Saturday, August 28, 2010

Amazing Japanese Summer Vacation: Toba and Ise Grand Shrine

Tuesday, August 3rd, Mom and I took a train to Toba in Ise bay. What a beautiful ocean! We took the Toba bay cruise to Dolphin and Pearl Islands. Here's our ship; there's four you can choose from:



Dolphin Island is probably one of the most beautiful islands I've ever visited. Besides the small but pristine and completely empty beach where you can swim and snorkel, there was a dolphin show, a sea lion show, and a chair lift up a mountain, offering a spectacular view of the bay. No videos here, unfortunately; I ran out of memory. But here's a picture of me touching the dolphins. Usually they charge to pet the dolphins and you have to sign up for a slot, but there's a tank where the dolphins just hang out before and after shows and petting times, and I figured I could touch one for free. I did what I've seen trainers in shows do: flattened my hand and kept it still over the water. Sure enough, the dolphin jumped up and touched my hand!



Mom was shocked, but I explained it was just part of their training. They see human hands in certain positions as "pointers." If they touch them, they get fish. That explains why after the fifth time I did that and still gave the dolphin no fish, it tried to bite me! It wasn't happy with me taking advantage of it's conditioning.

The sea lion was REALLY amazing. She could do all sorts of tricks I'd never seen before; acrobatics almost. But if you want to see it, you'll just have to go there yourself!

Here's the lift take takes you up to the top:



And here's the view:





We walked all the way around the island, then hopped on another boat to take us to Mikimoto Pearl Island, the birthplace of cultured pearls. There's a whole process to it, you know! They have to implant part of a fresh water oyster shell into the gonads (sexual organ) of a salt water oyster, attach part of another oyster's mantel to the fresh water implant, and then wait four years! Taking care of the oysters during that time is also difficult; they must be moved frequently to avoid typhoons and water that is too hot or too cold. Only 1/3 of oysters survive, and of those, only 1/4 make a marketable pearl, and only 1/10 of those are actually of high quality! It's a hard industry! We also saw many beautiful works of art made from pearls, from crowns to globes to hairpins to anything imaginable. They were all so beautiful and lustrous, but no pictures allowed, of course.

But the best part was getting to see the famous ama women divers. In Japan diving is an occupation typically reserved for women since ancient times, because it is believed women have a larger lung capacity. They dive for oysters, sea weed, urchins, and all manner of other sea food and products without any oxygen or diving equipment. Instead, they use a special kind of breathing control, whistling when they surface. It's a really unique sound, one of the hundred famous "sound scapes" of Japan. The average age of the Ama now is about 72! So unfortunately, they are dying out. Here's an ama coming up with an oyster:



Toba is famous for it's seafood, so of course we had to have some for dinner (well, I had seafood, Mom ate pork). The giant shrimp (Ise ebi) was really good, but as with most oysters in Japan, those were pretty gross. They're bred for pearls, not meat. They taste bitter and sandy rather than sweet and tender like ones from the U.S.

We wanted to watch the sunset over the bay, but unfortunately it was really cloudy, so even after we climbed up a mountain, there wasn't anything to see. Oh, well, I'll just have to go back! I want to see the famous Toba aquarium, wedded rocks, and take the Ago bay cruise.

The following day, I had to go to school, so Mom watched the koto (Japanese thirteen-stringed harp)club practice while I did my paper work for upcoming camps and such. Our koto club is famous, number one in Mie prefecture. They practice three hours every day without a break, and then in the summer they practice another three hours after that, so six hours a day in the summer! And that's not including individual practice time. After Mom watched them, she went home and rested. That evening I took her grocery shopping and to the pet store. She really liked seeing the different kinds of animals for sale, and what a traditional Japanese grocery stores looks like. Very different! We had crapes for a snack, and for dinner, my Wednesday night class picked us up! It was a potluck at my Ojiichan's (Japanese Grandpa's) house, so everyone brought something and Mom got to sample more Japanese home cooking. She also got a chance to try out Ojichan's koto, and to play his piano for them. They really liked her and asked her to come back anytime!

Thursday we went to Ise Grand Shrine, the most important Shinto shrine in all of Japan. It supposedly enshrines the sun goddess, the most important of all Japanese Shinto gods, and founder of the Imperial line (the Emperor was once said to be her descendant). I really don't have anything exciting to report about that. It poured for an hour, followed by extreme sweltering heat. I don't really like shrines much, but I suppose if you go to any shrine in Japan, that's number one, so go there. Japanese Shinto shrines are not very decorative or ancient-looking, since they rebuild them entirely out of plain, unpainted wood every thirty years or so, cutting down most of the surrounding forests in the process. We saw the sacred roosters and the sacred koi and the giant tori (bird) gate that is supposed to be where the sacred roosters roost, but none of them can fly up that high. Here's that, along with the really famous, long bridge leading into the shrine:



And here's the place were you buy relics and charms and stuff:



And a giant, sacred tree:



There's also the nearby shopping village, which is a great place to get decently priced traditional sweets and arts and crafts such as pottery, fans, clothes, and the like. Even if you're not into souvenirs, it's a fun place to window shop.

