Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Kyoto Gion Festival: 3rd largest festival in Japan!

First, I just want to say that I feel sorry for my school`s baseball team. It always rains in Japan without warning. It will be sunny, no thunder, no wind, and suddenly a cloud rolls over and it starts pouring in great gray sheets. Still no thunder. No lightning. No wind. It rains long enough to get the screaming kids completely soaked. And suddenly the cloud passes and it stops. It`s rather inconvenient. Especially for baseball games.

But at least the rain serves one good purpose. It provides a respite from the blasting heat and humidity. My plans for several weekends in a row were ruined by rain, making me overjoyed to learn it would be sunny for the Gion Festival in Kyoto, one of the three largest festivals in all Japan. Looking back, I might have been better off if it rained.

Friday night I left for my friend Kayoko`s house in Kyoto without even going home first. Already the streets were packed, filled with men and women dressed in their summer kimono, or yukatta, lining up to see the floats that would be paraded through the streets the following morning. I had just bought myself a yukatta the week before and had practiced getting it on and off myself so I wouldn`t have to rely on anyone to help me. Well, a Westerner trying to put on her own yukatta is about as sorry-looking as an Easterner attempting to shake hands and bow at the same time (which is usually what they do and it`s starting to be a bad habit for me too). A Japanese woman actually stopped me in the train station, pulled me into a corner and right there in public stripped off my robe and put it back on me proper. (Fortunately I had shorts on underneath, but no shirt.)

So it was that when I got to the station where I was supposed to meet Kayoko, telling her I was wearing a yukatta didn`t help much. But her telling me she was about the only one not dressed up helped immensely. By the time I got there it was already past viewing time for the floats, but we had dinner in a delicious and cheap (a rare treasure in Japan) noodle shop. Then I spent the night at her house. Here`s me in my yukatta there:

Kayoko and her mom have a beautiful home and are some of the nicest people I have ever met. It`s thanks to Kayoko that I have these pictures. My camera was broken, so she let me borrow hers. Thanks, Kayoko!

The festival itself was amazing. A huge procession of thirty-two ancient floats paraded through the streets, decorated with beautiful tapestries from Persia, China, Turkey, and Europe. The festival got its start in 869AD when a terrible plague struck Kyoto. Young men totted large wooden floats around the city in prayer that the plague would end. When it did shortly afterwards, carrying or pulling floats became a yearly tradition in memory of the answered prayer. Since modern times, there is a competition between different neighborhoods in Kyoto to have the tallest, most elaborate float. Here`s some pictures:

Get a load of that crowd! I`ve never seen so many people in my life. We were packed so tight we couldn`t even move!

This is a close up of the float in the previous picture, probably my favorite one. It`s a ship!

Here`s a float with two fan dancers. Turning the floats was quite the spectacle (hence it was the most crowded spot on the entire street). Whenever it was time to do it, the fan dancers would signal the crowd with a little dance. No video at this distance though; far too wobbly!

In this picture you can see them rigging the float with ropes to do the turn:

The only thing is, I thought it would be cool for me to wear my yukatta again that morning. I figured, well, it`s meant for summer, right? Apparently in name only. I noticed there were considerably less people in yukatta than the night before. Within a few minutes we were lodged within a sea of sweaty bodies so dense there was no way to fight our way out. I had purposely tied my yukatta loosely 1. So I could breathe easily and 2. So it wouldn`t stick to my sweat-slicked body, creating a natural insulator. Well, along behind me pushed this other Japanese lady, considerably older than the one who helped me in the train station, and before I know it she was untying my obi (large decorative belt) right there in the crowd. She gives it several hefty jerks to tighten it (the obi is in many ways, the Japanese version of the corset), readjusts the bow so that it`s jabbing into my back, gives me a pat and pushes me up further away from Kayoko into the sun. I`m sure she thought she was being very nice. I however, could not stand the discomfort, so Kayoko and I shoved and ramroded our way through the throng (with the help of some police directing the flow of feet) to the less crowded byways. Meandering, we found a little shop selling all things related to the festival, including miniature versions of the floats. Here they are, so you can see what they all look like together:

We decided to take lunch at quaint little place that was again both surprisingly cheap and delicious. Do you know the American restaurant Cheesecake Factory? Imagine that, only a third the price, and with parfait instead of cheesecake! The Japanese love parfait, and this store had over one hundred to choose from, including jumbos that would have taken at least ten people to finish! As with all Japanese restaurants, they had plastic models of the food displayed in their windows. Here`s a picture of their monster parfait!

