The Strength of the Rising Sun

On this day, many moons back, I was caught in the Great East Japan Earthquake. I was in Tokyo when that happened. Here is my story of those dramatic days.

March 11, 2011 – I was at a lunch in Akasaka (downtown Tokyo) with two of my friends, Sakitsu san from the NHK World and Ogawa san of Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS). I was on an official visit to prepare for the State Visit of our King, which was to happen two months later.

As we were eating, chatting and sharing the old times, the building started shaking.  Mildly at first.  “It’s normal,” one of them reassured me.  But the quake only intensified and things started falling down around us.  Some people started screaming outside.  Sakitsu took out his phone and was rather shocked by what he saw on the mini-screen, “It is a big one. It hit off the coast of Fukushima. Tsunami alert along the Pacific Coast.” The emergency siren rang.  Immediately he excused himself and rushed off. Ogawa, seeing me little dazed, asked me to follow him to his office – the TBS building, which is probably one of the safest buildings in Tokyo. I followed him. In the streets people were running all over the place. Another shake. I felt like I was trying to walk down the aisle of an airplane midair under severe turbulence. A big earthquake had just hit Japan.

The 9.2 magnitude earthquake has released an energy that was equivalent to 30,000 times the power of the atomic bomb that was dropped over Hiroshima during the World War II.  But more than the earthquake (because Japan was prepared for it) it was the tsunami it triggered that devastated the north-eastern coast.Scenes of cities beings washed away, like in the movie Day After Tomorrow, were flashed on TV news over and over again. At the time of posting this article, over 3,000 people have been confirmed dead, as many were still missing and over quarter of a million have been left homeless or directly affected.

The response to the disaster was quick.  Over 1.2 million people were evacuated within minutes after the tsunami alarm went off along the Pacific Coast – from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu islands in the South.  Relief and recovery teams went into action even before the first wave of Tsunami hit the Iwate prefecture (which was closest to the epicenter). Trains, airports and subways were suspended and elevators in every building in Japan were disabled with clockwork precision. The Self Defence Force (Japan’s army) was put into action and the Parliament suspended the debate and the session to allow the government to deal with the crisis.

But what really amazed me was not the Japanese efficiency at work.  Rather the courage and the dignity with which the people, even those who were directly affected, dealt with the tragedy. It is often said that the worst of times brings the best and the worst in us.  In the case of Japan, it brought only the best. Although left with nothing for themselves and for their family, people lined up in the usual orderly manner – to get some food, buy some supplies or to make telephone calls from public fixed lines. The sense of community was simply moving. For all their technological advancements the core value of Japanese society, the social harmony, was still strong. Usually emotions would run high and looting and riots would take place where desperation sets in. This has happened in recent tragedies and turmoils all over the World.  But not in the Land of Rising Sun.  I couldn’t help but admire my in-laws (my wife is a Japanese) more than ever before for their great courage and the highest sense of civility.

My journalistic instinct was to go to the affected area but back home everyone was worried for me. I was instructed to leave the country with the first flight that I could catch. It was an order I couldn’t refuse. However, the country had almost come to a halt. I spent the time glued to the TV, rescued by my sister in-law and in her house, getting every bit of information that was coming out from Narita Airport. The transport authorities had shut down everything to assess the damages and the safety -and there were no flights in and out of Tokyo. The radiation leak from Fukushima nuclear plant presented another bigger concern.

Finally on 13th March I made it to Narita and boarded a flight bound for Seoul. Life in Tokyo had almost come to normal after two days although the after-shocks and the threat from the Fukushima nuclear plant kept coming. I called up Ogawa, Sakitsu and my sister-in-law, Junko, for taking care of me aFujind sending me home safely.  As the flight took off from Narita airport, I bid goodbye, for this time, to this country that had given me so much but that was going through, what Prime Minister Kan described as, the worst crisis since the WW II.

As we climbed higher I looked out of the window and saw the earth moving away and clouds slowly covering my second homeland.  A deep sadness engulfed my heart. If there was one positive thing for me out of this incident, I realized how much my friends here and my in-laws cared for me and how much I have become closer to this country. I also realised how unpredictable life could be – even for a nation.

And as the aircraft veered right on its final trajectory towards Seoul, a bright light appeared in the horizon. It was Mount Fuji, beaming with the winter snow still covering its summit. Standing above a blanket of dark cloud that was now covering everything below us. I smiled tearfully at the sight and offered a little prayer. “Yes, Mount Fuji,” I thought, “You are the spirit of this Nation. Rising above all adversities.”

Whatever destruction or despair Mother Nature may have thrown on this Land, suddenly I felt confident that like Fuji san (as the Japanese refer to their favorite mountain) the people here would stand tall, rise above the situation to rebuild their nation and move on.  They have done that in the past.They will do it again.

That is the strength of the Land of the Rising Sun.

