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04/27/2016

A Spring Day for Yabusame

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              It’s springtime in Sumida Park, and the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. The sun shines down on a freshly-made dirt path along the river in Asakusa. Seats are carefully arranged, banners are mounted, and flyers are waiting to be handed out. What’s going on here? It’s Yabusame. Usually a once-a-year occurrence for the public, the ritual Yabusame is a treat to see. This stylistic mounted archery traces roots all the way back to the Kamakura period, but can still be enjoyed today if you are lucky enough to be nearby mid-April. In Asakusa you may be able to buy a ticket ahead of time if you want a seat, but if you don’t feel like shelling out too much cash, you can watch the competition a little farther away (and a little higher up). Either way, it’s still an amazing competition to watch!

              The basics of Yabusame are that there are three targets, and the rider flies along on his or her horse at a breakneck speed. They do not stop while they shoot their arrows, so they are controlling the horse completely without their hands. It would be hard enough alone to shoot the targets with such large and powerful bows, but doing so while completely in control of a horse at top-speed is another feat all together. The goal is to break the wooden boards that make up the target – and for the audience’s benefit, once broken, little sakura petals explode out from behind the target and flutter to the ground. Overall, it is quite fun and exciting.

              Yabusame may be a competition, but it’s also a ritual and a tradition. All of those who are participating in the competition (judges, assistants, riders, and more) wear traditional Kamakura-era clothing, and the riders also don special chaps made from deerskin. The entire event is also treated as a ritual – beforehand there is a long procession and an offering of thanks to the kami. Afterwards, the competition begins. Each rider gallops one by one along the lane, bursting targets as best as they can. This year, there were several different groups of archers, and whoever won in their particular group had the honor of wearing a white banner as they rode their horses back along the path to dismount.

              Want to get a taste of kyuudo (Japanese traditional archery) yourself? The club that helped host this year’s Asakusa Yabusame also held a small practice in the neighboring hall for anyone interested to try. Not only could you test out the beautiful bows, you could also see how the arrows and bows were made (and if you really wanted, bows were for sale right then and there!). Besides the bow and arrow exhibition, there was a beautiful gallery with excellent photos of both archers and their equipment on display. If you have any interest in archery, or traditional Japanese culture, this is an event worth going to, even if just once. Asakusa, Kamakura, Zushi, as well as several other places all host annual Yabusame competitions – so even if Asakusa is not near you, there is still a chance for you to experience this amazing sport!

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01/12/2016

Tea Ceremony Experience

It’s no lie when they say that Kyoto is the cultural hub of Japan. There’s so much to do, see, taste, and experience just for your own cultural enrichment that, when we first arrived, we were all overwhelmed on what to do first despite the planned itinerary. However, one thing was for sure: We wanted to witness a tea ceremony. More importantly, we wanted to do this while wearing kimonos as is part of the traditional experience.

Thanks to my friend Elysa, our photographer during this trip, we were able to do just that. She had looked up and found for us a place not too far from Nishiki Market a workshop on traditional tea ceremonies that also offered us the chance to learn while wearing kimonos. Of course we booked this ASAP.

We decided to go on Christmas day, thinking that it would be a nice, special touch to the holiday. Interestingly enough, we arrived late by 5 minutes. We had trouble finding the place and apologized consistently for making our instructor wait. Then we went right to work.

She took us upstairs where the first thing we did was change into kimonos. One instructor and two assistants quickly helped the four of us pick out kimonos, dress us into them, and do our hair. It was like a mini makeover, minus the makeup. A total transformation! In doing so, our instructor taught us a little about kimonos.

            Here’s what we learned:

Kimonos can be passed down from generation to generation because of the fact that it is always cut the same. The only differences in size are for a child and a full grown adult, but other than that it’s pretty much the same. However, the designs vary tremendously in terms of color, pattern, and print. According to our instructor, smaller prints and patterns that cover the entire surface of the fabric are meant for casual wear, while prints that cover less of the design are meant for more formal wear. I guess you can think of it as being more of simple elegance.

After the kimono, you can wear either a full or half obi. Obis are the thick belts with beautifully colorful designs that are meant to compliment the entire kimono. If you wear a full obi, then you need an obiyame, a smaller thinner fabric that would help hold the kimono together. A half obi does not require that. Additionally, there are collars and ties underneath the kimono and then the belt that is tied over the obi.

The outfit itself is meant to make you look flatter and is also very difficult to walk in. Truth be told, I praise women who walk around the streets of Kyoto and Tokyo in full blown kimonos.

