Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Living with a Host Family

I mentioned in my last post some common stereotypes and what my previous (ignorant) perception of Japan was a few years ago.  I also mentioned that living abroad has been one of the most enriching and educational experiences of my life thus far. 

The first year of living here in Japan was-by far-one of the most intimidating things I have ever undertaken.  Moving to a country I knew next to nothing about, and of which I could not speak, read, or write the language. 

Moving to Japan was one of the best things I have done.  My world-the way I perceive much of life-has changed a significant amount.  It has been extremely difficult.  Most of my time in Japan I have been outside of my comfort zone.  I feel this is the single biggest reason for my growth as a person.  I have had no choice. 

One of the greatest growing experiences in Japan has been Karl’s and my decision to live with a host family during our time studying Japanese.  This was true immersion.  The family with whom we stayed knew almost no English, but that, of course, was the point.  We were there to learn Japanese. 

And learn we did. 

We were forced to express ourselves using the best Japanese we could.  Dictionaries were our constant companions.  But we learned more than just the language.  We experienced a typical Japanese lifestyle.  The thing I loved most about this was mealtimes. 

Everyday our host family provided breakfast and lunch for us.  We always helped and consequently learned about cooking some Japanese food.  I also had the opportunity to teach my host mother how to make bagels.  It was a good challenge and a new way in which to use Japanese.

Okonomiyaki made by our host mother.  I usually don't care for it, but this was delicious!
Also, because we had a host family, we were able to experience more of Japan:  We climbed Mount Fuji with them.  

Our host father was a great fisherman.  Fresh, delicious sushi!

Because we kept commenting on how lovely their pottery was, they took us to Tokoname-a nearby place famous throughout Japan for pottery.

Our host sister was taking lessons on the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.  We accompanied her to her lesson one Saturday.

If you are ever presented with the option of staying with a host family, I recommend you do.
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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Fushimi Inari Jinja

Sometimes I ashamedly reflect back onto what little I knew of Japan before moving here two years ago.  At that time my knowledge of Japan was something like this:

Sushi-Raw fish.  Totally un-appealing. (Now I love it.)

Geisha-Cans of pineapple…?  Fancy ladies with white faces?  (Just read this book-fantastic.)

Sumo-Really, really fat wrestlers. (Recently went to the Tokyo tournament-amazing!)

Ninjas-Stealthy dudes all dressed in black. (Still don't know much about them...)

Godzilla-Huge green lizard that terrorizes Tokyo. 

Anime-Really strange cartoons. (I LOVE studio Ghibli films!)

And so on. 

Fortunately, I have now learned a tremendous amount about Japan.  (In fact, I strongly believe now that living abroad is one of the best things one can do.  There are few experiences in life that are as challenging and rewarding.)

Some of the only images in my mind of Japan and its culture came from the movies.  Most recently, The Memoirs of a Geisha. 

During our time studying at Yamasa this past August, we took a few trips to Kyoto during the weekend.  One of the most iconic images of Japan-that I knew of because of The Memoirs of a Geisha-is located at the Fushimi Inari Jinja (a “Jinja” is a Japanese Shinto Shrine).  

The iconic image associated with this film happens when the main character (as a child) runs through the forest of torii to the reach the shrine where she makes an offering and prays.  This now famous scene was shot on location in Kyoto at the Fushimi Inari Jinja. 

I had been hoping to visit this shrine for some time and was delighted when the trip was scheduled.   

Lantern and gateway at the entrance of the shrine.
The main shrine building
The Shinto Inari god (Kami in Japanese) is the deity of good fortune and rice.  At every shrine dedicated to the Inari god, you will find images of foxes.  The fox-the messenger of this god-plays a significant role in the stories surrounding the Inari god. 

A fox at the entrance of the shrine.
Wooden foxes people can purchase, draw on a face, write a petition and leave at the shrine.
It is believed by those who practice Shintoism that making offerings to the Inari shrines is important to their success in business.  The number of torii at Fushimi Inari Jinja is directly related to this.  The large torii are purchased-usually by companies-as an offering and petition for continuous good fortune.  The big torii are extremely expensive. 

