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3 posts from November 2015

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!