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After getting dressed and pinning up our hairs, we went outside to the back for a small photoshoot. The back looked like a small oasis, and we were even given an umbrella for a prop. It was actually unexpected on our part so we were surprised that our time allotted for that.

Finally came the tea ceremony. We thought we were originally taking part in a demonstration, but in actuality, we were given the chance to make matcha tea ourselves. First, we took a small whiff of the different kinds of tea most common to Japanese culture.

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Then we watched carefully how our instructor took the time to approach the materials patiently and then cleaned each of the materials carefully. We witnessed the proper way to pour water from the kettle into the cup for mixing, how to measure matcha, and how to mix. The mixing was probably the hardest part – it looks deceptively easy, but really it does a number on your wrist. After that, we learned how to serve the tea, what to say when offering and receiving to both the server and the peers whom you are with, and that it was polite to slurp at the very end because it indicates that you fully enjoyed the tea.

Tc3Also, this came with traditional Japanese sweets. Normally, you are supposed to enjoy the sweets beforehand because it helps simmer down the bitterness of the matcha.

At the very end, we thanked her for the instruction and were given small gifts as a token of appreciation – Japanese phrase flash-cards, an added bonus to the entire experience.

Quite frankly, the experience was a lot more than what we bargained for, and it was a great time! I would encourage everyone to try this if they are ever in Kyoto.

 

Fushimi Inari

On a wonderful adventure to Kyoto for the holiday season, my friends and I took a trip to Fushimi Inari Shrine, most iconic for the series of bright Torii, or gates, fixated continuously along the path leading up to the top of the mountain.

            According to Wikipedia, “Inari is known for being the patron of business a place where merchants and manufacturers have traditionally worshipped Inari. Each of the torii that line the way to the shrine is donated by a Japanese business. Additionally, Inari is the god of rice.”

            First and foremost, I did not expect the hike to be as rigorous as it was. It hadn’t quite dawned on me that I would be climbing up a mountain that is 233 meters above sea level. At least I wore sneakers.

            Our group included myself, Dynasty our guide, Elysa our photographer, and Isabella - a friend from my home university. Side note – she had just completed her semester abroad in China and had spent a great deal of it hiking all over the place, so she was probably the most physically fit out of all in regards to this hiking challenge.


Fi1When we first arrived, we were all caught a little off-guard by the amount of people present. Either sides of the walkway leading up to the side entrance of the shrine were lined with food and souvenir vendors. Dynasty, having been here before, suggested that we all eat something beforehand. She could not have been more right. Our journey up the mountain required more energy than we originally thought.

Fi3As always, we performed our ceremonial cleansing before heading up. Going through the series of smaller toriis wasn’t too bad. It was a slow ascension at first, but then quickly became steep and rigorous. I was amazed at the women who climbed with infants in their hands and tall, thin heels strapped to their feet. Incredible.

By the time I reached a clearing, I was able to look out over Kyoto and see the puffy clouds and sunshine that peaked though it. It was a clear day, perfect for climbing up a mountain as notorious as this one. Unfortunately, I was surprised to know that I had only made it 1/3 of the way up. “No way,” I thought. All that work and I still had a ways to go. And so, off I continued.

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Once you get up 1/3 of the way though, the path splits into three different directions. “This mountain is kind-of a find-your-own-adventure mountain,” Dynasty had informed us. Only now did I realize what she meant. I took the path towards the right. By now, all four of us had broken off and went at our own pace. On my way up, there were several smaller shrines that looked like they had been frequented by other hikers. Briefly, I wondered how many people visited Fushimi Inari – probably hundreds on average, I thought.

Once I got to the top, I was overwhelmed. Not because there was a breathless view or some grand shrine, but because I had actually made it to the top. There was a small shrine enclosed with, what I believe to have been, funeral pillars of some sort. I didn’t inquire. I was more concerned with praying and thanking God for having allowed me to come this far. To be honest, it was a very spiritual moment, which is the great thing about shrines and temples overall, I believe.

My way back down – I decided to take “the road less traveled by.” In other words, I went off the trail and into the woods. That was the best part of my adventure! The hike down had me shrouded by woods and greenery. I was super cautious going down the steep rocks that looked like they were part of the original path. I also met a few local travelers along the way – Elderly folk who were trekking it up with walking sticks and backpacks – they were the sweetest! The path took a lot longer than going up, and I almost got lost at some point. However, I wound up walking through stalks of bamboo that reminded me of Arashiyama’s bamboo forest, past river streams and small cottage rest stops and then all the way back to the original hiking trail where the toriis stood. The way down may have taken me 45-minutes to an hour or so.

