In which I have a culture-packed weekend

Hi everyone,

Fall has arrived. It started about a week ago, and the sweet-peachy smells of late summer have been replaced by a gentle, smoky musk.


Fall reaches Koyasan.

This past weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to experience three very important Japanese cultural events: Kurama’s fire festival, karaoke with friends, and the 1200 year anniversary of Mount Koya (Koyasan). On top of that, I also got to work at an elementary school to help them with Halloween celebrations and their English. This post’ll be mostly images and videos. Fall is such an incredibly sensory experience in Japan. I don’t want to muddy up the beginning of it with too many words. Plus, what’s the use in talking about karaoke? I know you all want to hear us 🙂

Last Thursday was the first day we felt fall. After school ended, a few friends and I went to the Kurama fire festival: the Kurama hi-matsuri at Yuki shrine. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

Getting on the trolley that took us there was difficult enough. I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a crowded place. I’ve been on subways cars in Tokyo where the station workers had to push us into the car, but this was something else. The trolley car arrived at our stop and there were already people pressed against the glass. The doors opened and people turned their heads to look at us with wide eyes. There was a brief silence. We looked at each other and decided to get on anyway.

As we squished our way into the trolley, everyone in the car groaned (but in a good-natured way). We had a conversation with a Japanese man about four inches away from my face and we all laughed at how ridiculous our situation was. It was a little hard to breathe but not hard enough to prohibit chuckling.


Packed. Photo credit to Sean’s phone and Walker’s arm.

Once we got off the trolley, we were funneled into and around the town for about 2 hours. From 6 until 8, the festivities slowly got more spirited and the crowds started to disperse. There were people with huge torches on their backs walking through the streets, and the smell of smoke was sweet everywhere. There was one massive fire in front of the shrine, but there were still so many people it was hard to see.

Eventually the streets cleared out so much that our second loop around the town took less than half the time of the first. And this is when the real fun started. If you’re going to receive a kami in your shrine, you better be sure to put on a show.

At around 9pm, they took down two mikoshi (portable shinto shrines) from the main shrine and carried them through the streets.


After that, they shook the shrines around. It was crazy to see this awesome, gold-covered thing being chucked around like that by a bunch of lively guys. And yes, the guy who was riding the mikoshi was still on it that whole time. This was the real deal.

After this, the people carrying it walked over to some carts and slowly lowered the mikoshi onto them. There was lots of shouting and laughter as one of the shrines almost missed the cart. The guy riding it didn’t bat an eyelash the whole time, though. Then, we pulled the shrines through the streets and around the town. That’s right, WE. Anyone who wanted to could grab the rope and pull the shrines for as long as they liked. So, of course I did it. We all chanted and smiled the whole time. It was awesome.

After pulling the shrines all around the town and up a hill, we stopped and turned around. We almost got run over by the shrine on the slight slope down but the people yelling directions at us kept us calm and told us not to let go. No one was hurt and I had the curious feeling that this is what horses must feel like when they’re pulling a carriage. The people who were directing things in fundoshi leaned back on the shrine and had a quick smoke.

Once they finished their smoke, we pulled the shrines back down the hill and through the town. Because it was already 11pm, my friends and I peeled off near the train station and headed home.

I can’t wait to go to more shinto festivals. Shinto festivals provide a level of participation unlike anything I’ve experienced. I just wish I knew more about it. I don’t know why, but it seems hard to find out information about shinto. I’m hoping to take a religion class next semester, though. I’ll report back with anything interesting.

On Friday, I went out with friends. It was a night of karaoke and it was glorious.

The outing was mostly because there are so many AKP students with October birthdays. Because of this, a good chunk of AKP students showed up–and even a few Doshisha students. They were hilarious and graciously handled the all the money when it was time to pay. I hope we didn’t scare them. We ended up being quite spirited.

