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6 posts categorized "Ildiko Kemp"


Obon Matsuri

    Last Thursday night I slept over at my friend’s house in Yokohama. What I thought was a regular sleepover turned out to be a surprise matsuri (festival) celebrating Obon. Obon is a Japanese Buddhist holiday in which people honor their ancestors. Many festivals have fireworks and an assortment of street foods to enjoy and people often dress in yukata (cotton summer kimono).

    My friend’s host mother and her friend helped us to wear yukata. We each got to pick out our favorite yukata pattern and obi (belt). She also let us borrow bags and some flip flops. I chose a yukata with a black base with small white leaves and large flowers colored in green, orange, and blue. I chose an orange obi to go with it. Two of my other friends also chose dark colored yukata with floral patterns. One interesting thing about yukata and obi is that it is perfectly ok, and normal, for the yukata and obi not to match in color or pattern. Contrasts are supposed to make it more interesting and appealing to the eye. However, because I am American, I had to have my obi match at least a little bit to my yukata.  Obon Matsuri Yukata    One important part of Obon matsuri is Bon Odori, Obon dances. The dances were originally intended to welcome the spirits of the deceased but now it has become fun and entertainment for people of all ages. Dances differ from region to region, which explains why my host family did not know any of the dances when I told them about the festival (we live in Tokyo). My friends and I tried to follow along with the dances and it was a lot of fun even though we messed up a lot. We did an obake (ghost) dance and a dance where everyone shouted “ai shiteru” (“I love you”). We also did a dance move that looked a lot like swimming.

    After dancing we worked up an appetite so we walked down to the food stalls. There was so much to choose from and it all smelled so good. I wanted to eat everything. My friend and I decided to split two things: a baked potato and buta bara (grilled pork on a stick). You buy a baked potato and then you get access to all the condiments. We chose corn, butter, and salt. There were huge buckets of soft butter and we smothered the baked potato in it. So delicious! The grilled pork was also really tasty and well-seasoned. After eating we washed it down with some peach flavored ramune (a type of soda).

    After we got home we went into the back yard and proceeded to do hanabi (fireworks). My favorite was the sparklers. Because I am from New York City I never had the chance to do fireworks when I was younger because they are prohibited in the city. Therefore, it was a really special treat for me to use the fireworks. We concluded the day with cake and showers, extremely tired and extremely satisfied with the day’s events.


    Last week I went with a friend to see Raguko. Rakugo is a traditional Japanese art of comedic story telling. Rakugo is as much about aesthetics and customs as it is about the jokes themselves. Rakugo is performed by a single actor who plays every role in the story. The actor wears traditional Japanese clothing, yukata and kimono. There are only two props the actor is allowed to use, a fan and handkerchief. With these two props the rakugo master can produce any item imaginable. The rakugo actor can also manipulate their voice in order to imitate a man, a woman, someone old, someone young, etc. They can also manipulate their voice to create setting in a story. For example, an actor can throw their voice so that it sounds as if they are far away from the audience or in a spacious room.

    I was also given the opportunity to see a traditional Japanese art called Daikagura performed by Michiyo Kagami. This art involves balance and juggling as well as Shinto beliefs. Through balancing various objects on her head, the priestess could bring you good fortune in life. For example, by spinning a square ring on the top of a parasol so quickly it took on a circular shape the audience is blessed by financial success. The act of transforming a square into a circle brings luck to the viewer.

    My favorite story was performed by Diane Kichijitsu, an Englishwoman who had come to Japan on a backpacking trip and then never left. She told a story about a young foreigner who came to Japan for the first time and how every Japanese person he met asked him the same questions: can I speak to you? Where are you from? How old are you? Do you like Japan? He meets up with his Japanese friend later after answering all these questions multiple times to different strangers. In the end his friend ends up asking the same questions.

    Another great story was by Kaishi Katsura. He told a story about a man who signs up to play a tiger at a zoo because their famous tiger has died and the zoo must continue to entertain the customers. He eventually learns he must put on a show at the zoo by fighting the zoo’s lion. He becomes very scared and calls for the manager but the lion enters his cage and comes closer and closer ready to fight. The fight is about to start and so he calls for the manager one last time. The lion replies “don’t worry, it’s me!” and we find out that the manager is inside the lion.

    Lastly, as a side note, before going to rakugo, my friend and I were able to find a restaurant that served pho, a kind of Vietnamese soup, which I had been craving for a while and had trouble finding. While it wasn’t the best pho I’ve had, it certainly hit the spot. It was located right near Shinjuku station and Kinokuniya Southern Theatre, where the performance was held.

Pho in japan



    I remember spending my childhood dressed up as different Disney characters; first Cinderella, then Megara from Hercules, then Mulan. My mother really likes Disney, so of course I went with my sister to Disney World in Florida during my childhood. However, as I grew older, my affection for Disney outside of the movies began to wane. Last semester I even turned down a trip to Disney World with my family because it conflicted with my first week of my junior year fall semester. However, after I came to Japan, Disney Sea seemed to be on every CIEE student’s mind. Skeptical at first, I was soon convinced that Disney Sea was a place I had to visit during my stay in Tokyo.

