What happens when you walk in Japan

Hi everybody,

There’s one experience that really stood out for me last week. I’ll do my best to write it out.

I headed to tea ceremony practice this past Wednesday as usual, starting with a 25 minute walk through downtown Kyoto to the place where I practice. I was a little unsure about the walk the first time I went to practice, but I’ve grown to really like it. I see all the same shops and streets. It’s sort of like keeping up with the city happenings. I also always pass this mysterious building that has the characters for kyudo written on the outside of the building. I look in sometimes through the musty windows and even see a target on one side of the room. No one’s ever there, though. I went back to AKP and they told me it was a construction company.

Tea practice went well. I finally didn’t make a complete fool of myself in tea ceremony! I usually make a mistake every second or third movement, so this was a big deal for me. I was feeling great on my walk back to the station. It was a nice temperature, although it was a little rainy.

A nice, rainy night in Kyoto.

A nice, rainy night in Kyoto.

For some reason, I looked up and saw that there were lights on in that building that I pass on my way to practice. The upper half of the back dutch door was open and I could see right in to the place. Again, I don’t know why, but decided to walk closer to get a better look.

The target that I always see from outside through a window was perfectly illuminated in the frame of the door so that it almost looked like a painting. As I came closer, I noticed there was a little white dog sitting on the ground in front of the target. This confused me. I stopped and just stared at the dog for a long time and it stared right back at me. I was starting to feel silly and I was about to leave when an old man stepped out from directly behind the door. We must have been less than six feet away from each other. He didn’t look surprised when he saw me. Instead, he just stood there and looked at me. I stepped back quickly and apologized for looking into what must be his house. At the end I added, “I saw the target, and I’m interested in kyudo but…” and I turned to leave. Before I could turn around, I heard him say, “No, come in.”

“Really? Is that ok?”

“Yeah, yeah, sure. Come on in”

“Ok, if you say so…”

He opened the bottom half of the dutch door to let me in and led me to a small room just a few feet away from the door. I left my umbrella and shoes by the door. When I rounded the corner, I saw two Japanese women sitting on two benches opposite from each other drinking coffee and eating. We all looked very surprised to see each other. I hastily did a self-introduction in Japanese and everyone seemed to visibly calm down. One was an older woman and the other was a college student. The old man told me to sit down on one of the benches and gave me a mug of coffee and a cookie.

He said something like, “So, you interested in kyudo, huh?” And I said yes but that I’d only really done it one time before. It turned out that the college student had also only done it one time before, and at the same dojo! I explained that I always see this place on my way to tea, but no one’s ever here so I didn’t know if anyone used this place any more. I also said that I wanted to continue to practice kyudo, but that the dojo that I’d gone to was going to be under construction starting soon and ending after I leave Japan. The old man said, “Tea, huh? Hmm.” Then he pulled out an essay he’d written about kyudo, with English translations under each line. While I started to read it, he pulled out about 3-4 wooden boards with long Japanese phrases on them about kyudo and explained each one to me in great detail. I couldn’t really understand most of it, but I think I got the gist of most of them.

When I’d pretty much finished my coffee and cookie, the older woman left and the old man put away the boards as she headed out the door. He paused to say bye to her and then looked back at me. “Hey, come here for a sec.” Then he gestured at the college student. “Go practice downstairs. I’ll be right back.”

He led me through many halls and up one steep flight of stairs to the second floor, which was a bit more traditional. It turns out that he built this whole place, with the bottom two floors as a kyudo practice space and the top 2nd floor as his main house. I wonder if that’s the reason why the AKP staff thought it was a construction company; he most likely runs a construction company. He told me to walk a bit further, and before I knew it, I was standing at the eaves of a tea room. He looked pleased that I recognized it, and maybe a little pleased to show it off. It had everything you’d need, with a storage room in back with a bunch of tea stuff apparently. He showed me a picture of a famous contemporary archer hanging above the doorway and then we headed back down again. Once we reached the first floor, he lead me back through the hallways and down a second steep flight of stairs to the basement. The younger college student was practicing her form by shooting a roll of carpet, with a 6-7 foot yumi (bow).

