Hints of spring (and a job?)

Hi everybody,


To balance out the last post’s photo.

Well, no need to fear. It has officially gotten warmer. And lighter, too! I took the above photo on campus a few days ago because I thought the campus and the clouds looked beautiful, but also to make up for the snowy campus picture I included in my last post.

Other things are changing too. As we welcomed in the new year, my senseis also welcomed in new students. Whether or not I was ready for it, this automatically shoved me up the social ladder. I’m not at the bottom anymore! My kyodo sensei has welcomed in quite a few new students since the new year, actually. He’s even asked me to start helping him a bit. And the more I become familiar with him, the more my language that I use around him changes.

My tea sensei hasn’t really taken on any more students, but I’ve been studying enough with her and the others that I’ve become quite comfortable with tea ceremony now. Last Tuesday, sensei invited a guest in so that he could see us practice and so that we could serve him some tea. Just like in kyudo, his presence in the room immediately shoved me up the ranks, and although I did make quite a few mistakes, that’s the first time where tea has felt fun. When I’m practicing, I usually feel like I quiet the whole room down; there’s so much tension in watching a newcomer like me. But lately the atmosphere has felt far more natural. No shaking hands. We’ve even been exchanging a few jokes.

It’s crazy how palpable the ascendance to senpai really is.

On Friday, I had a great night.

I’m not so sure what made it so great. I suppose it was a couple of things all together. I made a list.

  1. When I went to kyudo as usual, I walked to the back door, and seeing no one, I called out to see who was home before I came in. From the basement I heard, “Yeaahh! One second.” As I heard someone coming up the stairs, I asked, “Is now an ok time?” My senpai came up the stairs as she was saying “yep,” and then seeing me, she put stopped and put her hand over her eyes: “Oh! You surprised me. I didn’t realize it was you, Jesse. Oh wait! A person who can speak English! Good! Just in time… come downstairs when you’re ready.”
    • This made me happy for a lot of reasons. But mostly, that I suppose I didn’t sound like a non-native speaker. That’s been happening more and more recently. I’ll call out into a house or a store, and when someone comes out, they’re always surprised to see that it was me to say it.
  2. The reason why she was so happy to see me, and English speaker, was that a nice guy from Manchester was getting taught kyudo by sensei that very moment. And he didn’t know any Japanese. He looked quite scared. Sensei looked like his usual relaxed self, but I could tell things were a little tense. He was noticeably relieved when he saw me. “Jesse! Nice to see you, bud. Just in time. Help out and translate a bit, will ya?” So of course I did. Mr Manchester actually seemed pretty ok after just a few seconds of me telling him some of the important stuff, and sensei told me to go practice upstairs. After Manchester ran out of time, sensei told him to come upstairs and watch me shoot arrows. We had a very nice conversation about archery (he was also interested in archery before this) and Japanese archery. I feel like I cleared up a few things and it seemed like he was even more interested in it by the time he left. Mission accomplished. I went back down after Manchester slid the back door shut and sensei conversed with me like an old pal in front of a new student he was teaching. “Boy, that was a close one! Good thing you came. He seem like a good guy? Seemed ok to me. A little spindly though. Hahaha [backslap].” Good feels all around.
  3. As I was headed back, I saw the train just pull into the station as I rounded the corner. I ran for the train, but everyone had already boarded by the time I still had about 30 yards to go. The conductor looked out the window and saw me, and then he nodded very slightly. I sped up a bit, and he kept the doors open till I got on the train. Sometimes I really love Japan.

Well everybody, today was another one of those days. Something new might have just entered my life.

For various reasons, I needed to get someone a present today. And it just so happens that I decided that this present needed to be sake. But I didn’t want to get it from just any place! I wanted to get it from a liqueur or sake store so that I could ask questions like, “Does this one have a dry flavor?” because I still don’t really have any idea how to pick something like that out.

I decided all this while I was out today, and I also decided that I needed to find I quickly and nearby so I could get home for dinner.

After failing to find several places, I finally realized that I was right next to Nishiki, the most famous food marketplace in Japan. I looked on Yelp and found the place with the most stars and went for it. Aijikiroji is famous for giving out samples of good sake to people passing by, but also for selling a large amount of pottery made by the owners. I was interested. And I also thought I had seen it before.