Nevertheless, it was worth it. It was invigorating and breathtaking, and even meditative. Especially when you hike your way down alone – it can be quite peaceful.




 

 

 

 

 

 

12/09/2015

My Wonderful Day at Kawagoe

There's nothing more exciting than getting the chance to get up and head out on a sunny Sunday morning and meet up with your friends for a sight-seeing adventure. That is exactly what I did.

The destination was set for Kawagoe and the group that I went with consisted of members of Sophia Communication. SC is a social circle/ school club that brings Japanese and Foreign students together in one space with the intention of exploring different parts of Japan and enjoying various activities together. For the international students, it's usually a chance to practice Japanese. For the Japanese, they get to practice English. In general, it's also a great way to make connections with some amazing people from all over the world.

This was my second time going out on an adventure with the group. And yet, it was composed of people I had never really spoken with before. You see, the club is filled with over one hundred people who don't meet regularly, so it's not always easy to keep track of members. Nevertheless, I had been wanting to go out exploring with them for a while now and believed that it would be a fun and interesting experience.

As per usual, my Japanese was not up to par with most of the other Japanese students. Although I have grown accustomed to speaking Japanese, the issue this time was my lack of vocabulary. Honestly though, that was not an issue. First off, everyone was pretty much napping on the one-hour train ride. Secondly, everyone's speaking level for both Japanese and English varied greatly. So, we were all learning from each other at times.

The real fun began the second we left Kawagoe station. The first thing we did was head to Ko Edo - This was going to be my very first time being there. I'll announce to you now that I am not sure what streets we walked during our journey, but there was a point where you just knew you had arrived in Ko Edo. By the time you turn a corner, you are met with a series of traditional architect, home to several shops and restaurants along either sides of the street.

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People crossed up and down the streets in yukata and fox-spirit ensembles: masks and ears included, and the scent of delicious Japanese sweets made your mouth water. 

We spent the whole day visiting shops and Shinto Shrines in the area. The shops consisted of toys and decorations, as well as many different kinds of Omiyage - Souvenirs. We also stopped at about two smaller Shinto Shrines, our curiosity pulling us in all sorts of directions, before making our way to biggest of them all. At each Shrine, we were able to appreciate just how beautiful and peaceful everything was. We practiced the proper procedure of visiting a Shinto Shrine. First, for purification purposes, you wash your hands and mouth at a fountain that usually stands near the entrance. Using the ladle, you rinse your left hand, then your right, then your mouth, spit out the water and then rinse the ladle with the remaining water before returning it to the fountain. Only afterwards are you able to make your way to the actual shrine. There's also a process for clapping, bowing and praying when approach Shrines. You bow, clap twice, and then bow again. While other members took their time to wander about, we wound up being able to partake in fortune telling and wish making.

With fortune telling, you are able to receive a slip of paper that will tell what kind of luck you are due to receive. If you get unlucky or bad, you’re supposed to tie it onto a piece of pine or a wooden structure with metal wires so that it doesn't attach itself to the bearer. Sometimes, this can be done with strips deeming good luck for an even better chance of the fortune taking place.

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In comparison, the wish making are usually done on Ema, wooden plaques, where the wish is written and then it is able to be hung near the shrine. Both you usually buy, and the tradition is common with Japanese Buddhist temples as well.

While I did not partake this time, I had previously done so in Miyajima and Narita, in which both occasions I had received good fortunes. But, I am saving my wish for when I go to Kyoto.

All in all, I was able to really appreciate Ko-Edo with my group. It was very serene and was a great chance to bond with some unfamiliar faces. We talked to a few merchants, including a seller of Natural Honey and freshly grilled yakitori (chicken on skewers). We also got to Ko Edo's famous sweet potato pastry.

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Ko Edo, for me, is just one of those places you have to see if you ever find yourself in Tokyo. I really wish that I could one day return during a Matsuri, a festival, for they seem lively and fun-filled beyond what I could imagine. Maybe next time?

One Day Homestay

Having chosen to live in a dorm as opposed to a home stay meant that I was choosing to live a totally different experience, one where I would be on my own almost completely in terms of navigating Tokyo and just living in the city. However through CIEE, I was granted the opportunity of meeting and spending time with a home stay family for an entire day. 

This amazing family encompassed Okaa-san (Mother), Otou-san (Father), and their three children K-san (the eldest brother), H-san (the middle sister) and Y-chan, (the youngest sister). After learning who they were, their ages, and their hobbies, I was very excited; even more so because I would be able to spend time with the kids. K-san is 12, only one year younger than my brother. H- san is a year behind him and Y-chan is only 3 years old. It's been a while since I was surrounded by such small children because most of my family is already well into their teens.