The old man told her to fire again and he corrected a bit of her form. I later learned that this old man was of course a 6th level black belt in kyudo. Sensei looked at me after she had fired again and said simply, “That’s kyudo.” And then he gestured towards the bows on the other side of the room. “Want to try.” Now, by this time in the night it was already 9pm and I hadn’t even eaten dinner. And to be honest, I didn’t really want to intrude on this nice college student’s practice too much. Plus if I stayed any later I was sure my hostmom would worry. “I don’t have much time right now, but I’d love to in the future.” Sensei laughed a bit and said, “You mean later? In kyudo, there is no ‘later’; there’s only ‘hit[ting the target]”–which actually turns out to be a clever pun in Japanese that doesn’t really translate well into English. I also laughed a little bit and told him my reasons, ending with my worries about my hostmom. At this, it seemed like he really understood.

“Oh, yeah, if it’s your mother your worried about then you’d best return.”

“But I really would like to return. Next week maybe?”

He smiled and said, “If it’s alright, please come by.”

I said my thank yous and goodbyes to sensei and the student and put my coffee mug in the sink on the way out. I also said bye to the dog as I left, who was still lying in front of the lit-up target.

Its funny how much giving in to a little hesitation every once in a while really pays off. I’ll remember that momentary portrait of the target and that dog framed in the dutch door for a long time.

Walking really is worth it.

I’m actually heading to tea tomorrow, so I should pass by the place again. If I see the lights on, I think I’m going to see if I could take regular lessons from him. I also told my hostmom not to worry if I come home a little later tomorrow night. After hearing about this, she understood 🙂

Till next time,


A break well spent



Arashiyama is famous across Japan for it’s autumn colors. Taken at Tenryuji temple.

Last week was AKP’s fall break, and I finally had a bit of free time to go and have adventures. I went to Arashiyama (about 20 minutes away from where I live) with a friend on Friday, among other places. But I don’t really want to talk about Arashiyama or other places I went to for this blog post. Here’s a collection of pictures from my Arashiyama trip if you’re curious about that, though:


Instead I’m going to focus in on three important experiences I had this week that effected me just as much or more so than the beauty of Arashiyama’s autumn colors. Getting my flu shot, having dinner with my host family, and going to a Japanese barber.

On Wednesday I got vaccinated against the flu. I wasn’t entirely sure what that entailed in Japan or what I was in for, but I did know that my host dad had graciously agreed to take me, and since we would be going together, my host mom recommended that he get immunized as well. We were in this together.

He drove me to the local clinic, which was pretty small. For some reason I was expected that we would go to the nearby hospital for our flu shots, but hostdad pointed out that that would take a long time and we’d have to wait in long lines. True. We walked in and sat down on plasticy couches. The room was small and full of old people, like in America–but not like in America, the room wasn’t lit up so brightly. It was nice. I waited on the couches with hostdad till the nurse came out and called my hostdad’s name, someone else’s name, and the first two syllables of my name before furrowing her brow. I held up my hand and she laughed a bit and seemed relieved that I hadn’t let her continue.

The nurse took us to a back room and asked us about our medical history in Japanese. She came to my name and stumbled again until my host dad said, “Moneyhun. Jesse Moneyhun.” It was nice to have him on my side. He seemed a little annoyed, and to be honest I was a litle confused too since my name is spelled out phonetically because I’m a foreigner (モネハン). Whatever. She was nice and she was doubly relieved when it turned out I spoke alright Japanese. She took all of our temperatures and led us to a turquoise squeakyrubby bed that we all sat on until our name was called to be vaccinated by the doctor.

First it was the stranger, hostdad, and then me. Hostdad came back and told me “switch!” with a wink. He was holding his arm but he assured me that it “didn’t hurt all that much.” I went back to see the doctor and was met again by tension and then relief when the doctor and nurse realized my Japanese was ok. He swabbed me up and we talked about where I was studying (“Oh, Doshisha!”), and why Japanese, and before I knew it he’d given me my shot.