I waded through Nishiki’s crowds till I found the shop (passing by a few other tempting sake shops), and there were certainly samples being given all around. I huddled with the rest of the people till I got a little cup. The older ladies were giggling and talking to the other customers about how handsome they thought I was. They thought I couldn’t understand them, but they were wrong.

By the time it became apparent that I did know Japanese, everyone was so excited that they started asking me all kinds of questions, all the while refilling my little plastic sample cup. Eventually one of them made a joke that I should have a part time job there. Everyone laughed and pointed out that the woman who said that was actually the owner of the shop. “Yeah maybe, maybe if I have time…” I drank a few more samples and then decided on my bottle. The owner thanked me very nicely and took the bottle to the register.

Once there, it also became apparent that there were many Doshisha graduates in the family. “Huh! What a coincidence.” After that I finally plucked up enough courage to ask the person behind the cash register. “Um, actually, if there’s any time, I would like to perhaps take on a part-time job here.” This was the right thing to say. A small celebration was had and I wrote down my contact information. The owner asked me to send her what slots would work for me, whenever I have time.

I walked out of the store with a good feeling.

Until I realized that everyone was so excited that I had entirely forgotten to pay for my bottle.

I hurried back and asked the same woman behind the register (who was a little surprised to see me back so soon), “Did I pay for my bottle?”

“Oh! I’m not sure actually. I’ll get the owner, one sec.”

She called up the stairs and the owner came down. They talked for a few seconds quietly and then they both erupted into laughter. The owner came over to me and said, “I’m so incredibly sorry for that.” To which I pretty much said ditto. I paid successfully and left the store with an even better feeling. These seem like some good people to work with.

There’s buds on the trees, everyone.


Heard it’s going to get cold again this week, though. Don’t mean to be a downer, but I also know when to call it. No worries though. It shouldn’t really get as cold as it did again until next year. And next week has a lot of awesome things in store.

Two field-trips, Setsubun festivities, and a nearly-free dinner and sake tasting opportunity that I heard about from the website deepkyoto.com. I was put on the waiting list, but it seems my position got pushed up a bit and I’m going to it this Thursday.

That’s all for now. Stay warm and watch out for spring,


Snow and thoughts. And sumo!

Hi all,

It’s cold. I remember back a few months ago writing on this blog and wondering if it would get cold. It’s cold. It’s not just that it’s cold outside; it’s cold inside too. There’s hardly any central heating in Japan, so everyone has personal heaters in their rooms instead. But boy, it’s sure hard to get out of bed in the morning when you can see your breath from under the covers. Luckily, because it’s on everybody’s minds, its easy material for idle chitchat.


It even snowed! Photo credit to Doshisha University.

It snowed on Friday and everyone in the school freaked out. This is the best video I ended up saving, not knowing that it would stop snowing and start to melt by the time I was out of class again.

As I walked out of of class to go to lunch, I noticed lots of students making snowmen out of the leftover snow. Snowmen in Japan are actually called ‘yuki daruma,’ which means ‘snow daruma‘ (like Yukiko/snow child).

The plum blossoms are strangely in bloom, though.

I still went to kyudo and practiced at my sensei’s house, even though he usually practices with the back door open. I have to say I’m getting pretty good at understanding him these days, and other people from Kyoto for that matter.

People in the Kansai area in Japan have a very strong and distinct dialect and it’s taken me some time to get used to it. I knew something was up when I went to see sumo in Tokyo (see below) and had trouble understanding people, even though the Tokyo dialect is what they teach in schools as standard Japanese. It’s definitely got thinking about how language works through personas more than most people might let on.

A persona of course is commonly understood as a ‘personality’ or a  ‘person’ that people take on in certain circumstances. Depending on the circumstance, there are many different personas that people can take on. It’s kind of like choosing a character from a gallery. Perhaps ‘take on’ might not be the best way to describe it, since more often than not you’re interpreted as a character rather than merely choosing it.

For instance, if you’re an old man living in the West in America, people can assume certain things about you. Maybe you speak with a slight accent, or wear boots, and maybe you’re a little more gruff and blunt that your old-guy pals over in the East. Of course people are human and not a single person is the perfect “Old Western Guy,” but there’s plenty of qualities that are open to you if you want to be seen as that persona. Inversely, there are plenty of well-known clues people can notice if they want to identify you as that persona.