We rented out a room for 2 hours at a karaoke place on Shijo. It was probably one of the glitzy-est places I’ve visited yet in Japan. The halls and rooms made it seem like we were in a ritzy hotel!

But did we sing ritzy songs? Well, we did sing one Frank Sinatra song, but… Well I’ll let you see for yourself. Here’s the first song of the night:


They served us free soda and juice the whole night. Eventually we got so hyped up up simple sugars and high fructose corn syrup that we thought we could take this song on:

Nailed it.

We ordered new songs throughout the night on our digital consoles. Those two hours went by so fast. We already have a list of songs we want to sing for next time.

Saturday was the trip to the legendary Mount Koya (Koyasan). I’m not sure there’s much I can say. I encourage you all to look up the history of Koyasan when you have the time. When we went there on Saturday, all of the leaves were just beginning to turn. The shrines and temples were so beautiful nestled in between the trees.

We started out by eating a %100 vegan and freakin delicious lunch at a temple, and then we walked around the mountain complex. At the end of the day I probably visited 7-8 shrines and temples–but that was literally just scratching the surface. We ended the day by walking through the huge and very famous Okunoin cemetery It was actually really fun and extremely beautiful. Almost a happy place. A few friends and I were talking about what a different vibe these Buddhist cemeteries give off.

I thought I should end with this picture, since it’s Halloween in a few days.


Yes, I’m a pumpkin and it was amazing.

On Friday, I helped out in a Japanese elementary classroom. Their job was to interview me with simple questions and write down what I said. They were terrified. And not because of my pumpkin costume that took ~10 minutes to make. That’s ok because I was a little scared too. Especially after one of the kids wouldn’t stop touching my chin and a tiny Batman called me Captain America right before punching my thigh.

But they were pretty good by and large.

After they interviewed me, I went downstairs to my station at the “stamp rally.” The kids had to circulate through various stations and get stamps from each of the people in charge.

My station was “listening comprehension” and it was obviously the most popular.

Out of all the stations it took by far the most time. They each had a sheet with some sentences, and as I said each sentence they had to fill in a blank of their sheet. The words that filled these blanks were “Van,” “Bed,” and “Cat,” among a few others.

And they were impossible. The teacher later conceded that it was a lot more difficult for them to understand the words than she was expecting. I don’t think a single kid got any of the words on the first try–even if I pronounced them like, “vvvvvvvvaaann.”

English is tough.

This week was a break for the kyudo sensei, and that’s probably good since my weekend was so full. I hope I can do it again this weekend, but we’ll see. I’ve got a lot of homework and midterms.

I don’t have any plans for next week yet, but I’ll see what comes my way.



Birthdays and bows and bars

Hello all!

This past week was pretty tough. Lots of tests and homework and lost sleep, but it was also my 21st birthday! I decided to post a little later this week so that I could fit in my birthday parties and pictures. Lots of fun was had and memories made.

The week started off kind of strange. My film class took a field trip on Wednesday (a night time tour) to Gion, or as most people know it, the place where all the geisha are. We learned during the tour that in Kyoto, they prefer to be called “geiko,” in order to separate themselves from the rest of the geisha in Japan. Unfortunately, that was pretty much all we learned.

The tour guide was a chipper Japanese woman with a British accent who seemed to have been doing this for quite some time now. On the tour with us were about 20 tourists, mostly from America it seemed. It became apparent pretty early-on that this tour wasn’t really meant for us. The way the tour guide encouraged oohing and aahing at the various places and people we met on the street made most of us AKP students uncomfortable. One time, the guide even said with a smile, “Oh, look at the people in the shops. Sometimes they remind me of animals in a zoo.”

We were going on the tour because we were interested in seeing the place that inspired Kenji Mizuguchi’s “Sisters of the Gion,” but everyone else seemed more interested in why Japanese girls are so darned small and cute and squeaky (hint: most of them aren’t). The tour guide encouraged these kinds of questions and answered them with phrases like, “Well, that’s because back in the day, men didn’t want their women to be able to walk too quickly, and they’re still like that.” This was met with oohs and aahs and disapproving tsks (hint: most Japanese men don’t really care).