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Prior to meeting the family, I had mixed emotions of excitement and nervous dread. What if I accidentally offend them? What if the kids don't like me? What if my level of Japanese is insufficient for the family? What if I just have a bad experience? These questions haunted me as I rode the train to meet them. However upon arriving, I was able to quickly dismiss those worrisome questions. Despite being half-hour late, thank you Tokyo train systems, Otou-san and H-san met me and led the way to their home. I was able to talk in Japanese about where I am from, how long I have been studying Japanese and what else I was studying. To be honest, it helped a lot that Otou-san also spoke English, kind-of like a safety net for my Japanese at times. Mid-way, Okaa-san and Y-chan met us with high spirits. Together, we walked the rest of the way back to their home.

From 11am to 8pm it was none stop fun, at least in my opinion. The first thing I did was play with H-san and Y-chan. K-san currently plays soccer, so the plan was to meet him for his game later on in the evening, as he was at practice all morning. I helped the girls build a house out of play mats. I don't think I've done anything like that in years. After that, H-san and Otou-san taught me how to play table tennis. I don't usually play sports of any sort, though I am always willing to try. It was quite a struggle at first, and I'm pretty sure Otou-san and H-san were a lot better at it than I was. But it was fun nonetheless.

Meanwhile, Okaa-san was getting lunch ready. We wound up having dipping noodles for lunch. So delicious! It was during then that I learned from Okaa-san that she was starting to learn English. She spoke very little English, so at times we had Otou-san translate. But, that did not discourage me from trying to speak in Japanese. The language barrier turned out to be a great motivation for learning and practicing from each other.

Afterwards, I went with Otou-san and the girls to their school which was literally down the road. There, we were able to make use of the gym and play sports. So, the next game of the afternoon was badminton. Again, I don't usually play sports and I know for a fact that Otou-san and H-san were a lot better at it than I was. Nevertheless, H-san and I competed with valiant effort, counting out loud in Japanese how many hits we could make before accidentally missing, and dropping, the bird. I think our highest was 11, but between her and her father it went as high as 20!

We returned home about an hour later to head out for K-san's game where I at last met the older brother of the bunch. The game itself was an interesting cultural experience because I got to see how the Japanese community interacted with one another in this kind of setting. It made me think about when my brother was on a soccer team many years ago. Unlike America, where everyone is usually screaming and shouting and cheering, everyone here was very quiet until someone scored a goal. Otou-san explained it to me as not wanting to put extra unnecessary pressure on the kids. But, I'm sure everyone was beaming with pride when K-san's team scored a goal. I, too, was very caught up in the spirit of the game. At the end, when K-san's team had won, we left without K-san. Another difference here is that the teammates all return home together. They’re not picked up one by one by their family immediately following a game. I understand it as a way of building strong ties with the team.

On the way back, we stopped for groceries. H-san and I by now had agreed that the cold weather called for some hot cocoa. And so we asked Okaa-san for permission before picking up the sweet Christmas-in-a-cup cocoa. Finally we made it home. In the process of getting dinner ready, I helped H-san fold laundry and then watched the Japanese version of Spirited Away, without subtitles. I was still able to understand most of it!

K-san had returned home just in time for dinner. And what was on the menu?

Sushi

Homemade sushi, where everything is prepared for you and all you have to do is assemble your favorite combinations: Rice, chicken, egg, three kinds of fish, cucumber, with Japanese mayo, seaweed, and soy sauce. First, H-san and K-san taught me how to properly assemble the sushi so that nothing would fall apart. Then, Otou-san showed me his favorite combination. This was my first time having real Japanese sushi, and let me just say that I had zero complaints. It was such a wonderful meal and I ate so much! Usually, a sign of respect is the fact that you ask for seconds, but I enjoyed it so much that I still feel like I over-ate. No regrets though.

After that, I was surprised by my host family's incredible gesture of singing me happy birthday and bringing out a cake of cream puffs for dessert.

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With my birthday being the Monday after, I honestly had no idea that they would do this for me. I wasn't even sure what I was doing for my birthday! But this was incredible. It made my heart melt.

Actually, by the end of the night I found myself almost unwilling to leave. I realized by now that this family had accepted me into their home, into the routine of their daily lives. It made me long for my family, in a good way I suppose. There were so many parallels between my host family and my actual family that I wound up reflecting on it all throughout the day. When H-san and I asked Okaa-san for hot cocoa, watching K-san play soccer, enjoying a family meal, helping with chores before watching TV; these were all little things that made me really appreciate my family even more and hope that I can remain connected with my host family in the future.