What I’ve been learning in my language classes so far has mostly been focused on language bringing about certain situations. For example, if you want to buy something, say a certain phrase. If you say it correctly you’ll have bought something by the end of your interaction. Sometimes we also learn what to say in certain situations, like what language is acceptable at a fancy dinner party or unexpected with friends.

But I feel like we haven’t spent too much time on how personas fit into this. What person are you becoming when you say these words? How are you seen? What effect does that have on the situation? Think about if you used some rough language at a dinner party. By doing that, you’re projecting yourself as a ruffian (always wanted to use that word). This changes the whole situation because of what you’ve brought in from the outside. In this way, your language usage created a persona that belongs to a situation very far from a dinner party.

This seems a bit linear (language->persona->situation), but I think you can see how they interact and change each other as well. It’s really more of a web–or a dance–than a strict progression.

I’ve had a pretty good education in Japanese language and situations, but not a lot about how personas might work into the mix. I can tell you, after finding a website that teaches Japanese through 8 different, common Japanese characters (found in popular culture). It’s free and I just stumbled on it one day, but it’s a great idea. It’s changed the way I look at communication for sure. For those of you interested, the website is here.

At the end of the day, isn’t that the fun part of interacting with other people? Remembering situations and the people that inhabited them, and then becoming one of those people through language and the way you use your body? That seems like the meat of interaction to me. Maybe it’s just because it seems like it’s the one thing I knew least about, though…



Sumo! A huge week for sumo! Yesterday, the first Japanese wrestler in 10 years won a sumo tournament! Tears and joy. For quite a while now the sport has been dominated by foreigners. Mostly Mongolians, but there are also quite a few Europeans and Eurasians. Having thrown all three Mongolian yokozuna, wrestler Kotoshogiku became (again) the first Japanese wrestler in 10 years to win a sumo tournament! He also might be on his way to yokozuna promotion if people don’t watch out… Fans would go insane.

Sumo tournaments are two weeks long and are held 5 times a year. I actually ended up going to the second day of this past sumo tournament with my girlfriend about 2 weeks ago.

During that tournament, one of the yokozuna (1-4 of the top wrestlers who are chosen as the face of sumo) was thrown and lost the bout. This meant that everyone threw their cushions into the sumo ring. I had heard about this, but I was still surprised when it happened.

Even on the second day of that match, it was packed. Here’s what it looked like coming out:


I ended up missing Kyoto quite a bit, though.

It’s good to be back. And especially good to be back on my writing schedule again! If you want to see what my girlfriend and I did over the month she visited, here’s her blog. She did a much better job of updating. Almost every day. Which was a good thing, since each day was so full.

From here on out, I should be writing about every week or so again.

I  hope you’re all happy and healthy,


Memories from last year

Hello all,


Emma and I climbed the mountains behind Yasaka shrine and waited for the last light of 2015. It was getting a little dark and an old man who was smoking in a graveyard decided to guide us back. I decided he was a kami.

Congratulations on a new year!

I suppose some of you may be wondering why I haven’t written in a while! I can give plenty of reasons. The first is that my girlfriend is here from Whitman! My aunt who used to live in Japan has graciously allowed us to use her old house while Emma stays here with me for about a month. It’s been great to slowly become part of the neighborhood. But also time consuming. Plus, the pocket wifi router I bought to use in the house and while I’m out is iffy at best (this’ll hopefully upload eventually). But other than that, I’ve simply been too busy to post. What with Emma coming, Christmas, New Year’s, and general invitations and activities, I haven’t had much time to write. Now that the new year has come in, I at least have a bit of time to share a few memories from the past month or so. Like my first post, I think it would be fun just to share a few as they pop into my head and as I remember them: as short, meaningful blips.

My kyudo sensei told me that he usually waits till a student has practiced with him about ten times till he takes them to get a uniform and go to the dojo. For whatever reason, he decided I was ready after the fourth practice.

I showed up at his place around 3pm so that he and his best student could drive me to the shop to get equipment. Another student (who was actually quieter than I was) came with us as well. We all got in the car and drove there, with sensei in the passenger seat humming and singing along to his CD all the way. He chuckled and talked to me a lot too. He’s really slangy and hard to understand, but I also appreciate that he doesn’t hold back at all. When he talked to the other student I was glad to notice it seemed she understood him about as well as I did.