A map of the whole complex.
A sign depicting the prices of the torii.  The most expensive one, with the current exchange rate, is over $16,000.00 USD.

Regular folk can buy their own (much smaller) torii for their petitions.  

Unfortunately, we did not have time to make the entire walk through the torii forest.  This turned out to be a good thing… As we were walking back through the torii, thunder began to rumble in the distance.  Just as we reached the parking lot, it began to pour.

The thunder rolling in...

Visiting Fushimi Inari Jinja was one of the highlights of my summer.  If you ever visit Kyoto, it should be on the top of your list. 

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Ogigahama Beach

The glorious, cool, salty ocean.  Off the coast of Wakayama.  We went to Ogigahama Beach.  It was beautiful. 

A relaxing way to spend a lazy summer afternoon in Japan. 
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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Koya San

The Obon Holidays in Japan are for remembering the deceased.  During these few days every August, people return to their childhood homes.  The spend time with their family and honor their deceased loved ones.  Candles are lit.  Incense is burned.  Flowers are placed on graves. 

Fortunately for us, we were in Wakayama during Obon and relatively close to a famous mountain.  This mountains name is Koya San.  Koya San boasts having the largest-and one of the most beautiful-cemeteries in Japan.  There are also countless temples, many at which you can stay the night.  Unfortunately this time, we were unable to stay over.  Though we were able to see the special Obon event. 

The pathway through the Okunoin cemetery was lit on both sides with stone lanterns.  Every entering the cemetery was given a handful of small candles to stick along the ground to light the pathway.  It was beautiful.

The monk who first settled on Koya San in the year 819 was named Kukai.  The monks hold the belief that he never actually died, but rather entered into a continuously in a state of meditation.  His body is at the Okunoin Temple, which can be reached after walking through the cemetery.  

Sadly, we only had a few hours visiting Koya San.  I am hoping to make it back again before our time in Japan ends.  
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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Dojoji Temple

After driving back to Kyoto city from Amanohashidate, we were dropped off at Kyoto Station.  Though the official weekend was over, we still had three days off from our Japanese classes.  This was because of the Obon Holiday. 

Instead of pouting because of missing three full days of classes (and still paying for them), we leapt at the opportunity to explore more of Japan.  From Kyoto, we got on an express train and headed south into Wakayama.  

Photo credit:
Last year while studying at Yamasa, we met a friend who happens to live in Wakayama.  She generously invited us down to visit her for a few days.  We accepted. 

Wakayama Prefecture is south of Kyoto in the central area of Japan.  It is considered to be a relatively “inaka” (rural) area.  Half of the prefecture is coastal area, the other half mountainous.  We were able to see a bit of both sides during our trip. 

One of the first places we visited was Dodoji Temple.  This temple is surrounded by interesting history and stories.  The story surrounding the Dojoji Temple is one of unrequited love.  This stop animation video from the 1970's offers a silent depiction of the story:  (Note-As I researched this story, I found a number of summaries with slight variants.  This is a simple summary in my own words.)

An old Buddhist priest, accompanied by a young Buddhist priest, stop to rest on their journey.  The daughter of the home at which they stay falls in love with the young priest.  He flees her advances and seeks refuge at Dojoji Temple. The resident priests hide him in a bell.  During her pursuit of her unrequited love, she is consumed with rage and transforms into a serpent.  When she reaches Dojoji, she senses the young priests presence within the bell and destroys him with her flames after which she drowns herself.

Pretty cheery stuff.

This story has also been famously adapted for both Noh-traditional Japanese theater, and for Kabuki-Japanese classical singing and dancing drama.  I managed to find a complete performance of the Kabuki version. 

Photo Credit:
 This link provides some more information on the different types of performances that the story has been told using. 

This photo is a good example of a typical Noh mask.  The demon face is a common image used in Japanese style tattoos.

