Obon (お盆 ) at Fukuoka’s Gokoku Shrine

Obon (お盆 ) at Fukuoka’s Gokoku Shrine
A couple inspect the handmade lanterns
A couple take a closer look at the beautiful handmade lanterns

During these current crazy times when it seems that the world has gone entirely mad and most people are so afraid of dying that they have stopped living, it’s good to know that there are still centuries old traditions and festivals that will not die out soon. They may change a little or be tempered down due to circumstances, but continue they will! Especially in culture rich Japan where there are many festivals celebrating life, death, harvest, changing seasons, food (and drink of course – what’s a festival without Sake?)

Thousands of lanterns surround the gardens of the Gokoku Shrine.

Many cultures around the world celebrate the memory of their long gone ancestors with festivals, food, dance and music. Personally, I think it’s a great way to pay your respects and to remember their lives. In Japan, the annual traditional Obon (お盆) festival (usually held 13-16Aug) is celebrated in a similar way.


It is thought that Obon likely arrived in Japan with Buddhism, where one of the young disciples learns that his deceased mother is suffering in the afterlife. In response, Buddha suggests making offerings for Buddhist monks who were returning from a spiritual retreat. The offerings were to be in the shape of food and drinks, along with prayers to the gods to appease them and alleviate the mother’s pain. After some time it appeared to have eased the suffering of his deceased mother and she was set free. 

This centuries old tradition has continued and it is believed the ancestors’ spirits return to this world during this time in order to visit their relatives. A perfect opportunity for many Japanese workers to return to their ancestral hometowns and spend time with family where they will honour and commemorate their ancestors, celebrating the return of these spirits from the dead. They will visit, clean and decorate the family graves with colourful flowers.  

A special altar is prepared bearing a variety of offerings for the spirits, usually with food and drink they enjoyed during their lives. A small horse or a cow made out of vegetables such as cucumbers or eggplants are often made and placed at the altar. It is  believed that they will serve as transport for the spirits between the worlds of the living and the dead. The horse helps spirits return home as soon as possible while the cow slowly accompanies them back to their “spirit world”.

Fire is the main element used in many rituals and customs throughout Japan and thus Obon will start with Mukaebi, a practice where people light a small bonfire, or Chochin (paper) lanterns which are usually hung in doorways. These will help guide the spirits of the departed back to the family home. Dances (bon odori) are performed and have become a big part of the festivities across the country, however the music and dance vary from region to region. 
The spirits are believed to visit for several days before returning to the netherworld. Just as the festival starts with fire, it ends with it. On last day, large bonfires called “Okuribi” are lit up to help the spirits leave our world and it is is considered the peak of Obon.  
Families will participate in “Toro Nagashi”, a tradition where they place paper lanterns in nearby rivers and streams, also to help guide the spirits back to their spirit worlds. 

In Fukuoka, the festival has always been a popular summer tradition held at the beautiful Gokoku Shrine, where Obon, “Mitama Matsuri” is particularly important. (Mitama means honourable spirit.) This particular shrine is dedicated to the spirits of the war dead since the Meiji era (1868) and specifically honours those that have died during many Japanese wars and is also a place to pray for the well being and safety of families.

More than 6,000 paper lanterns are lit up around the shrine and the area is buzzing with throngs of people. There is traditional dancing, music and the Yatai stalls selling local food. Sadly however, with Covid-19, 2020 saw a much more subdued festival with fewer visitors and no local entertainment. The Gokoku Shrine still put on a beautiful display of thousands of lanterns and families came to pay their respects throughout the week end. Lets hope 2021 will see a return to the regular festivities.

What a great way to remember and celebrate the lives of your dearly departed! So to all the unlucky friends who outlive me – may you all celebrate with lots of Tequila, Rum, Sake,  wild dancing and the biggest bonfire ever followed by a whole pig on a spit braai! 
Oh and don’t send the cow in too early – I’d like to stick around for the Braai before heading back to whichever netherworld I may have escaped from!

The shameful neglect and abuse of Sri Lanka’s abandoned dogs.

The shameful neglect and abuse of Sri Lanka’s abandoned dogs.