The store was small and about 45 minutes outside of the city. The walls were absolutely lined with bows and arrows and the floor space was stuffed with uniforms and gloves. I wanted to take a picture but felt a little awkward so I didn’t. They all were a bit mystified by my body proportions at first but I managed to get a uniform and a glove that fit me well by the end.

The complimented me on my Japanese (I think they were more just relieved that I spoke at all) and gave me a few free gloves and other things on the way out. The store owner’s son followed us out and made sure we backed out alright. Sensei sang on the way back as well and told me and the other student that because we have our own equipment now, he’d cut the lesson prices in half—but he said with a wink that this means we have to come more frequently now.

As part of staying in my Aunt’s old house and becoming part of the neighborhood, AKP and my host family thought it was necessary that I introduce myself to the neighbors. The old-fashioned way. I wrote out a long note in Japanese seven times to give to all the neighbors and hostmom bought hand soap (it just needs to be something small and inexpensive, she said) with me and Emma’s name on it. “That way, they’ll remember your names whenever they look at the soap.”

My Aunt’s sister (aka other aunt) came over to help meet the neighbors. I’d met her before a few weeks before, but she hadn’t met with any of the other neighbors for a long time. When we knocked on their doors to introduce them to me, they usually said two things: “It’s been so long! Why don’t you come by more often?” and “What are these? Oh wow, you really didn’t need to go to that trouble,” when they saw my soap. I’m not sure how often people do that anymore, but they all seemed surprised and amused when they saw it.

Regardless, it was a good way to introduce yourself.

I was able to go to a tea ceremony with Emma a few days after she arrived. My sensei was serving everyone tea, and most of the guests were other tea students. Some I had seen before, others I hadn’t. From what I understood, the tea gathering was first to close the year with a party, and second to break in a newly refurbished townhouse.

To put in lightly, Emma and I were in deep. Emma was actually able to come to my tea practice two days prior and meet sensei and the other students (sensei made me serve her tea), but this was the real deal. Neither Emma or I had a kimono, but we were told that a suit or a dress was fine. Others were dressed that way when we arrived.

The house was beautiful and the room for the tea gathering was huge. Probably about 25 people attended. For the first half, we sat on the ground for around two hours with a break about 30 minutes in. I was doing my best to sit properly all the way through, but my feet were completely dead for more than 2/3 of the time. I’m happy to say that as soon as I sat forward at the end on my knees to get the feeling back in my legs, it only took a few seconds to get them tingly and feely again. Just like my sensei from Whitman said, you don’t really get better, but your recovery time gets quicker.

The second half was more relaxed. Sensei was dressed in a full kimono to make everyone tea, but she and everyone else changed into dresses or suits after the official tea gathering was over. And then the real party started. The first half was more of a tea-tasting, and the second half was a wine-tasting disguised as dinner. Although its normally difficult for me to talk to older people in Japan, everyone drinks here—and that’s the chance for all kinds of social boundaries to be crossed. That was the best Japanese I’d ever spoken. Everyone was talking to me. One of the most surprising conversations I had was with a woman who came over to pour me Walla Walla, Washington wine. My sensei had brought it with him from Whitman a few days ago during a visit, but I didn’t know about that until that moment.

My tea sensei eventually came over around the end of the party to thank Emma and me for coming. Although she had been on edge during the performance and even a little shaky, she was very relaxed by the end of the night. She even shook Emma’s hand and told her to contact her anytime she was ever in Kyoto again.

Emma and I walked away in the dark to the bus stop with everyone wishing us a good night and safe travels. Friends were made.

My day was made by a simple thing a few days ago. A neighbor passed us in town on his bike and said, “Mornin’!” It felt like I was home.

I went to an outdoor market a few days ago to check out some antiques. I like looking at teabowls for fun, just because I don’t get to so often. I’m often using them instead. There’s a specific, famous type of teabowl that I keep my eye out for at these kinds of markets. It’s called raku-ware, and it’s pretty distinctive. Only the real ones have stamps on the bottom from the raku potters, though. Because of that, I often spend most of my time at markets turning over bowls to look at the bottom.