I went back to the bed and sat next to my host dad while we both pressed cotton swabs against our arms. “Yeah, it wasn’t too bad.” We sat in silence for a while on that bed, smiling in parallel, not looking at each other but knowing that we were sharing that experience. It felt like a Wes Anderson film or something.

We tossed the swabs and went out the door after my host dad paid for the shots. On the way home we laughed about how no one could pronounce my name and how we were both grateful that the shots didn’t hurt at all. He told me that the doctor at that clinic graduated from Kyoto University, so “even though it’s a very small clinic, he’s a hell of a guy.” Sounds like a TV show.

It’s always interesting to be presented with info in such a way that it seems like its supposed to be common sense. That was the second time that week that I’d heard a similar comment about Kyoto University graduates. I’ve heard similar things about Doshisha students. It’s funny to be put in a situation where you know nothing about your position, but you’ve already been incorporated into it.

I really felt close to my host family right then.

On Saturday I came down the stairs for dinner feeling like I’d caught a cold. I know I hadn’t. It might have been a side effect of the flu shot. But that was also the day when the world was all abuzz with news from Lebanon, Japan, Mexico, and live reports from Paris. Facebook had exploded. I felt so tired. I came downstairs to have dinner with my host parents and my host sister’s family (husband, son, and daughter).

Saturday was 7-5-3 day in Japan, which meant that kids who are 7, 5, or 3 years old got to wear super elaborate kimono and be congratulated at shrines across Japan. Since my hostsister’s son is 5 and her daughter is 3, they both got to take part. I’d seen them come through the door a few hours before, waddling around splendiferously. By the time I came down to eat dinner they were both free from their kimono and playing around. Hostsister’s daughter was bopping around to her favorite kids program and her son was playing with trains and making sarcastic comments about random things.

Everyone was so happy.

We sat down and ate a huge amount of food. I wasn’t that hungry, but everything was so good that I ate a ton anyway. The kids finished first and the rest of us stayed around the table and talked about work and public transportation and things. There was a quiet moment and I made a joke–one of my first successful ones in Japanese–about my host mom not being about to open a package. Everyone laughed and I felt a little better.

It got quiet again and my host mom turned to me and asked if I’d seen the news about France. I told her I had. Everyone shook their heads and sighed. Then I told my host mom about Lebanon. And Mexico and Japan, too. She was shocked to hear that all that had also happened too. The rest of my family seemed to have heard about most it. It got quiet again and the conversation shifted. Saki (my host sister’s daughter) came over around that time and grabbed my host dad’s hand. She pulled him over to the floor and they started to play together. Just then I had a crazy thought that somehow made me feel better.

I thought about everyone who was hurting and who had hurt people in those last few days, and I imagined them playing with young kids. When a kid comes up to you and asks you (or pulls you over by your finger) to play, you have to. I know it’s a lot more simple in my head, but imagining everyone who was involved with those recent tragedies and everyone who’s arguing over it–It’s a very humbling, humanizing experience to play with someone that small.

If more people had to play with babies the world would be a better place.

On the way out Saki told me goodnight and gave me a little head bobble, and she also gave me a goodbye handhold without me even asking. I felt happy before that I was lucky enough to spend time with my family here and have a relatively normal night. But I also felt a little guilt somehow. After Saki’s handhold, I gave in and just felt grateful instead.

I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but that dinner made me feel a little better about everything.

I’ve been needing a haircut for a while. On Sunday a friend took me to a barbershop he’d gone to before and really liked. When we walked into the shop, two people were just getting their hair finished. After they left, my friend and I were the only customers there. The barber/hairstylist was quiet, but I told him what I wanted in Japanese and then showed him a picture to give him an idea. He said he could do it and we were off.