Though it was hard to decide, Kayoko and I both settled on something more modest, coffee for her and chocolate/strawberry for me. We spent a nice relaxing hour there, then headed back to the festival. Just in front of the restaurant we found a much better view with less people. Here`s a picture of the men pulling the float, dressed in traditional Edo period (1603-1868) costume:

And here`s a closer look at the float they were pulling. You can get a good look at the tapestries here. Can you tell which ones are from Europe?

Here`s a weird flying-man float. I have no idea what it`s supposed to symbolize, but it looks cool!

It was so hot we should have just called it quits then, but it takes me over two hours to get to Kyoto, so I stubbornly wanted to get the most out of the trip. So we went to the famous Heian shrine. Well, apparently all the other tourists visiting Kyoto from around the world had the same idea. Add to that the fact that the Heian shrine is the main Shinto shrine in Kyoto, so naturally all festivities begin and end there. We were just in time for the closing ceremony which involved a lot of shouting men walking around in circles in strange costumes. Believe it or not, the crowd was even more dense there!

Here`s a picture of some of the shrines stationary floats:

We decided to escape before it ended. But the crowd coming into the shrine was so vast we couldn`t get out. We were trapped! It was so hot and I couldn`t breathe properly, so I did something that I had never done before in my entire life. I fainted, right there in the middle of the jam-packed street. Not on purpose, of course! (How would one faint on purpose anyway?) Everything just went black and I fell sideways. If I had been in America I probably would have smashed my head on the asphalt, but the Japanese are always very aware of their surroundings and thoughtful to boot, so several strong arms reached out to catch me just before I hit the ground. Fortunately we were right next to a convenience store so the crowd parted to let me in, and after several minutes in the cool air conditioning, Kayoko flagged a taxi and we got back to her house all right. After several glasses of cold water I felt a lot better and was able to go home that evening and to church the next morning. But I had been planning to go to Spain land on Monday (because it was a national holiday) and decided against it. My mother is coming on Thursday and we have tons of travel plans, so I figured I just needed a day home to rest.

All in all it was an amazing festival and I`m glad I went, but here`s some advice to fellow travelers:

1.) In the middle of a blazing summer, yukattas are better worn only in the evening.
2.) Before being pushed head-first into a huge crowd, check to see if there are other areas that are less crowded. In most festivals in Japan and elsewhere, the most crowded spot in a parade is where there is a bridge or where the floats have to turn.
3.) Know when enough is enough. (I probably should have quit after the festival ended.) If you`re hot and sweaty, you`re only going to get more so. Avoid trying to cram a lot of tourist attractions into a festival day because other tourists will have the same idea.

In the future, I will take this advice to heart and be able to have an even more enjoyable time at Japanese festivals, including Tenjin matsuri next weekend in Osaka, another one of Japan`s three largest festivals.

Prayer Requests for this week: My mother is coming to visit me this Thursday! I`m so excited! Together we will see many historical and natural treasures of Japan, fireworks and festivals. Please pray for safety for her and me as we travel all over Japan in the next two weeks! Consequently I will probably not have another chance to write a blog for another two weeks, but I promise I will have lots to report with tons of pictures when we get back!

Until next time, keep loving and keep praying,
L. J. Popp

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Some scary happenings...

Well, I was planning to go to the Toba aquarium this Saturday morning and afternoon, but something totally crazy happened on Friday night while I was asleep. I shouldn`t give any details, but suffice it to say someone broke into my apartment (well, actually I was stupid and left my door unlocked), and did some rather…disturbing things, including throw up all over my bathroom. I think this person was drunk. Anyway, I`m OK, this person didn`t hurt me. I called the ambulance and they came, then someone (not me) called the police, and then this person was taken to the station for questioning. I`m OK. Just a little shell-shocked.

What did I learn from this experience? ALWAYS lock your door. Japan isn`t safe anymore, even in the inaka (countryside). I say this as a warning to others, especially single ladies living alone. Something terrible could have happened to me! Thank God it didn`t…

I definitely think that was an attack from the Enemy. Because Saturday was our Popp movie night at the church! Saturday I was so exhausted I slept in late, then did some chores around the house, then went to church to help host the event. Despite the attack from the night before, it went great! We showed the American movie Fire Proof (Fire Storm in Japanese) and even though only two ladies came (both from my Thursday night class), they responded really well! We had a really great discussion afterwards. I definitely recommend it. Hopefully, we`ll have a movie night every month!

Prayer Requests for this week: I would appreciate your prayers for peace and safety. This sort of thing might continue…I really hope it doesn’t. Also, praise for the fact that my Thursday night class is growing! We`re up to nine people now!