I encourage everyone to at least try a home stay experience, even if it's just for one day like mine was.

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11/24/2015

My Visit to the Ghibli Museum

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Why Japan? -- I'm often asked this question. To be completely honest, I ask myself too. To start, I think the language is beautiful, the harmonious juxtaposition of traditional and modern culture is fascinating, and the Japanese way of thinking is honorable. In Japan, the societal norm is for people to be considerate, respectful, and always try their best for the betterment of others. Also, everyone works together and contributes in some way, so regardless of how busy a place may be it's clean and organized. These are values I hold dearly and believe to be important. Beyond that, I don't have a definitive answer since everyday I'm discovering new aspects of Japanese life which I enjoy. However, I can say that my initial interest in Japanese culture sparked from a young age. It all started with Pokemon. I remember watching the show with my brother, singing the theme song without fail, and running around the playground during recess and after school with my friends imagining we were part of that world. When I was 7, I saw Spirited Away in the theater for my friend's birthday. A tall man sat in front of me partially blocking the subtitles, but within five minutes of the movie I hardly noticed. The stunning animation, and beautiful sound of the music and Japanese language had captivated me. I wanted to fully understand everything behind the movie. As I grew older I continued to watch Hayao Miyazaki’s other movies, and my interest in Japanese culture grew with me. I decided to study Japanese in high school, and often found myself going back and rewatching the Ghibli movies not only for their stories, but to study Japanese as well.

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In the same way a familiar smell provokes memories, each movie conjures moments from my adolescence. As I sauntered into the Ghibli Museum my emotions were flooded with all those memories at once -- it felt like I had entered one of Miyazaki’s curated worlds. Delicately detailed stained glass depictions of various characters from movies covered the ceiling of the entryway, and the rooms of the three floors were full of glimpses behind the scenes of the long animation process. The right side of the first floor showcased various processes in which paintings, drawings, and figures were manipulated to create the moving animations. The left side included a small theater showing short films exclusive to the museum (bonus: the theater tickets were three frames from a random Miyazaki movie film strip). A compact caged spiral staircase led up to the second floor which demonstrated the indescribable amount of hard work put into even just a few second-long clip. In addition, the fluffy cat bus from My Neighbor Totoro and one of the robot soldiers from Laputa: Castle in the Sky were stationed on the third floor and roof respectively.

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A few days before visiting the museum, a few of us watched a documentary titled The One Who Painted Totoro’s Forest at the CIEE Study Center, which focused on Kazuo Oga’s background art for Miyazaki’s movies. Oga’s workload was high and he was used to quickly painting only the necessary details to understand the scene in previous works. Of course there's nothing wrong with this -- often times less is more. However, part of what makes Miyazaki's movies so remarkable is the amount of detail put into each scene. Miyazaki preferred everything to be hand drawn rather than use computer generated imagery. Oga submitted what he thought would be sufficient, and was taken aback when Miyazaki said, this is the best you can do? Miyazaki asked him to pay special attention to the nature which would be present in the area and time period of the background scenes. Oga took the request to heart and his results were amazing. Background art is usually disposed of after it’s been used in the animation process, however Oga saved a few for himself, and many were preserved and displayed in the Ghibli Museum as well.

The spirit behind Oga and Miyazaki’s collaboration to push their limits and create something beyond expectations is an aspect of Japanese culture I truly admire. There may be times when we want to cut corners in art, and in life in general, however it’s the often overlooked details which hold the greatest significance.

11/17/2015

Edo - Furin: The Art of Traditional Glass Making

The art of glass making was first introduced in Tokyo during the Edo period of Japan (1603-1867) by a master of the art from Nagasaki. From that point on, it continued as in invaluable tradition of craft making to the Japanese.

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This delightful and traditional piece produced from the glass making technique is called “Edo-Furin” - A beautiful glass wind-chime that peddlers used to attach to poles to announce their sales, or that residents would tie above the thresholds of their houses with a talisman or charm dangling from the bottom.

 

The sounds produced from the wind and bells are even more soothing to the ear than elegant chimes caught in the autumn breeze.

CIEE students had the wondrous opportunity to learn under a present master of the art, Mr. Yoshiharu Shinohara Jr., and create our own wind chimes from scratch.