YogiMeet Yogi.One of the thousands of dumped, neglected and abused dogs of Sri Lanka. Cute don’t you think? Could you walk past and leave her starving on the side of the road? Step over and pretend she’s not dying of hunger? Well, many like her suffer daily while people walk past and do just that – nothing. Even worse, many puppies (and kittens) are deliberately dumped along busy roads, at temples or in the jungle by careless owners who don’t have their dogs neutered or vaccinated. Other “luckier” dogs, who’ve somehow managed to survive past infancy, have to face the risks of speeding buses, trucks and tuktuks, most of whom don’t slow down or deliberately drive at the dogs. Or when they become a “nuisance”, they get chased away with rocks and fire crackers. It may seem unbelievable, but this is the reality hundreds of dogs face on a daily basis in Sri Lanka.Yogi 1

Yes – this is the island that sells itself as the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean”. Idyllic beaches, nature parks, temples and tea plantations. Sun, surf and happiness. But look a little harder through your coconut cocktail tinged glasses and you’ll see the vast number of neglected, abandoned and abused dogs. Strays that nobody wants and very few care for. There are an estimated 3 million street dogs, surviving on scraps and the mercy of a handful of kind people. Tourists often avoid them like the plague for fear of picking up some heinous “disease” and the locals chase them away because they actually just don’t give a damn.

Yogi was dumped on the side of the road at about 10 weeks old, weighing almost 1.3 kgs, badly malnourished, severely dehydrated, neglected, infected with mange and babesia, which can be fatal if not treated. This is the plight of thousands of dogs in Sri Lanka.

Yogi 3




We came across Yogi while driving along a potholed road in a farming community on the outskirts of a village called Komari, on the east coast of Sri Lanka. Not far from the increasingly popular surfers hangout of Arugam Bay. She was a small, grubby bundle of patchy fur stumbling through the bushes on the side of the road. We stopped and gave her the only thing we had in the car at the time – a yoghurt drink, which she slurped up frantically. We initially thought that she may have strayed from one of the homes close by – dogs like this are common place here. We were headed into a nearby village and thought if she was still there when we returned in a short while – we would take her with us, but she was nowhere to be seen when we returned.

Yogi 4It rained that night and I was worried that she wouldn’t survive unless she had found her way “home”. Sadly that was not to be – we went to the same spot the following morning and found her lying in a crumpled heap on the edge of the road – as if she had crawled there in a last desperate attempt to be noticed and saved, but Tuk Tuks and motorbikes were casually cruising past without a second glance. Thinking she might be near dead, I tried lifting her to her feet but her legs just collapsed. Picking her up and running from house to house to ask if anyone owned her, we were just met with shoulder shrugs and total disinterest. This was not surprising. We brought her back to our hut and fed her some buffalo curd and banana. She was dying but still had a fiesty will to survive.


We took her to a local “vet”, which is not common in this area and when you do find one its usually a livestock vet with very little interest in dogs. The woman reluctantly lifted Yogi’s eyelid, mentioning the obvious that she was dehydrated and handed over worm tablets and a multivitamin syrup and sent us on our way.

Yogi 16Despite our attempts to fatten and clean Yogi up so that she would look more appealing to any potential adoptee parents, nobody was interested. This feisty little creature was already barking at the bigger dogs after just a few days of care and food.
Our attempts at contacting animal rescue groups in Colombo to take her in, were futile. Inundated with daily calls for help, they are all already under so much pressure and pushed to their limits, both financially and in terms of numbers they can handle.

Yogi 12


Yogi  started looking a little stronger and we decide to use the recommended dosage for deworming. This turned out to be a big mistake – a few hours later, with a rectal prolapse and looking like all her intestines were about to leave her body we knew we had to get her off to a proper vet if she was to stand any chance of surviving.

Racing towards Colombo, our desperate calls were heeded by Animal SOS Sri Lanka,  who offered to take her in despite their resources being beyond capacity and strained financially. This was her only chance, she was so weak in the car and wouldn’t drink anything and once again we thought she would die.

250  kms and 6 hours of non stop driving like a deranged local bus driver we arrived near the surfing hotspot of Midigama. We were met with some of the Animal SOS staff and vets,  who treated Yogi with such care and a genuine concern for her well being.  A few tests later and she was diagnosed with Babesia, but they refused to give up on her. We realised later on that this is their approach to every animal that comes in there. They will do everything possible against all odds. Despite a very shaky start and doubts about her strength, Yogi pulled through, but sadly many don’t.

Beach dogs, street dogs, jungle dogs – call them what they may, nobody wants to take responsibility for them and that a volunteer organisation like this has to pick up the pieces is disgraceful. Many local organisations are unwilling to help and the locals consider them a nuisance factor. The Government solution is to “destroy” the street dogs.

Animal SOS, Sri Lanka,  is a free ranging sanctuary, working tirelessly around the clock to save and rehabilitate so many desperate dogs and cats. They also operate  neutering/rabies vaccination programmes in the local area, adoption schemes and animal welfare education amongst others. They are a charity funded rescue centre and for more info on what they do and how you can help please read this.