There was a definite shield that the tour guide was putting up in front of us and the tourists. Because I’d been in Japan for a little while, and because I’m studying at a Japanese university, it had been a very long time since I had been so shut out of Japanese culture. My professor later remarked that the tour was actually a very interesting anthropological study of the tourists themselves.

The tour actually ended up motivating most of us to study Japanese culture and language even harder so that we might never get caught in that flytrap again. I wonder what that tour guide would have been like to talk to one-on-one…

On Thursday I met Mormons. Because I’m from Idaho, I spotted them from across the campus. They were talking to one of my AKP friends. I walked over and she was asking him why he had come to Japan. He paused and was about to answer until I asked, “On your mission?” He breathed a sigh of relief, although I’m not really sure why, and nodded while maintaining his smile.

I’ve had a lot of friends go on missions, so I asked him where he and his partner were from. They told me, and I told them I was from Idaho. They were happy to hear this and we talked about mission stories for a bit. The first one’s Japanese was really good–he almost seemed fluent. The second one’s, not so much. They had each been in Japan for about 2 years. I was curious about their language program, since I’ve heard it’s one of the best language programs in the world. It turns out it’s pretty much just talking to people. Being forced to go out and talk to people.

It seems simple, but sometimes I wish I had an excuse to go out and do that. It really is the best way to learn. I wished them luck. They only had a few months left and they looked sad to go, although one was sadder than the other.

Wow! Kyudo! I did it!


Here’s the dojo!

This was by far one of the best experiences I’ve had in Kyoto so far. The AKP office found the kyudo lessons for me, and I went to the place on Saturday with a fellow AKPer. The dojo is right next to one of the most famous Shinto shrines in Japan, Yasaka shrine.

We walked through the narrow doorway of the dojo and into a small, shallow room with a small bench. The room was probably about 3 yards deep and 5  yards wide. There was a large window-opening on the opposite end of the room, where we could see 4 targets about 8 inches in diameter, each set about 10 yards away. They were all still inside, but the window opening made it so you could only shoot at the targets, and not actually enter that part of the room.

We said good morning to and empty room, and our sensei entered from a side door. “Good morning, good morning! Have a seat!” We were alone for most of the time we were there, but a Japanese man came in later to practice who seemed like a regular. Sensei knew him by name.

The room was so small that we sat to shoot the huge kyudo bows he gave us. He got us up to speed really quick and was a pretty fun guy. Surprisingly easy to understand, too. “Wow, awesome! The girl has it down! Ah, the boy, well… keep trying.” I did keep trying and after a few times of him finally saying, “Ah! Yes! Like that, like that!” I managed to hit the target three times. This was apparently almost too much for him to handle and he asked that I sign my name on a piece of paper say that I hit the target three times, so that he could put it on the wall. I did my best with the calligraphy–enough for him to ask if I had studied it–and he pasted it on the wall next to other, similar pieces of paper.

In kyudo, you use your thumb to pull back the string instead of your fingers, and you also put the arrow on the opposite side of the bow. This was confusing for me, but also known. What really surprised me was how much I used my left hand. Because I’m right handed, I hold the bow with my left hand and pull back the bow string with my right hand. However, in complete opposition to Western/Mediterranean archery, you twist the bow very hard towards the arrow, counter clockwise. When you let go of the arrow with your right hand, the bow spins away from you a bit. That was the hardest to get used to, but also one of the funnest parts to get down. Afterwords, the center of my palm was sore.

As we were getting ready to leave, we heard a marching band coming down the street towards the dojo. We all looked out as the passed by the door. Our sensei thought it was a police marching band, and as the last people in the band passed by, we saw a few dressed as the Kyoto police force mascot. It was a nice band.