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The process itself takes many, many years to master. The glass blowing portion is actually done in stages, the first stage usually taking about three years to have mastered. In the first part, a small piece of melted glass is attached to a long rod from within the closed fire pit. First, you blow very carefully through the rod to try and get a sphere like bubble. I say bubble because as this point, the hot glass is still very flexible that it can still be easily molded. In addition to blowing, you have to constantly turn the rod so that the glass forms a perfect sphere and does not droop downward. We had to do this twice before attempting to blow the biggest portion of the glass, the piece that would actually be the wind chime. After each of us completed this stage, usually proving to be a difficult feat, the rest of us would clap our hands and proclaim “San-Nen Clear!” meaning third year cleared, in reference to how long this part would actually take.

After those initial steps were completed, then we would have to blow with all our might and strength to create the third and last piece. This was done in order to create a perfect sphere, and proved to be the hardest because of how strong we had to make the air pressure in comparison to the other two.

Once those steps were done, Mr.  Shinohara made an opening at the very top of our largest blown glass, and would then set it down to cool off entirely. After that, his son came in and broke off the additional pieces that were created in the first two steps – I realized by now that those pieces were only created just so we could have the opening beneath the third, largest sphere, for the bell to dangle freely from. Our “three years worth” of work would not even be part of the final project.

The final stage in all of this was painting and decorating. This was my favorite part to be honest because there’s something so calming and fun when it comes to painting. Before starting, we learned about what most people usually paint on wind chimes and how to paint them. For example, painting Sakura, Cherry Blossoms, were supposed to be calming and serene.

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Almost all of us looked to the internet for further inspiration, and so some of us wound up painting variations of cherry blossom designs and inspirational kanji. Others thought more along the lines of their favorite iconic characters. I started out with roses, but then wound up creating a scene of fallen flower petals from a tree. The hardest part about this though was the fact that we had to paint from the inside, so we had to paint the details of the design first whereas if you paint on paper, or on canvas, details are saved for the very last. As an artist, it was an interesting way to think about painting. However, there is a trick to it. If you paint your design on the outside, then you can mirror it from the inside and then wipe the outside clean! This was probably the best option for those of us who decided to write kanji on our wind chimes. At the very end, other apprentices helped to tie the bell and talisman onto the wind chime. And like so, it was completed.

Just think that we created our own wind chimes from scratch just as if we were in the Edo period. It was an experience that was entirely enriched with culture and tradition that you won’t find anywhere else.

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Taiko Drumming in a Different Light

Imagine sitting in anticipation for a performance. The room is dark and all is quiet. You know what’s about to happen, but you’re not quite sure what to expect as this is your first time ever having witnessed a traditional performance. Suddenly, a loud bang of a bellowing drum demands your attention. The next thing you know, you are overcome with a sense of wonder and enjoyment as the ensemble of drums play out a wonderful story before you, and you remain captivated, never wanting the drumming to stop.

This was my experience while watching the brilliant performance of the Zuiho Taiko Drummers.

Taiko Drumming is generally known as an ancient form of percussion playing with a set of drums that tend to range in size, and is performed with specific choreographed motion.

I was formally introduced to the Zuiho Taiko Drumming group with a documentary that captured their everyday lives and common struggle to master the art of Taiko Drumming. I learned that they are actually a group of performers with mental disabilities that, instead of living in a care facility, they work to integrate themselves into society by living on their own, with the additional support of neighbors and care-professionals. That being said, their dream is to be able to achieve happiness thorough sustaining a family and finding their way as strong individuals. The drummers find strength in their drumming - the one thing they are 100% sure to give their full effort in without letting their mental disability get in the way. For me, this is the ordinary trying to doing something extraordinary because it exhibits a kind of dedication and passion that those without mental disabilities may not ever be able to relate to, much less exhibit themselves. The willingness to work hard and prove to others that, despite this label of being "disabled" there is something that they can persevere in.

After having watched the documentary, I had the chance to see the group perform live. There was something magical that happened. Despite my language barrier and despite their disabilities, I was able to fully enjoy the music and the enthusiasm displayed by these wonderful individuals. The rhythmic beat of the drums synchronized with my emotions and my heart, and I was moved to feel their excitement, their rush of energy. It's amazing that a traditional medium such as Taiko Drumming could connect us in such a way.

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This got me thinking more about the ways in which Japan functions as a society. First off, I can’t speak with authority on any issues related to society and disabilities; I can only give my opinion, and because of this experience, I am motivated to share my thoughts on what I have seen and think. Therefore, the comparisons I am making here between Japan and the U.S. are limited to my personal account only.

