezes to flow into the room as geckos scampered across the walls. David and I set a schedule offering two yoga classes a day–morning and evening including workshops.  In addition, we organized an exciting itinerary for the week  which featured: Hapuna Beach, nearby Hawi, Hilo, Mauna Kea Observatory, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and Polulo Valley.

Jeannie

 

Balancing

 

David BalancingAfternoon at the beach

Hawaiian Odyssey

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After I returned to Los Angeles on May 13, 2013,  I  immediately left for Hawaii on May 17  to co-host my  first international  yoga retreat with my Yogaworks colleague, David Kim and  YogaPlus teacher, Yuri N. Hayashi as our translator. Participants from Japan and the US would converge on the Big Island of Hawaii for one week of yoga, adventure and fun at the Hawaii Island Retreat Center.

David and I arrived a day early to prepare. We rented two vans, picked up supplies and then ordered hand-made Leis from a local Plumeria farm.

On Saturday, May 18, David and I greeted each retreat participant with a Lei as soon as they exited the gate at the airport and then whisked them away in vans.

Early arrival

 

 

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At Kona airport

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After shuttling back and forth to the retreat center on furthest northern point of the island, we settled down for a fantastic and festive meal. It was clear  from this photo taken before dinner, that would be a magical week.

First Night of Retreat

Back row left to right: Joni Kashiwara,Hanae Tsuda, Julie Graham, Karen Milke, Kyoko Ishimaru,Yuka Takahashi, Sanae Yamaguchi, Naoko Nakano

Front row left to right: Kaori Waragai, Jun Takeda, David Kim, Romy Phillips, Yuri N. Hayashi, Kazue Isono, Jun Makitani

Chinatown with Rina Oishi & Natsumi Chonan

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The frantic pace of impromptu sight-seeing excursions in the last few days before leaving Tokyo concludes with a grand finale—spectacular Chinatown in Yokohama. Since I was teaching night classes in Shinjuku during my last two weeks in Tokyo, (May 2013). I met Rina Oishi and Natsumi Chonan (Sun) early one morning and took the long train ride from Gotanda to Yokohama then continued on to Chinatown.

I was so impressed from the first moment we walked up to the entry gate and would soon discover that the architecture and temples in Chinatown are much grander, colorful, and flamboyant than you could imagine—in fact, more so than you would see in Chinatown in both New York and Los Angeles.   Great exposure to yet another environment rich with history and visual interests that one could go back to many times to explore.

Spanning a 150 year old history, Yokohama’s Chinatown is the largest in Asia. Chinese immigrants and traders arrived in Yokohama in 1859 and created a community that would slowly evolve into an impressive cultural hub. Overall, the temples in Yokohma’s Chinatown are much more flamboyant than Japanese temples or shrines. Rich with ornamental details: notably dragon imagery, gargoyles and the abundance of bright colors, particularly, red, gold, orange. I was fortunate to be there on a sunny day, which only heightened the sensory visual overload.

We visited two temples. First, the splendid Mazu-Mio Temple (The Goddess of the Sea). Ship owners and residents prayed to her for a safe voyage as well as protection from: floods, drought, cholera, epidemics,  theft and war. A statue of Mazu-Mio, sits on a lavishly decorated shrine surrounded by flowers and an array of symbolic elements.

In addition, we surveyed the Yokhoama Kan-Tie-Byo with its chief God–King Guan. Referred to as the “God of Business,” King Guan, is recognized for creating the accounting and bookkeeping systems used in China. This temple in contrast, had a playful ornamental roof of glass serpentine and dragon imagery. The Kan-Tie-Byo was first built-in the Edo period and reconstructed, like many buildings in Japan, over the centuries due to fires and earthquakes.

After visiting a couple of temples and eating lunch in a traditional Chinese restaurant, we spent the afternoon strolling through blocks of shops including “Silk Road” which is fancifully covered with dancing red lanterns. I bought last-minute gifts for translators and friends back home: rose petals and chrysanthemums to enhance loose black tea; beads, and paper lavishly decorated paper journals. We stopped to see the huge ships in the port the  before journeying back to Gotanda.

Ship, Yokohama

The Train to Yokohama

I taught in Yokohama two evenings a week during the month of April.  This journey would usually generate slight panic as I traveled far away from my familiar environment in Tokyo on a fast-moving express train packed with commuters.  On my first trip there, Chinatsu Ito, a bright and talented student in my Teacher Training and teacher at Yogaplus, led me–through a maze of stairs, escalators and tracks, starting with the JR Yamanonte Line in Gotanda, then changing trains in Shinagawa for the rapid Tokaido Line to Yokohoma.  Once we finally reached our destination, Chinatsu gave me more instructions directing me to the studio on a hand drawn map then left me with these parting words… “don’t get lost!”

Yokohoma Station, 10p.m.

Each of these massive subway stations—Shibuya, Shinjuku, Shinagawa, or Yokohama, are entire macrocosms overflowing with stores, restaurants, stalls for every type of goods, and throngs of people moving at a frenetic pace, never seeming to slow down. The surrounding areas outside of the ungainly Yokohama station were flanked with monolithic department stores, intimidating in scale and densely occupied by hordes of people.

Yokohoma a marine city with a busy port, is the second largest metropolitan area in Japan.  The city has a long history of foreign trade, primarily with Great Britain; immigration from China and Korea; and occupation by Americans after WW II.  I didn’t have a chance to see the greater metropolitan area or those that reflected distinct Western influences, but did manage to get to the “dazzling” Chinatown which will be highlighted in the next post.

Yogaplus in Yokhoma is an inviting place with a great group of students who were always fun to teach.  The studio is managed by  the gracious and energetic Kosai Kato who was also my translator for classes in 2012 and the 2013 TT.  Once I made the long journey to the studio, I always felt at home.

A Nice Welcome at Yokohama

One of the students, Yoko Ito, would occasionally walk me to the train station after class, pointing out a wonderful bakery in the subway that would mark down their goods just as I was heading home around 9pm.  I would buy an assortment of tasty bread and pastries to get me through the weekend and catch the train and make it back to Gotanda around 10pm.

Art on the Tracks…

Primary Colors, Ebisu Station

As I traveled on the subway to and from classes daily,  I would be entertained by the bold, colorful ads that adorned the billboards. Amusing or seductive large-scale photos, exquisitely lavish mosaics and dynamic painted murals– intended to captivate the masses and make an arduous routine more pleasurable. Here are some of eye-catching images I captured while gliding swiftly along the tracks or waiting on a crowded platform.

Blue Bamboo

Great Mural at Yokohama Station

Mobit ad, Shibuya Station

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Yellow Mural, Tukiji Mkt