I’ll definitely be back. Hopefully I can make this a weekly thing. More updates to come. Highly recommended to anyone in Kyoto or traveling to Kyoto. 1000 yen (less than $10) gets you a lesson, equipment, and 20 arrows.

We celebrated both my host mom’s birthday and my birthday on the 18th. Her birthday is the 14th and mine is the 19th. Everyone could make it to the 18th, so we had it this past Sunday. My host dad, two host sisters, sister’s husband and their two kids came.

My host mom cooked lots a delicious food, because that’s one of her favorite things to do. Little did she know, having fried shrimp on my birthday is a bit of a tradition, and she was so happy to hear about that after she set the fried shrimp on the table.




Isn’t this cute?


Everyone had cheesecake and tea.

My host sister also baked a cheesecake, and we all ate cake and drank tea as we opened presents.

Everyone surprised me and ended up getting me a few things without me suspecting! They were perfect. A mini-umbrella, an awesome 3-way neckwarmer, and socks (“We noticed you were full of socks, so we bought you some more”).

The night closed out with one of my best and worst ideas. I brought down my Japanese homework as people were finishing up, so that I could finish without staying up too late. I instantly had 5 sensei helping me out. That was the best one-side of a homework work sheet I’ve ever done. They even argued among themselves about the most natural way to phrase my sentences, sometimes even disagreeing with the homework sheet itself. My host dad also got out a pad of paper and helped my practice writing kanji before I wrote it in ink on my homework.

That was the longest I’ve ever taken to finish one side of a worksheet, but it was also the most Japanese I’ve learned in that amount of time.

Monday night was an excellent cap to an awesome birthday experience. A couple friends and I decided to go to a jazz bar that one of my professors recommended. Wonderful decision. We ended up arriving at Jazz Spot Yamatoya around 7:30 and didn’t leave till 9:30.

Jazz Spot Yamatoya! In the daylight. It looks cooler at night.

Jazz Spot Yamatoya! In the daylight. It looks cooler at night.

When we walked in, the place was very quiet and the bartender/owner was wiping down the bar. Quiet except for the jazz playing on an amazing sound system, though. The sound system is even featured on their website and the back of their business cards. It really sounds and feels like a live band. The owner also only plays vinyl jazz records in his bar. The walls consisted of oak paneling, red bricks, and shelves and shelves of records.

The bar was a bit intimidating, so we sat near the back at a table. The owner, despite our protests, came out from behind the bar and moved the table around so more people could fit around it. It was a great gesture though. We relaxed a bit and soaked in the atmosphere. All the drinks were great, and the food was perfect too. Not too bar-like, but not too fancy either.

Friends :)

Friends 🙂

The place eventually livened up a bit as office workers came in after work. A few couples showed up too. Soon, we weren’t even the loudest people in the bar anymore. But it was still obvious we were having a great time. At some point in the night another bartender appeared and she took most of our orders. She noticed us laughing and ordering new things almost continually, and brought us all business cards for the place (one Japanese one and one English one).

Our Japanese was very amusing for her. She probably hadn’t heard anyone being that polite while ordering in a long time.

Coming up there are two major festivals on Thursday: the Jidai matsuri and the Hi matsuri. I’ll try to go to each, but I’ve got to figure out this whole adventure-school balance. On Saturday a lot of AKP students are going on a field trip to Koyasan. Last time I was there was unforgettable. I can’t wait to return now that I have a bit more experience and knowledge of Japanese art history. I’m also hoping to make my way over to the Kitano Tenmangu market on Sunday (similar to the Toji market I went to before). I’ll see if I can buy a fan for tea ceremony and a small bag to carry my tea things in, now that I have my fukusa and kaishi.

Until next time,


Making Friends

Hi everyone,

This past week was pretty crazy.