Now, there are various things that I've noticed while in Tokyo. For example, it seems that the entire city is mapped out with a special pathway for those with visual impairment so that they can walk - a yellow strip with embossed spheres fit into a particular pattern that indicates at what part of the sidewalk they are. So, for example, there are different embossed designs for when they are walking along a straight path and when they come to an intersection. Furthermore, I've also noticed the braille system on the top of soda cans.

It's these little things that make me think more and more about how Japan takes care of, in these examples, those with visual impairments, and in general, those with disabilities. Though I have yet to look further into it, it's still an interesting thing to notice because of the difference it highlights. Major cities, such as New York City, do not seem to have anything in terms of a special walk-way in place, but they do use the braille system fairly often, and I am sure there are specific rules and regulations to assist them that are similar to that of Japan.

While I can't draw conclusions in regards to which is better, I can say that I am fond of that specific method the Japanese have in terms of commuting in Tokyo. Way to go!

 

 

10/19/2015

Discovering My New Community: School in Japan

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The weekend before my first day of classes, I had the opportunity to go to my host sister’s school festival. I slid my feet into a pair of forest green slippers, tucked my shoes in a small plastic bag, and shuffled in behind my host father. My host sister was about to play french horn in the brass band’s welcome performance in collaboration with the dance club. An upbeat tune filled the air as girls with matching pigtails and colorful tshirts danced around exciting the crowd. Students, family, and friends swayed side to side while clapping along to the beat, acting as a natural metronome. I joined in without hesitation. However, to my surprise, I discovered the musicians still guide the audience in clapping along even in a more formal concert performance. Japan is a group oriented culture, so I interpreted the audience participation as a way of integrating the community. Over the two days of the school festival, I attended four brass band performances -- each with different members, location, and duration of play. All were reminiscent of my brother’s numerous concerts growing up. Music is a universal form of expression which brings people together, so the familiarity was heartwarming and instantly comforting.

We explored everything the four floors had to offer while weaving through groups of giddy girls ranging from preschool to high school. The photo club covered the classroom walls with images depicting everyday life in Tokyo, reminding me of my first exploration of photography in an academic setting in high school. In contrast, the ikebana (flower arrangement) room had a minimalist aesthetic, filled with fresh flowers my mom and grandmother would love. From the windows of the fourth floor we watched the shodo (calligraphy) performance as my host mother exclaimed, jouzu!, or suteki!, in praise of the students’ skill and beautiful work after the completion of each scroll. We also visited the sadoubu (tea ceremony club), where girls were dressed in gorgeous, colorful kimonos as they elegantly carried out this traditional Japanese practice. The red bean mochi (sticky rice cake) and matcha (powdered green tea) were just as pretty as they were delicious. Unfortunately (and fortunately), my attempt to sit seiza (kneeling with the tops of the feet flat on the floor while sitting on the soles) for the entirety of the ceremony was interrupted when I was kindly presented with a small stool to sit upon for my comfort.

What I found most impressive, however, was a design course called Ad School. Students split into groups and worked to design and produce a commercial for Area Benesse (an educational assistance service) with the guidance of a professional, which would then be shown to employees of Benesse and Dentsu (an international advertising and public relations company). On the second day of the festival, the four groups gathered in the auditorium to see who would be announced the winner. There were three awards: Most Popular (determined by votes during the first day of the school festival), the Dentsu Creative Award (which my host sister’s group won!), and the award for the winner as deemed by Benesse. At the end a panel gave feedback and a lot of constructive criticism to the students. I was delightfully surprised by the extent of the students’ success after all their hard work and dedication. It reminded me to uphold the concept of ganbaru, which is deeply rooted in Japanese society, as I start my own schooling. While this directly translates as “to do one’s best,” it more importantly evokes the idea of persevering until the very end, and additionally its sentiment of determination translates beyond the individual to the community as a whole.  

Excited to finally start school myself, I walked from Yotsuya Station towards the main gate of Sophia University. Around me was a sea of black haired students congregating, happy to see each other after summer break. The majority of girls around me were dolled up in full face makeup and heels -- a stark contrast to myself who sports merely winged eyeliner and Birkenstocks, or combat boots. Although I was overwhelmed by the amount of fast-paced, casual Japanese spoken around me, it mentally prepared me for my first class: Japanese. Finding this classroom wasn’t a problem, however maneuvering the elevators was difficult. Not only because you cram as many people (and their backpacks) in as possible, but because the doors close so quickly. I’ve already lost track of the number of times the metal doors have sandwiched me within a few seconds of stepping in the crowded box. Navigating campus itself was easy since Sophia is a relatively small school with around 12,000 undergraduate students. However, the organization of the courses was rather confusing the first week. At Sophia there’s no capacity for class size, which is convenient since you’re guaranteed registration for all your desired classes. Unfortunately, in order to fit all the students, the classroom is subject to change at any time, so it’s important to keep track of your classroom listings on Sophia’s bulletin board.  