(The original version was posted on March 16, 2011 from Bangkok in


Leaving your comfort zone

14463036_185958378508199_8294682208825321234_nJourneys take you out of your comfort zone. You land up in strange places where you feel you have nothing. And where all your egos, fame, preconceived notions, assumptions and accomplishments vanish albiet temporarily. You feel vulnerable. You feel naked. You don’t know how to behave; you even don’t know what to eat (I am a veg) or even how to eat (the sequence or combinations). What to talk about? In the sense what is permissible and what are the social, political or religious taboos out there? How do you dress yourself appropriately? All in all, you are thrown into a whole new world, new culture and new social reality.

Once you tide over these initial apprehensions and challenges, you start connecting to the new world around you. You start assimilating, adjusting, making new friends, creating acquaintances, learning the social norms, etc. The result: you come out a stronger person – confident, proud, knowledgeable and with more wisdom. You have accumulated more over your previous achievements. You have new notions and loads and loads of fresh experiences. And, of courses, a bigger network of friends. You rediscover yourself – a new self. It could happen whether you land in Los Angeles or Lunana. But the further you stray from your comfort zone, greater is the feeling of vulnerability and bigger will be the sense of satisfaction.

So you want to travel to distant lands, to a distant culture in future? Yes?

This is my favourite picture from all my travels. This is in Kheng Silambi (lower Monggar)

Then start now. Today.  Move out of your comfort zone. Train yourself in your own surrounding first. Visit places you haven’t been and meet people you didn’t know. Like, take a weekend trip to Nub Tshona Patra – on your own. Or to a nearby place if you are not living in Thimphu or Paro or Haa. Try get yourself to spend a night in a temple, or in a hut or in a simple monk quarter. Negotiate. Interact.

That’s what I did. I traveled to every part of Bhutan in my life. I was fortunate that I also had jobs that allowed that. But, again, I chose the job. I slept in a cowshed in Dagana, ate with locals everywhere, begged for food on our way from Singye Dzong (our ration ran out), nearly died at Gangla Karchu between Laya and Lunana, risked getting buried inside Tala tunnels, nearly got gored by a yak at Pelela, suffered a food poisoning in Kengkhar.

Then slowly you can venture further. Become bolder! Get yourself transferred to a remote school, BHU, Extension Office or a Range assuming that you are either a teacher, health worker, agriculturist or a forester.

Face the hardship. Cherish it. Take pictures. Keep a journal. This is important because when you write them down, they magically turn into beautiful memories immediately. Try.

Those who are already there (remote places), start looking around with a different lens from today. Objectively. Without prejudice. Can you see this as an “opportunity”? As a training ground for yourself for a greater role in your life? You should, if you just open your eyes – if you reflect on or see the beauty around you. But if you think that you are getting punished or that Thimphu is a better place, then you are in misery.

In 2013 after I was relieved from the Palace, I packed everything I needed in a car and took off to Kanglung. Taught there for a year and half.

When I left Italy in 1995, where I could have easily landed a job (some of my Bhutanese colleagues did stay back), my Italian friends thought I had gone crazy. Now 20 years and loads of experiences later, they think little better of me. Bhutan is to Italy, what Lower Kheng is to Thimphu. Same analogy.

But don’t think of jumping straight to China when you are homing in towards 50. It won’t be just hard. It will kill you.


Two of a Kind -My group from the masters course. They are all from Hunan province and found out that they also grow chillis like we do in Bhutan. Two of China’s 34 provinces where chilli is a vegetable. Their favourite snacks – shakam ezay


Where “East” meets “West” – What a joy to be here and rubbing shoulders with the best minds from the two “worlds”.  Can’t ask more from life.  I already feel wise.


Special student – Thanks to my age and some experience, I am considered a special student here. I study, deliver lectures sometimes, assess students’ assignments, I get a office. What else?


The department of communications took in only 3 students this year – me, Jay and Jojo. So our class is more a “meeting” with superb professors like Mary Roberts from New Zealand



Best friends


Whether or not it is a “Friendship Week” this week, here is a video of the two greatest friends of Kanglung that I filmed in 2013. I think BBS did a piece after I alerted them. But anyway.

Every time I was driving back to my village, Pam, I noticed this bull and the pig were always together. So one morning I stopped by and flipped out my camera to film them. The bull wanted to go out grazing but the pig wanted to sleep. So the bull kept asking the pig to get up. I found that scene very moving and cute.

Other times I have seen the pig accompanying the bull on grazing spree. Most of the time, of course, the bull would be doing his round and the pig dozing off under a shed – but always together. Once, I saw the bull running around and crying out desperately for his friend. The pig was nowhere near. Days later I found them together again.

I have learnt that the owner wanted to slaughter the pig (this is customary). But Yonphola Rimpoche, Jigme Tenzin, told the owner not to do that because they were reincarnations of some special beings – and that the bull might die out of depression if his friend is gone.

So I was wondering what kind of moelam these two friends must have had from their past lives to be born as different species and yet could continue their friendship in this life.

Happy friendship to all.