I got my first fukusa from my tea teacher (but still managed to get lost on the way home)! This is pretty much the most important thing you can have when practicing tea, and was also the thing I needed help with buy the most. Starting to feel better and better about practice. Although I kept forgetting steps, I heard the other ladies whispering that I had beautiful hands and that I made a really good bowl of tea. Good thing I did, too; I served it to the man who owns the tea utensil shop where sensei bought the fukusa.

That was eclipsed a little bit by my program-wide field trip to Kurashiki, Hiroshima, and Miyajima–and then my art class field trip to Daitokuji. I think I’ll mostly talk about those trips in this blog post.

Our bus stopped at Kurashiki on the way to Hiroshima for lunch and a stretch. Kurashiki is sometimes called the “Venice of Japan” because of it’s many waterways and well-preserved buildings. I loved the waterways and the buildings (and the food), but my favoraite experience there was actually going to an art museum. A Western art museum.

To be fair, I went to the first Western art museum ever established in Japan: Ohara. I don’t normally like walking around in art museums. It’s usually a bit boring for me and I end up feeling guilty for some reason (shouldn’t I be enjoying this? I’m cultured, I promise!). This art museum literally took my breath away. And the funny part was, it wasn’t even because of the pieces themselves. Yes, there were Picassos and Cezannes and Monets, but that’s not really what excited me. It was how they were arranged. It was the fact that, sometimes, you could see a Picasso and a Cezanne and Monet all next to each other!

A friend of mine was annoyed that it seemed like an odd mishmash of pieces and artists that appeared to be assembled at random. There were authors from entirely different schools in the same room, and pieces painted in a style that was very unusual for a particular artist. But that’s what was interesting for me. I never knew what was coming up next. I would walk to the next piece of art and be genuinely stunned. The technique or the palate would be so different. You didn’t need to be an art aficionado to figure that out.

But what was really crazy was that each of the pieces went with each other. Even though they were so different, they all went with one another. I thought at some point I would be so jarred by a pairing that it wouldn’t be appealing anymore, but I always ended up thinking, “Huh! Of course! I never would have guessed these would go so well together!” Each painting resolved the last one and prepared you for the next one.

The museum was a assemblage of pretty much one curator’s personal collection, but it wasn’t at random. By the end, the entire exhibit became the art piece–not just the pieces within it. It was an experience. A professor back at Whitman told me that I should try to make a friend with one piece of art every time I went into an exhibition. If you came again, you could make another friend. That way you could avoid being overwhelmed by everything and become apathetic. Because of how this museum was set up, I may have been a bit overwhelmed, but far from apathetic. I couldn’t help but make more than a few friends. The three I remember are Cezanne’s “Landscape,” Segantini’s “Midday in the Alps,” and another called “Red Room,” but whose painter I forget.

That experience reminded me of what I’m learning about in my Japanese film class. The cuts and editing in some Japanese movies may seem non-nonsensical at first, but it’s just a different way of arranging the piece of art. I’m interested in this sort of thing, so I might think about it for a future paper or thesis…

I had been to Hiroshima before, but it was nice to see it again. Hiroshima is famous for its unique okonomiyaki, delicious oysters, and for being bombed.


Hungry people.


This guy was awesome.


A couple of friends and I went out for okonomiyaki on Wednesday. It was delicious. The guy was hilarious, too. Is it better than Kyoto okonomiyaki? It’s different. I’ll leave it at that because I still want to have friends in Kyoto.


Happy bellies!


The Peace Memorial Museum and the Peace Memorial Park is still the best memorial I’ve ever been to. The museum especially is amazing. Although Genbaku Dome is definitely the most visually striking.


Why don’t we ever see pictures of the bomb like this?


The first-person shot of the mushroom cloud from the ground has a very different affect then the shot from the sky we almost always see.


This model always brings it home for me for some reason.


Did you know the atomic blast over Hiroshima was hotter than the surface of the sun?