The whole cut probably took about 40 minutes. He cut my hair in multiple ways (scissors, clippers, straight razor), styled my hair with multiple tools (hair straightener, gel, spray), and then gave me a brief massage. Wow. Relaxed. At the end he was clipping individual hairs and I felt like a bush being shaped by a master gardener.

By the end of it I looked at myself in the mirror and I was impressed. It wasn’t really what I’d expected walking into the shop, but he definitely did a great job. It was sort of a Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises vibe.

First time for this kind of haircut/style. It was a lot of fun.

I think he had fun. I did too 🙂

It was surprisingly cheap too! Haircuts in Japan are notoriously expensive, but this one was right around $15. I thought I’d misheard and I kept handing handing him too much money. He and his wife thanked us for coming and we headed back. It was fun riding on the train with my new do. Not sure if I got more or less looks than usual.

When I got home my host mom was pretty surprised. She laughed and asked me if I was a 25 year old salaryman.

I’ve since washed out the gel and spray and put a part back in my hair, but it was fun to get a real Japanese haircut. Maybe even more than a kimono or other things, I felt like I was wearing Japan.

He’ll be seeing more of me in the future.

Fall is slowly changing into winter. Everyone here tells me it gets really cold in Kyoto. We’ll see I guess. No central heating. Lots of blankets.


Secret places and politics and babies

Hi all,

From my visit to the Kyoto Imperial Palace grounds.

From my visit to the Kyoto Imperial Palace grounds.

This past week was slow to start, but ramped up as we approached the weekend. There were a couple photoheavy moments, but the weekend was mostly full of interaction with new people and in new settings. If you’re here for the multi-media, don’t worry. It’s at the beginning and the end. I think there’s a little bit of everything for people in this one, though.

On Thursday I found myself walking through the grounds of the Kyoto Imperial Palace. I always pass it when I walk to and from school, but this is the first time I had ever walked inside the grounds. And probably the first time for many other people. It’s normally difficult to get inside. There’s high walls that surround the grounds and you can usually only get in with reservations made in advance, and that costs money. The palace grounds are open for just a few days each year for free, and I decided to go on the last day it was open. It was just a 2 or 3 minute walk away from campus.

The palace grounds and the park that surrounds them is massive. Many many city blocks.

The Imperial Palace area is massive. Many many city blocks. A public park surrounds the inner palace grounds.

The first thing you should know about the inner palace grounds: they’re massive. The second: if you go the last day they’re open, it’s packed. Me and two other friends entered the palace grounds after having our bags checked, and we were all floored by what we found inside. What we’d all been passing every day. Also by the amount of people, of whom a large portion were foreigners.

The Kyoto Imperial Palace was used as the residence of the Imperial family until 1869, when it moved to Tokyo (it’s still in Tokyo). It still felt like it had that old-world charm. Not super old, since most buildings have burned down many times in Japan, but there was a sort of mid-19th century vibe about the place. I decided that since it’s rare to be able to see inside, I might as well take a few pictures. I ended up taking pictures for a few other people as well.



What people had opened for us was amazing, but what was also amazing to see was what was always open: the gateways and doorways. I started to notice how amazingly they framed the nature around the palace grounds as you approached them. Each gate or doorway framed a painting, it seemed. And it was uncanny how perfectly curated each image was that these doorways and gateways framed. It destroyed the distinction that so many grandiose buildings have: that there’s a carefully kept garden or lawn that’s separate from the building. Nature is an essential part of this palace, and the palace allows you to appreciate nature in return.

Friday was so fun. On Thursday night, a friend (Sean) asked if I was free on Friday afternoon to help his host mom out. She’s a professor at a local university (Ritsumeikan) and she wanted a few AKP friends to come to her English class and help out a bit. It sounded like a good experience.

The commute from Doshisha was about an hour and a half. and it took us into the mountains. We were met at the bus stop by a few Ritsumeikan students with a “Sean” sign. The campus was beautiful. They showed us to Sean’s mom’s classroom and Sean’s mom explained how we would be helping. All her students were science majors and they need to learn how to write academic papers in English. That day, we’d be helping them flesh out their first paragraph. We got comfortable and waited for the students to arrive.