We explored the ground of the temple and paid to go inside the museum.  The original bell does not exist any longer, but we were able to see the very impressive replica along with many other stunning images in the form of statue, painting, and textile.  It was truly fascinating.

Though a bit far removed from the typical Japanese tourist plans, I highly recommend exploring Dojoji Temple to anyone who finds themselves exploring Wakayama. 

One of the two guardians at the gate.
The main temple.
A Buddha.
Lotus flower blooming in front of the temple.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2012


I am one of those people who really likes lists.  Grocery lists, to-do lists, books to read lists, etc. Currently, the one list I think about a lot right now is my “Things To Do Before Leaving Japan” list. 

We will be in Japan for a while longer yet, but I am also a planner.  I constantly find myself thinking about the future and planning. 

During our time studying at Yamasa in Okazaki we were able to cross off some big things from the list: climbing Mount Fuji, exploring Kyoto more thoroughly (more on that later), and seeing Amanohashidate.

There are three places in Japan considered to be the most picturesque in the entire country.  The torii of Itsukushima Shrine, Matsushima, and Amanohashidate.  Two down, one to go!

Amanohashidate is a natural sand bar along the sea of Japan on the north side of Kyoto. Its natural shape is absolutely fascinating. 

We rode up a lift to reach the best viewing point.  It was stunning.  Supposedly, if you turn upside down and look at it through your legs, the sandbar will look like "A bridge to the heavens."  

Chion-Ji Temple entrance.  This temple is very close to one of the ends of the sand bar.
Bad fortunes are left at the temple.  If you get a good fortune, you take it with you.

After coming back down the lift, we rented some bicycles and explored the area.  It was lovely.  I wish we had had time to take a swim.  The water looked amazing. 

Motoise Kono Shrine on the opposite end of the sandbar as the Chion-Ji Temple.
Biking across Amanohashidate
Though difficult to access by public transportation, I highly recommend seeing Amanohashidate.  With its natural shape and beauty, it’s no wonder that it on the most beautiful places in Japan list!

Do you have any suggestions for my "do before leaving Japan" list?  Leave me a note if you do! 
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Friday, October 5, 2012

Higashi Hongan Ji 東本願寺

Across the street from our Ryokan in Kyoto, there stood an impressive looking temple-Higashi Hongan Ji Temple.  Not having much time to explore Kyoto, we decided to get up early the following morning to go have a look before heading off to our next big destination.

The streets of Kyoto were still at six in the morning.  We walked over, slipped off our shoes and walked up the steep wooden stairs to peek inside the temple.  Beautiful chanting was drifting through the open doors.  A service was taking place.  The temple members and the Buddhist monks steady chants were lovely. 

It is especially at times such as this that wish I knew more about Buddhism.  We have learned a bit about religion in Japan, but I still feel like I know next to nothing.  I do know that the two prominent religions in Japan are Buddhism and Shintoism.  Most religious Japanese people practice both religions.

I have heard that Shintoism is the religion of life.  All celebrations including life-new life, marriages, etc.-are celebrated in the Shinto tradition.  In fact, there are no funerals held at Shinto Shrines.  Buddhism takes care of life after death.  Funerals are held at Buddhist Temples.  The cremated bodies are placed in the burial grounds that can be found at every Buddhist Temple.

If you have any good recommendations of books on this subject, please leave me a note!  
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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Hello, Dolly (A night of Jazz)

…a jazz bar.  A whiskey jazz bar, to be exact.  This place was about as un-Japanese (traditionally speaking) as you can get.  The name of the bar was Hello, Dolly (Sorry, couldn't find a good English website.)

(Be warned: The audio for this video is not good, though it nicely shows the inside of the bar.)

Unfortunately, I missed the fine print on the sign outside and didn’t realize that there was pretty hefty seating charge.  Whoops.  Despite that, we had a great time.  Had a fancy drink, enjoyed the atmosphere, and listened to the fantastic jazz quartet. 

It was great. If you are looking for a great relaxing finish to a day in Kyoto, I highly recommend this bar!
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