Speaking of that class (this isn`t a prayer request, just observation), last week we played “getting to know you bingo.” That`s really fun. Basically you write 9-12 categories on a piece of paper, like “friends, food, hobbies, movies, books, family, animals, sports, music” and spread them throughout the paper in grid form (3 X 3 or 3 X 4 etc). Then ask the students to write a yes or no question for each. Such as, “Do you have a sister?” and “Do you like strawberries?” and “Do you own a cat?” Then they go around the room asking each other the questions. As soon as they find someone who says “Yes,” they write their name under the category. The first person with a blackout wins! The only problem, of course, is that maybe there is no one who can answer your question. There are two solutions for this. With an easy class, make it so the questions are very basic, such as “Do you play a sport?” and “Do you have any sisters or brothers?” Or, for a more advanced class, you could have them ask any question pertaining to that category (animals, movies, whatever), until they find one that the other person answers “yes” to, then they write down the question and the person`s name. This second version takes longer, but gets them to use more English. I can`t claim credit for this game, by the way. I got it at an English camp, though I did modify it slightly.

Anyway, I added some pictures to my earlier posts entitled “A Japanese Fourth of July” and “Camping and Barbequing in Japan!” These are from other people`s cameras, because unfortunately, mine is still broken and the shop won`t have it fixed for another two weeks! (Hopefully it`ll be done by the time Mom comes!) My computer is also still broken…but the one at school works great and I got an awesome new story idea! So life goes on, the good, the bad, the terrifying, and the glorious.

Until next time, keep loving and keep praying,
L. J. Popp

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Japanese Fourth of July

Howdy! This past week didn`t start off too well, with constant, torrential rain, crippling heat and my computer breaking, but it sure improved towards the end!

My computer breaking is probably the hardest thing. It means I can`t download new Japanese lessons onto my I-phone, can`t type or do research for my stories or email agents/publishers at home, can`t download pictures from my camera, can`t have skype Bible study, and can`t talk to my mom or anyone else in America! Isn`t it funny how much we can come to rely on technology? A year ago I didn`t have any of those things and didn`t even know some of them were possible! But a year ago I wasn`t in Japan, either. I asked a friend to take a look at it, and then the school computer teacher, and both determined it was the hard drive and I will have to take it to a repair shop. Drat.

The inconvenience has resulted in me staying a school much longer than I used to, doing some of the many things I typically depend on my computer for (though downloading and skype are still off limits). It hasn`t been so bad, and proven to have a small blessing in disguise, because it saves me on my air conditioning bill. The insulation in my apartment is so bad (actually non-existent) that the inside is at least ten degrees (Fahrenheit) hotter than the outside! As if the walls actually act as an oven, especially in my kitchen. I actually ordered pizza last night just so I wouldn`t cook myself while I was preparing dinner! Two nights in a row I keep waking up at intervals in a hot, feverish, sticky sweat because there is no air conditioner in my room. I keep a high-power fan trained on me and open the windows at night, but it does little good, and I awake in the morning feeling physically sick from the heat. It`s hard to find the energy to do anything, even to think or write. I should probably start sleeping on my futon under my air-con unit (air conditioner) in my living room. Hmm, bad back or fever? Hard choice, but for awhile, anyway, I`ll take the bad back. I can always go to the chiropractor later.

But on a much happier note, I got a wonderful letter from an agent the other day! I had written a snail query letter to Seth Fishman of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc. about a week ago and didn`t even expect it to get to him for maybe two weeks. But low and behold, less than two weeks after I sent it, he wrote me this:

I received your query and had the chance to read it, thanks so much for sharing. You are legit good. This is Anne McCaffrey meets Janny Wurts. The thing is, as much as I like fantasy, I really don’t do much of it. I’m more of a hardcore sci-fi guy. Have you tried Don Maass? I’m so sorry I’m passing for such a simple reason – but you don’t want an agent who angles in the wrong direction – I don’t know the editors you need for the book! I wish you the very best of luck – I know this will work out for you.

How about that? Even though he didn`t take it, this is the first “sign” that I`m on the right track. After twenty form rejection letters for Treasure Traitor, I finally get one that tells me I`m doing it right! Yeah! Funny thing is, just before I got this, I already sent it to Amy Boggs at Don Maass! She still hasn`t responded yet and it`s been a few weeks, so soon as it hits the one month mark, I`ll send her a little reminder and let her know what Mr. Fishman said! That ought to earn me some brownie points!

Thursday I think it was, Pastor Toshi told me about the most amazing thing ever! A tour to Mt. Fuji beginning right at Nabari station! I was going to go with one out of Osaka, and though this one is a little more expensive, it`s totally worth the convenience (Mom and I don`t have to wake up at 5:00am to catch the bus and not get back until 11:00pm the next day). No getting lost, no worries, just catch the bus right across the street from my apartment and follow the crowd! The only downside is that we have to climb late at night, but we`d probably have to do that anyway in order to catch the sunrise, since all the mountain sleeping huts are booked and camping isn`t allowed (but who wants to haul a tent up a mountain anyway)?