This semester I’m taking a Japanese language course, Gender in Japanese Visual Culture, Japanese Religions, and an Introduction to Linguistics course which looks specifically at English and Japanese. My language class has international students from America, Brazil, France, Germany, Guatemala, Jordan, Taiwan, and Vietnam. This wide range creates a rich context for the discussion of cultural differences in our home countries as we learn social norms and customs in Japan. Thus far, all of my time in Tokyo has been a learning opportunity. Navigating unfamiliar spaces, breaking through language barriers, and discerning differences in a foreign land is not an easy task. Just remember -- there’s people in the same boat as you eager to embrace these waves.

10/18/2015

Hanabi!

Everyone loves a good fireworks show - They're bright, colorful, absolutely beautiful, and if you're a hopeless romantic like me, then you can even call them "Magical".

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This past weekend, my friends and I - The usual band of international and local misfits - jumped on the train and rode a good 2-3 hours out to Tsuchiura, outside of Tokyo, to witness one of the last fireworks display of the year.

Note: "Tsuchiura is a city located in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan. It is situated along the western shores of Lake Kasumigaura, the second largest lake in Japan." (WIKIPEDIA REFERENCE)

It's quite common to see fireworks in Japan up until the end of summer. But because this was happening in the beginning of October, it registered in my mind as a "Once in a Lifetime" opportunity.

The trip itself was inexpensive - only about 3000 yen, approx 30.00 USD, for the round trip. Admission itself was free. The event wasn't a festival though, rather a competition in a 3 hour long show of fireworks and music. But with the amount of people that attended, and all of the shops and vendors that were set up, you would have thought that everyone was swarming the town in celebration of something.

Once we exited the train station, we took a bus out to the location. So many people flooded the main street that led into the fields. Along either sides of the streets were food and toy vendors. There was so much good, traditional foods that we all indulged in! Dango. Taiyaki. Takoyaki. Okinomoyaki. It took me all day to learn how to properly say "Okinomiyaki".

Now, let me give you an idea about the group we went with. Imagine 14 very different individuals all together in a single group. There are about 6 international students, 4 post-undergrads, two of them being former international students, two of them Japanese locals, and four others who range in age from mid 20s to mid 40s. You are only familiar with the younger of the 6, but the others you have seen and talked with many times before so they're not strangers. But still, you're wondering how this day is going to go because you are so used to going on such adventures with your close friends back home. I'll tell you right now that it was incredible!

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The greatest part about the Hanabi competition wasn't the fireworks as one would assume. Instead, it was the fact that I was able to go out so far from Tokyo with an amazing and diverse group of people. Together, we laughed, practiced our Japanese, talked with locals, navigated the area that was new to most of us, (the eldest of the group were well equipped for the adventure), shared our delicious meals, got to know one another; we bonded! I can't remember the last time I ever experienced something like that. Maybe it was the atmosphere of the day, maybe it was the great weather, but something sparked with that amazing group of 14.

So, by the time 5pm hits, we are all settled in our spot in the fields. By the way, these are no ordinary fields - they're muddy and bumpy and definitely not what I was expecting. But, as mentioned earlier, the eldest of the group were well equipped for the venture. They had tarps ready for everyone to sit on. Additionally, they brought plastic bags to put our stuff in so nothing would get dirty and so we would have a place to put our trash. How great are these guys? We even wound up nicknaming the eldest and second eldest "Otou-san" (meaning father) and "Oji-san" (meaning uncle).

Now for the show itself: The sun is setting and the sky starts to darken to a deep indigo, then bam! Bright golden flares shoot up and crash into the sky, only to twinkle down and rain over everyone like a shower of fallen stars. Over and over again we were left in awe at the incredulous display of prismatic luminosity. The shapes they took, the synchronism with the music - you don't see anything like this during the fourth of July.

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Definitely the best part of my trip so far.

A Caution to anyone who reads this and decides to go see Hanabi in Japan - be prepared for the ridiculous amount of people all pushing and shoving their way into train stations immediately after the show has ended! As amazing as that night was, the trip back was unbelievable. Because of the crowds that all swarmed back to the train station all at once, the station officers had to seal off every exit and let groups in one entrance at a time! It was the perfect display of chaotic efficiency if I ever did see it.

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We reached home safely three hours later. Still the best experience yet.