    My boyfriend was visiting Tokyo for a week so we decide to find a hotel near Disney Sea and to go and experience the Disney magic. Luckily we happened to pick a hotel that, as we later found out, had a free shuttle bus to the Disney parks! After eating a delicious buffet breakfast (gotta have my morning natto), we set out for Disney Sea.

    I was warned some friends of mine, Disney Sea veterans, that it was important to acquire Fast Passes for major rides such as the Tower of Terror and the Indiana Jones ride. You can only get one pass every two hours so it important to be strategic so that you can ride everything you want to ride. However, because it was a Wednesday and most people had either school or work, the park was not at all crowded and we never had to wait more than 30 minutes for a ride. For Disney theme parks that is rare. One the other hand, many of the rides only lasted a short time. IMG_6568

    After spending a full day at the park, my top rides are as follows. The Indiana Jones Adventure: Legend of the Crystal Skull ride was definitely the best. The ride had the right mix of thrills and plot. Unlike the 20,000 Leagues under the Sea ride that lacked the thrilling ride to go with the beautiful underwater scenery. Second best was the Tower of Terror. Disney World in Florida has a similar ride but the stories are different. In the Japanese version, the owner of the hotel disappears mysteriously after acquiring a mysterious cursed artifact. I found artifact itself quote scary, as the special effects were very good. The dropping elevator was a bit short; it was only about a minute of actual time on the ride. For lunch we made our way to the Mediterranean Harbor area which was styled to the theme of Aladdin. I am pretty sure the park pumps scented air through certain areas because as soon as we got there we smelled delicious curry. My boyfriend got the beef curry and I got the mini curry sampler with chicken, beef, and shrimp curry. Both came with rice and naan. IMG_6569

    My favorite part of the park was the Mermaid Lagoon based on scenes from The Little Mermaid. The building in the area was fashioned after King Triton’s palace. It was beautiful inside with various rides, a few gift shops, and a restaurant. However, it was most beautiful after the sun set. The whole outside of the building lit up in a multitude of colors and sparkles.

    Lastly, before leaving the park, we watched the Fantasmic! Show in the middle of the Harbor. The lights and fireworks were really pretty and the special effects for the monsters and dancers were really skillful. It was easier to see the show because the backdrop was the night sky. It was truly a magical experience. After ten hours and two pairs of mouse ears, I collapsed onto the hotel bed in happy exhaustion, ready for a good night’s sleep. 20140615114833



    One of my favorite experiences so far has been going to see Sumo at Ryōgoku Kokugikan. Upon stepping out of Ryōgoku Station, you are immediately greeted by large paintings of famous yokozuna (the highest rank in sumo) wrestlers with their signature horizontal rope belts. The top ranks after yokozuna are, in descending order, ōzeki, sekiwake, and komusubi. The sumo tournament CIEE took us to was the 11th day of the 2014 May Grand Sumo Tournament, one of the most important sumo tournaments in Japan. The objective of the match is to push your opponent out of the ring or to have them touch the ground with a body part other than their feet. This is usually done in one of two ways; using brute strength against your opponent or by manipulating your opponent’s strength against them. There are often times when a far smaller player defeats a much larger wrestler due to superiority of groundwork and speed.

    First up were the jūryō (second division) matches and then came the makuuchi (first division) matches. The atmosphere inside the arena was incredible. Both the wrestlers and the fans were full of passion for the sport. It seemed that everyone was having a good time. Spectators would scream the names of their favorite wrestlers and shout encouragements during the preparations for each match.

    The most memorable and intense moment was the match between Hakuho, the top ranked yokozuna, and Goeido, a sekiwake. As the best ranked wrestler in the competition, Hakuho was the sure favorite to win the match. Before the match began, various banners were paraded around the arena, each banner signifying sponsorship money the winner of that match would receive. This match had an especially large amount of prize money. After the traditional throwing of salt into the ring, the wrestlers squatted facing each other, poised for battle. However, the match did not begin. In sumo you can only begin the match once both players say they are ready, therefore, there are often instances where a match is about to begin only to have one player stand up and stretch or wash their face. This also serves to increase suspense and hype up the crowd. Finally, after what seemed like forever but was only a few minutes, the match began. Typical sumo matches only last a few seconds, and rarely do they ever last more than a few minutes. Preparation usually takes longer than the match itself.

    After an intense few moments filled with scrambling hands and feet and lots of sweaty flesh, Goeido was victorious! The crowd went wild, throwing their zabuton (seat cushions) at the stage and onto the wrestlers! A completely unexpected outcome: the top wrestler defeated by someone two titles lower than him! Although technically prohibited, it is customary for the audience to throw their zabuton whenever a yokozuna sumo wrestler is defeated by an opponent of lower rank.

    The spirit of sumo thoroughly consumed me during the matches that day and I would gladly jump at the opportunity to go see sumo again. Despite the danger in sitting in what I call the “splash zone,” the first few rows in front of the ring, I would gladly risk being crushed by a sumo wrestler thrown out of the ring for a front row view of the action.