I was doing this in a booth at the market a few days ago and the vendor selling those bowls saw me. “You like raku?” “Yeah, I do.” “Hey, you should take a look at these.” He pointed out two other bowls that also ended up being raku-ware. He asked me why I knew about raku and I told him about tea ceremony. He asked what school I practiced. “Urasenke?” “No, Yabunouchi-ryu.” “Oh. Huh.” It’s not a common one, so I thought I’d explain a bit where it fit into the pantheon of tea schools. By this point his wife was also listening. “You’ve really studied this a lot, haven’t you? Hey listen, I’ll cut off the price of these if you buy two of them.” I’m sure he said that to most people, but it was also a really good deal. I decided to get them.

He was visibly surprised and made a big show of boxing them up for me. “Thanks so much. Hey, I hope to see you around here again.” Maybe I will. He seems like a good guy to know.

A few days after Christmas, I had my first practice at the kyudo dojo. I arrived early so sensei could dress me properly in my new uniform and give me a ride. He was in total sensei-mode and looked the part. I normally see him in work clothes (I think he runs a carpentry business), but he wouldn’t have been out of place at a tea ceremony or period-piece movie with the clothes he was wearing that morning.

I realized he was a big deal once we entered the dojo. All the other students and senseis gave him a proper greeting and we began. Overall, I did alright for my first time. I hit the target (once)! I sure learned a lot and I’m excited to return to the dojo. The technique is so different from western archery, but I think I’m beginning to get the hang of it.

After practice I helped sensei pack a few things into his car, and then me and two other students returned home with him, stopping at the grocery store to get a lunch of about eight onigiri. We ate them later at his house while he watched a crime-drama in his kitchen.

Emma and I returned later that evening to attend a Christmas/Holiday party put on by sensei. By the time we arrived, everyone was already drunk. At least, that’s what I thought. It was really just sensei. But he seemed drunk enough for everyone. We sat around a low table on the floor with 12 other guests and we ate out of few communal pots. He kept trying to get Emma and me to drink all his beer because no one else was for various reasons. We helped a little and ate a little, but were mostly there just to make an appearance and share Emma’s cookies. They went over very well. Especially with sensei.

The atmosphere was very different from the tea gathering earlier. This was a room full of working people who got together to eat some hot food and talk about the year. Or listen to sensei talk about obscure Japanese sayings and little-known kyudo competition rules, as it turned out most of the time. There were no suits or expensive bottles of wine and truffles. But in many ways it felt the same, too.

We ducked out after most of the cookies were eaten, but I think sensei continued on into the night much later. I hope so.

My favorite recent memory was a simple one, again. Our neighbor came over to give us a few sweets and wish us happy holidays. But on our porch in our doorway she was a little, shivering old lady. And I just had to invite her in. I asked tentatively if she had time for a bit of tea or something. To my slight surprise, she said she definitely did and came right it. I then realized that the place was a bit messy and we didn’t have much in the way of entertainment or food, but I told her to sit on the couch.

I talked with her and made her feel comfortable while Emma made her some tea. I sat across from her on the floor. We talked about the neighborhood, the house, the season… Her tea was eventually ready, and it was by coincidence her favorite kind of tea. I looked over and realized I could talk with her about my raku bowls that I had bought at the fair a few days before. We admired them together and talked about tea and antiques. Emma was making more of the cookies that she had brought to my kyudo sensei’s party and when a few were ready, she gave our neighbor some on a small plate.

By the time our neighbor had finished her tea and was ready to leave, she looked warm and happy. We shut the door while saying goodbye to her, and I realized that we had just entertained an elderly woman for about half an hour with no preparation in a house with no central heating, in Japan.

I hope more neighbors come by.

Well, that’s all for now. New Year’s parties last for four or five days in Japan, and Emma and I are going to my host family’s house for a dinner party. The feeling in Kyoto is crazy; very different. The streets are packed with people and people often will say hello to one another–“even if they don’t know each other,” as hostmom says. Emma made cookies.


Emma and I welcomed in the new year at our local shrine. We waited till midnight in a long line to ring bells and pray for good things next year. Photos by Emma.

What did you all do to welcome in the new year?

What are some of your memories? Of the past few weeks? Of the year?

Try and keep note of all the “firsts.” Who knows what this year will bring? It might be fun one day to look back and see how it all started.


Love from Japan,