When the time came, students started passing by the classroom and trying to come in–but more often than not, they were so surprised to see 5 foreigners that they collapsed into giggles and gasps and backed out of the room. Sean told me that his mom had apparently built up this day for about a month before we all came to her class. After about 10 minutes, people finally settled down enough to start class and we all did our typical self-introductions, but this time in English.

We were bunched into groups of 3 students and 1 foreigner and we started. They all put their first paragraph into one long document and I went around the circle reading each of their paragraphs, giving them advice. I also tried to do it in English as much as I could, because I figured it was good listening comprehension for them. There’s not a lot of opportunity to interact with a native English speaker in a learning environment in Japan. By explaining things in English and helping them figure out the best translations, it was actually a great way for me to learn more Japanese too.

One of the first things I noticed was that everyone’s paper’s made sense and actually had very strong theses, but very few of them were actually in paragraphs. One person’s was spit into three mini-paragraphs, while another made a new paragraph almost every time he started a sentence. This wasn’t a big deal because it was easily fixed, but they all seemed surprised when I pointed this out to them. Of course there were some grammatical question-marks, but most of it just sounded unnatural rather than incomprehensible. I made sure to tell them this. A couple of times Sean’s mom came over to check in with us and translate a bit of what I was saying if it was tough to get my point across. She kept telling me I was a “nice sensei” with a chuckle, and both words surprised me. I suppose I was being nice to them, but I was more impressed. Most of their papers were really good and clearly thought out. And sensei? That’s the first time I’ve been called that. It was a trip. By the end of the session I did end up providing a few “Ah!” moments, like useful synonyms (But~Although) and links to Japanese language. The students told Sean’s mom what I helped them with, and all of a sudden I wasn’t just a “nice sensei,” but a “good sensei.” I liked it. Hopefully I can do more of this in the future.

After class, two students who spoke great English took us out to lunch at the ritzy school cafeteria. They were great fun. We talked about favorite movies and hobbies and attractive celebrities. Lots of laughs and arguments. When we had to go home, one of them rode with us all the way to Kyoto station since he was meeting his girlfriend there later (she was visiting from Tokyo). Friends are good. Maybe I’ll meet up with them again later.

When I returned home and told my hostparents where I went, my hostdad said that he was actually a graduate of Ritsumeikan. He raised his glass and without turning said, “I’m Ritsimeikan.”

Friday was crazy. I went to a small international relations conference at Doshisha with the director of AKP. It was billed as a panel and discussion on relations between the US and Japan in Asia.

Before I went, the director asked me if I was up to date, but I wasn’t really sure what that meant. So, he recommended that I just search up for topics to get a general idea of the politics involved in Asia right now: the Senkaku Islands; the recent bill that passed to expand Japan’s military; the recent actions in the South China Sea; and the TPP. After looking these up and rolling them around in my head, it weirdly started to make sense. For once, politics was fun and exciting rather than tiring. I was excited for Friday.

When we arrived, we were the only two native English-speakers in the room out of about 20+ participants. It was time to test out my polite Japanese. It actually went really well! I pretty much understood what they were saying and I even got complimented on me “very excellent accent.” I got so many business cards. Wow, so this must be what the real world is kind of like?

After introductions, the panel presentations started. In a nice gesture, everyone decided to speak in English. This was good since their English was surely better than our Japanese–especially when it came to these discipline-specific topics. The discussion honestly wasn’t any different that what you’d see in a Whitman classroom or in any other academic setting. I guess I was expecting a different kind of interaction since I was in Japan, but instead the conference made me feel right at home. There were a few times when people had to break into Japanese, simply because even in Japanese it was hard to explain. Even then I was surprised by how well I understood what they were saying. And when I didn’t understand someone, I was relieved to look around and see other confused faces too. This was complicated stuff.