Tea for Three

This week my host mother took me and my little sister to a historical Japanese tea house and Japanese-style garden around our neighborhood. Moreover, there is a beautiful temple about a 5 minute walk away with beautifully detailed buildings. Yamamoto-tei is a sukiya-style house that was built around the end of the Taisho period and the beginning of the Showa period of Japan. Yamamoto-tei blends both Japanese and Western styles of architecture together in one house. The majority of the tea hall was done in the traditional Japanese style: tatami mat floors and shoji sliding screens. However, there was a sign Western style room, the drawing room, which boasted western style furnishings including a fireplace. Of course, because it is a Japanese house, we had to take our shoes off before going inside.IMG_6285Besides formal tea ceremony, Yamamoto-tei allows visitors to relax in one of its many Japanese style rooms or on the balcony overlooking the garden. Although I love the feel of tatami mats beneath my feet, it was a beautiful day outside so my mother, sister, and I decided to sit in a shady spot on the balcony. Although I have pretty annoying seasonal allergies (Japanese people refer to it as Hay Fever), it was worth it to have a great view of the garden while relaxing with my host family. One thing my little sister enjoyed pointing out to me was that the koi fish swimming in the pond below us were unusually large. One orange and white koi was larger than my arm and about as thick as a wooden telephone pole (the ones they have in the U.S.).

While enjoying the scenery, we took advantage of the snack and drink menu that the tea house provided. They had a modest selection of both traditional and non-traditional drinks. My younger sister chose the orange juice while I went with the iced matcha. Both came with small almond cookies, they had unfortunately run out of wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets).  IMG_6283Not to be confused with the typical convenience store or café iced match, this was the real deal. No milk, no sugar, just traditional matcha used in tea ceremony, but served cold instead of hot. I really love tea, and bitter foods are not really a problem for me, so I really adored the iced matcha. Especially because that day was pretty hot, t was refreshing to sit in the shade with a cool drink. It was equally refreshing to spend quality time with my host mother and sister. IMG_6296Lastly, we walked through the entirety of the house and saw a few antique tea ceremony fixtures as well as a beautifully painted wall adorned with white and purple flowers. The entirety of the grounds was very beautiful and I imagine the scenery would change with the passing months. I would love to see how the garden, house, and menu changes with the seasons. I would definitely come back to Yamamoto-tei in the future to relax and drink tea. Hopefully I can convince a few of my friends to make the trek as well. I can only hope that they will have wagashi when I return.


The Mambo and Me

Saturday (4/26) was my first trip to one of the aquariums 水族館(すいぞくかん) in Tokyo. For a while I had been hoping to see the famous Mambo fish (also known as Mola Mola and Ocean Sunfish) which is hard to find in captivity but which can be observed in a few Japanese aquariums. After doing my research I ended up at the Sunshine Aquarium in Sunshine City, a short walk from the Ikebukuro and Higashi-Ikebukuro stations.


The Sunshine Aquarium has both an indoor and outdoor area. The outdoor area has a mix of typical and atypical marine animals. Along with the ever popular penguins, there was an exhibit housing both anteaters and a lemur, neither of which I would consider typical aquarium fare. One of the major differences between the Sunshine Aquarium and the various aquariums I have been to in America is the activeness of the animals. American animals are often lethargic, sleeping, pacing their cages, and disregarding of visitors. The Sunshine animals were, on the other hand, extremely active and engaged with the patrons. One little girl, who I will simply call “the sea lion whisperer,” waved her arms in spirals and the sea lion behind the glass proceeded to swim in spirals in its tank. As far as I know she had no affinity to the aquarium, she was not trained in sea lion performance or anything of the sort.

The anteater was also particularly active. The two parts of its exhibit where separated by a small wall (so the smaller animals could not change exhibits) and the anteater proceeded to climb up the wall and into the other area of its exhibit. It also climbed across a long rope connecting the two parts of the exhibit and then somehow ended up on the ceiling. The anteater was literally hanging on the mesh wire of the exhibit ceiling, most active animal I have ever seen in captivity.


Another interesting difference was that the aquarium was much more crowded than any aquarium that I have been to back in the U.S. Whether that was because the aquarium itself was small or because the Japanese people seem to have a much more pronounced respect and interest in nature I don’t know. However, it was a very enjoyable experience despite the crowds.

And now…The Mambo. This is one of the weirdest looking fish I have ever seen. Its body is flat like senbei (a Japanese rice cracker) and it has two fins sticking straight out from its round body. It also has very round eyes that slightly protrude from its massive body-head. All in all, it looks pretty weird. In my opinion it is also pretty cute. It swims both vertically and horizontally which is impressive for a fish shaped like that. The way it moves is by bending its “tail” and long fins side to side like a paddle.


A fantastic end to a great day at the Sunshine Aquarium, the Mambo was truly worth the trip. After spending a small fortune at the aquarium gift shop (because who can resist aquarium gift shops) my friends and I left with a strange craving for fish…