On Saturday I had a pretty big disappointment when both Kayoko and Karen said they couldn`t go on my planned birthday trip to Nagashima Spaland. And it rained. But I didn`t want to be cooped up in my apartment all by myself, so I got the “brilliant” idea to go to Universal Studios Japan. The unofficial name of USJ is “America Land” (what with Spainland in Ise, Dutchland in Nagasaki, and Chinaland in Yokohama, it only makes sense) so I figured they would no doubt have a Fourth of July celebration, yeah? My computer being down, I couldn`t check this assumption, but I was so convinced that I went anyway. Well, it was pouring. Half the shows were closed. And no, absolutely nothing on the schedule about America. So I “pulled an America” and soon as I read the schedule, marched right back to the gate and asked for my money back. It took me fifteen minutes and a fee of 500 yen, but eventually I got the other 5,600 yen (about sixty dollars) back. I hope that wasn`t too rude of me…but I didn`t ride any rides or see any shows, so it`s no skin off their back. I left the park and took the ferry to the aquarium (with the combo ticket, together they cost 2,300 yen, less than half of USJ). That proved to be the best choice I made all week.

Why? Well, first of all there was a free indoor Hawaiian festival in Tempozan harbor village right next to the aquarium. I spent a few enjoyable hours watching dancing and eating cheap American fast food. Then about 4:00, I went to the aquarium. I was just in time to see them feeding the Asian river otters! They pull on the keepers pants and chirp! They`re sooooo cute! Mischievous little devils, though, always fighting and pulling pranks, quite obnoxious. I wouldn`t want to be their keeper! But who should I find also watching them but an American family from Connecticut! The oldest son and daughter were really interested in coming to Japan more, so I ended up following them around until the aquarium closed, answering their questions and discussing Japanese culture with them as we enjoyed the wonderful sights of the aquarium together. I love whale sharks! They`re probably one of the few animals I would actually wear a “I (heart) such and such” T-shirt for. Sun fish are pretty cool too…and there were baby penguins! Here`s a picture the daughter, Robin, took:

Here`s one they just sent me of us all together (except the Mr. Engel; he`s taking the picture).

Anyway, they treated me to dinner at a restaurant I recommended. All in all it was a really awesome day!

Sunday my phone died, so I couldn`t call anyone to pick me up for church so I walked with my cupcakes. It was a really nice service, and afterwards everyone decorated my cupcakes red, white, and blue in the shape of the American flag. It was quite funny to see everyone so confused about how an American flag is supposed to look, but then it is a quite complicated design in comparison with the extremely simple Japan flag: a white field with a single red circle directly in the middle. (There`s something to be said for simplicity.) But despite some misplaced stars and stripes, the cupcakes still tasted delicious.

In the afternoon I went to Jusco`s American food fair and bought a ton of slightly overpriced American meat, fruit and vegetables! Yum! Subsequently, Pastor Toshi and Pastor Kumi graciously invited me to another barbeque, and this time I remembered my fireworks. Ayatan and I played with my glow lights while we were waiting for the food, then we enjoyed American steaks! I brought some vegetables, fruit and pork. Japanese pork, ironically, never gives me a headache the way American pork does, even the sausages, but these being American pork CHOPS I didn`t have a problem with them either. Ayatan and I must have set off and chased each other with a hundred sparklers before I finally went home about 11:00. I even got to enjoy some leftovers for the next day`s lunch and dinner!

So the Fourth of July was pretty amazing! I got to introduce Japanese culture to some other Americans, have a barbeque with my church family, stuff myself with American food, shoot off fireworks, the whole nine yards! Maybe I`ll just stay in Japan forever. No, I miss my American family too much, especially my mom. But she`s coming two weeks from tomorrow! Yeah! I can`t wait to see her. I have so much planned for her! But I don`t want to spoil the surprise.
The only other thing to report is that I bought a really cheap yukata (cotton summer kimono) yesterday! It`s so beautiful. It`s black with purple and pink flowers, petals, and glitter. They wouldn`t let me try it on before I bought it, but I tried it on when I got home and it fits great! I just don`t know how to properly wear it…I`ll have to do some research on youtube. That`s how I learned to wear an Indian sari.

Prayer requests for this week: Please continue to pray that my computer gets fixed soon! Health despite the heat would be nice too. And remember my class for parents and teachers last week? Well, two of the ladies started coming to my Thursday night church class! And the other two new ladies are coming regularly and are responding very well to the lessons! Last time we talked about America`s Christian roots, famous American Christians and their impact on society. Please pray for these ladies, that God will open up their hearts to receive His Love and Salvation. God is doing great things!

Until next time, keep loving and keep praying,

L. J. Popp