Interestingly, we didn’t discuss the US explicitly in the meeting at all. It was mostly about China and about the global power shift from the West to the East. I learned lots of stuff. As it turns out, the US and China don’t even share the same vocabulary for nuclear operations. Like, not just language; we share vocabulary with Russia. The basic concepts involved with nuclear operation are actually different. We almost exclusively talked about China, except for one mention of IS: “China has always been hard to understand, but we have no idea how or with whom we should negotiate when we interact with IS. China now seems far friendlier.” It felt a lot like the real situation in Asia right now: Japan talking to itself about China while the US is idly present, and with zero representation of China in the room. There also wasn’t any mention or representation of South Korea, another feature that reflected the current situation. This was all noted at the end and it made us pause a bit and think. We ended by asking the Americans what Americans think of Japan and China. Who do we feel closer to? The AKP director didn’t want to speak for all Americans, but I agreed with him when he said that most Americans trust Japan far more. We’re not alone in thinking this, either. There were relived sighs from around the room and a few chuckles. More than anything I was surprised by how connected the world really is right now. US intervention in the Middle East has consequences that reach as far as Japan, and trade agreements just made between American and Japan (among others) have the potential to affect 1/3 of the world economy in the coming years.

They all wanted me to join the meeting’s associated leadership exchange program in about 7 years. We’ll see where I’m at by then, but I honestly thought this was pretty fun and cool. I have all their business cards if I’m ever interested.

I really like it when my hostsister and her kids come over. I’m starting to bond a little with her littlest kid, her 1 1/2 year old daughter. It’s the cutest thing when she bops around and sings along to her favorite Japanese kids’ programs.

I’m proud to say that just the other day, I was the only one who understood what she was saying. She kept saying “jiju” over and over. I had a feeling she was asking for water: “mizu.” Perhaps out of sheer luck, I was right. She was so happy.

Later, after watching an English-learning program, I swear she turned to me and said “dadur.” “Water?” A serious nod. “Water? Mizu?” Another nod. “Ok one sec.” I gave her a mug of water and she beamed again and drank it.

She’s learning how to say goodnight, and on the way out she told me goodnight with a very elegant, bouncy headbob.

She’s gonna go far.

The last fire festival I went to was awesome. So, imaging my delight when I heard that there was going to be a fire festival this Sunday at Fushimi Inari. Arguably the most famous shrine in Japan. It’s the one with the ~10000 tori gates (see below).


Here’s the entrance to all the gates. It goes on for a while.

The kami enshrined at Fushimi Inari is Inari Okami: “the Japanese kami of foxes, of fertility, rice, tea and Sake, of agriculture and industry, of general prosperity and worldly success, and one of the principal kami of Shinto.” Pretty important stuff. But honestly, the Kurama fire festival I wrote about earlier was more fun. I still got to see some cool ritual burning of offerings, though. And great chanting!

That’s ok. The festival was basically an excuse to visit Fushimi Inari anyway. It was raining, but as I’d hoped that actually made things even more beautiful and mystical and stuff. It’s always crazy how many gates there are, and how much it affects you.

They just keep coming. And they get even denser later on. I’m honestly not sure why there are so many tori gates at Fushimi Inari, aside from the fact that it’s breathtaking. Each gate had something written on the back that I coudn’t make out. They could be names of donators. That might make sense. There were of course lots of people who came for the festival. I suppose I’ll just have to come again. *sigh* Maybe I’ll actually make it to the top and through all of the gates. I bet it’s awesome in the winter. I might know why all the tori gates are there by then.

The rest of the week is fall break for me! I don’t have too much planned, but I think it’s gonna be good. There are a couple of paths I want to go down and temples to visit. Maybe I’ll even fill up my shuincho by then. More on that next time. Well, I probably won’t fill it, but I might get close. I’ll see what the break holds. It’s funny not having Thanksgiving in middle of Halloween and winter break. I think Japan would love Thanksgiving. It’s got food. It’s got animals. It’s got crafts. We’re missing out here, America.

Till next time,