Mahatma Gandhi said ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”. You have a long way to go Sri Lanka.

For a country that is 70% Buddhist they seem to have lost touch with the essence of their belief system.  One of the key teachings of Buddhism about animals are,  “Animals and humans share the same essential nature. We are not a separate class of beings to whom a separate class of ethical rules applies. The highest Buddhist virtue is compassion, which we are to show to all sentient beings at all times.” Somehow that compassion is massively lacking amongst a lot of people. Unless you think its kind and compassionate to lock away your child or grandmother in a cage all day, or throw stones at helpless strangers?

If you are in the Midigama area,  please pop in and visit Animal SOS. You will be amazed at the incredible work they do. They do need your help and no amount is ever too small to make a difference. Please see what you can do to help here. Thanks to AnimalSOS-Sri Lanka for saving Yogi and so many other lives!

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Cloud9 Surf – Siargao Island, Philippines. Looking like a lake at the moment!


Maldives – Paradise at a Price


Thulusdhoo, Maldives


As a keen and experienced SCUBA diver, learner surfer and all round lover of the ocean, it’s been a dream to visit the Maldives. All the travel brochures flashing the same cliches and photos of Tropical Island Paradise. Sparkling warm oceans, great visibility, teeming with abundant marine life,  clean white beaches, colourful coral and bountiful pelagics. Snorkel, dive, fish and surf till the sun sets for cocktail hour. It’s packaged and shrink wrapped bliss. Honeymooners mingle with the Rich and/or Famous, beautiful people all round, the holiday of your lifetime. Some wise old codger once said – “If it sounds too good to be true – it probably is”. Read the rest of this entry

Coked up on Surfing in Thulusdhoo, Maldives

Coked up on Surfing in Thulusdhoo, Maldives

Cokes Surf, Maldives
Mention the word “Cokes” to any surfer and it’s not the fizzy Cola variety that springs to mind, but the famous surf break on the island Thulusdhoo, situated in the North Male Atoll of the Maldives.  It’s one of the most talked about and popular surf breaks in the Maldives. Read the rest of this entry

Pack away the surf boards – It’s a day for kiting!

Pack away the surf boards – It’s a day for kiting!

Pack away the surf boards - It's a day for kiting!

While the wind gusts relentlessly across Arugam Bay, most surfers, wannabes and instructors have gone into hiding while the kiteboarders come out to play.
Main Point saw a few die-hard, desperate surfers try in vain to get a decent rideable wave, which popped up infrequently as the small swell was flattened into submission by the wind.
As they bobbed around, wistfully staring at the horizon trying to will a set into action, their frustration was further aggravated, as the kitesurfers cruised around them in the line up, snatching a few waves beyond their reach. One crashing his kite into a batch of unimpressed surfers. Oh well, “What to do ? “. Pack away the board, slip on the party shoes and sip on a coconut arrack, as the one thing the wind will not be putting a dampener on, is the regular Friday night Party at Sababa’s, Whiskey Point or The Nest, Arugam Bay! 😉

Read the rest of this entry

Main Point, Arugam Bay – “of mice and men”……

Main Point, Arugam Bay – “of mice and men”……


ImageMain Point Arugam Bay – A world class break they say. Many learner surfers stare longingly at the “hardcore” surfers at The Point, hoping that they too will one day progress to the level of capability to venture across the reefy bottom from Baby Point to Main Point. 

But having counted around 65 surfers in the line up one sunset evening with a small swell,  it held as much appeal to me as attending a packed shopping mall on Christmas eve, with a hangover. And 20 screaming kids in tow. And no bar in site. While the turkeys and gammons are all sold out. Get the picture?

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Arugam Bay Surfing Contest

Arugam Bay Surfing Contest

Arugam Bay Surf

Arugam Bay Surf Contest


In order to get some inspiration to tackle a new (in fact any) adventure, we find it essential to carefully observe, take notes and learn a few tricks before storming head first into a potentially life threatening exercise. Of course it also helps if there are a few cold beverages on hand, bikinis, palm trees and good tunes. Thus, we set out in the blazing sun to watch and learn from the masters of the art, in order to pick up some of the lost surfing “skills” from last year, before foolishly rushing in to confront the masses in the beginner’s line up, armed to the teeth with boards and bodies of immense proportions and shapes. This is how we found ourselves parked off under a palm tree for 3 days, watching the sun, surf, bikinis and surf talent do their thing. It’s not easy I tell you! Read the rest of this entry