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2 posts from January 2016

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.

Fi4

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.