Later, a survivor of the atomic bomb told us her story–and in English, which was a nice surprise. She didn’t talk very much at all about her memory of the bombing, and instead thanked us for coming, because this was the first step towards making a more peaceful world. That’s what’s always so powerful about this museum: it’s not really about the past, it’s about the present and the future.

Miyajima was beautiful. It’s hard to describe. The whole island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A couple friends and I hiked up Mt. Misen for about 3 hours and found a shrine at the top. It’s best described through pictures.


We found a shrine!


Beautiful way up.


Got pretty difficult by the time we reached the top, though.


View from the shrine.


On Sunday, my art class went Daitokuji’s mushiboshi, or “airing of the bugs.” It’s basically when all the monks take out the scrolls and the tapestries and unfurl them so that they can breathe. That way they can check for damage by insects or humidity as well.

It also offers a very special occasion, once a year, to see absolutely priceless tapestries and art. There are scrolls that are conversations between the founders of Zen Buddhism in Japan, and 600+ year old paintings from China. It was all a bit overwhelming for me. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. It was hard to make friends.

After I looked over the main rooms, I went and prayed for Sen no Rikyu in front of some calligraphy of his. Sen no Rikyu is the one who standardized tea ceremony in Japan, almost 400 years ago. All three major schools of tea are directly descended from him. Although my school is one of the very few that aren’t descended from Sen no Rikyu, it was a no-brainer to go pray for him. Besides, the founder of my school and Sen no Rikyu were classmates under the same teacher.

Then I went to some gardens, because Daitokuji has some of the most amazing moss and bamboo gardens in Japan.


Moss, for Karen.


The first red leaf of Autumn!


More moss. Beautiful stuff.

Then I wandered into Daisen-in, which has one of the most famous Zen gardens in Japan. This is all still within Daitokuji, mind you. At the front of the temple, an old monk told me in English that I looked very handsome and I must be a movie star. I got a thumbs-up too. All the people working at the temple giggled a little bit. This probably wasn’t the first time he told someone that, but I still felt special.

After looking around the grounds, I noticed that there were some tea ceremony utensils in one of the buildings, but it was closed off to the public. I asked if I could look inside if someone accompanied me, and the said, “Of course! Follow me!” The guide who took me there spoke to me mostly in Japanese, but she had a question about the phrase “silvertongue” in English. She asked if it was a common phrase. I assured her it was and she looked relived. She’s probably had to use it with a couple other tourists before to explain the curator or the tearoom, who she assured me was a silvertongue. In the tearoom, I told her that I was practicing tea ceremony and she was genuinely surprised. I told her it was Yabunouchi, and she was even more surprised. I thought she wouldn’t know about it since it’s such a small school, but then I remembered that Yabunouchi has strong ties to Buddhist temples in Japan, and especially in Kyoto.

On the way out I assured her again that silvertongue was a commonly used phrase. To drive the point home, she pointed to the monk that I met at the front of the temple and said, “He’s a silvertongue.” I said yes, that’s exactly right. We laughed and it was great.

The last thing I did at Daitokuji was visit Oda Nobunaga’s grave. Oda Nobunaga is the equivalent of the US’s George Washington, but more legendary. His gravesite was open to see for just that one day, so I decided to go and see it when I had the chance. I quickly became lost despite charming an elderly Japanese woman with my broken Japanese (or perhaps, because). Luckily, I bumped into an equally confused Japanese man who I also charmed with my broken Japanese. Together, we walked around and asked for directions, and together we found Oda Nobunaga’s grave. Crazy stuff. We said an awkward goodbye, and I walked back to the train station.

One way or another, it seems like things are only worthwhile if you make friends. If you’re overwhelmed, it’s nice to remember that a person will do in place of a painting.

Next Monday is my birthday! I plan to go out with friends on Friday for karaoke, and then go to a Jazz bar on Monday that one of my professors recommended. Kyudo is still up in the air, but I think I’d like to try it this Saturday. Wish me luck.