One interesting thing is that like the Hebrew temple in the Old Testament of the Bible, all Shinto Shrines have layers that only certain people may enter, including the fourth or fifth layer, the Holy of Holies, where the deity supposedly dwells and only very special priests can enter. There is also a purification ceremony one must perform before entering any of the inner gates. We saw a family write their names into the registry, pay some money to the priest, and he purified them by flinging water over them (much like in the Old Testament again), and then guided them into the inner courtyard where they clapped their hands, bowed their heads, and prayed for five seconds, then left.

I'm sorry, I have to say something. Japanese people don't really believe in that stuff. It makes me really upset when I think that some people just go through the motions of religion without even CARING about it, much less trying to understand the meaning of what they're doing. Don't that realize that by doing what they don't understand, they might actually be welcoming in evil? Most Japanese will agree that the spiritual realm exists and that there are spirits, good and bad, that interact with the physical world. So why do they mindlessly pray to the deity of whatever shrine they happen visit once a year, without even knowing its name? I always ask whenever I go to a shrine what the deity's name is and for some history behind it. Nine times out of ten, no one knows the answer, not even the priests! (Of course, Ise Grand Shrine is an exception, but you find this sort of spiritual ignorance all over Japan, even in the larger temples and shrines.) It is my personal belief that this is the reason the Japanese suffer so much from spiritual ailments like kanashibari (sleep paralysis), suicide, and the occult, far more than any other modernized nation. They don't understand what they are summoning! If you think I'm crazy, explain why so many Japanese experience these evil symptoms around old sites of shrines and temples. It's like a plague. And they don't want to understand; if anyone tries to explain any religion whatsoever, even from a scientific or purely cultural/historical perspective, they are immediately shut up. It is banned from the textbooks and all reading material, so they are completely ignorant about world religions, most of all their own. It makes me want to weep.

Fortunately, there are signs that perspectives are changing in Japan. The people are longing for something more, something deeper than day to day life, and then you die. Everyone serves something, either their own selfish desires or a higher purpose. And what higher purpose is there than the one our Creator custom made for us? And how can you know that purpose unless you know the Creator? If there is only one God, then we must be certain about His identity. Otherwise, we are simply creating whatever identity we want for Him, which makes us God and not Him. It is making God in our own image, rather than vica versa.

Mom and I actually felt a kind of heavy oppression about the place, so we left fairly early in the afternoon around 2:00. I have more to say about this when it comes to Nara, but I will save that for another chapter.

Until next time, keep trusting and keep praying,
Laura

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Amazing Japanese Summer Vacation: Shirahama Scuba Diving and More!

Sunday morning we got up bright and early and went on a bus tour of the Shirahama area. Our bus driver was really nice, and there were only a few other ladies on the tour. First we went to Shinjo-jiki, or “one thousand tatami mats,” a rock formation near the sea. It doesn`t sound very interesting, but it was beautiful. Here it is:



Next we rode to Sandanpeki, a really tall cliff. In this picture I`m on top of the cliff, looking out over the sea:



Here are the crashing waves. Pretty impressive!



There was also a nice shop there and a tein (tay-in; traditional Japanese garden). Here`s what that looks like:



And a cave that could be reached by high-speed elevator, but I wasn`t sure I would have enough money for that and scuba diving, and there were plenty of other things to see in the short forty minutes we were allotted. (As with all of the places we visited that day, Mom and I could have easily spent several hours there.) But I definitely want to go in the cave next time.

Next our bus stopped on top of a hill overlooking the entire Shirahama area. Very beautiful; here`s our group in front:



And last but best of all, we took a ride in a glass bottom boat! Mom had always wanted to, ever since she saw the movie Glass Bottom Boat.. It`s a dumb film, but the idea stuck. I got really sea sick until Mom beckoned me over to the much cooler side next o to the fan. We really couldn`t see a lot of fish, but there were ama women divers who jumped out of a dragon ship and performed tricks for us under water without any breathing apparatus. Here`s one of them:



We also got a good look at Full Moon Island. It looks like something from a movie. Here`s Mom and me standing in front of it:



They say it offers the most beautiful sunset in all Japan. Unfortunately, we didn`t get to see it, because we went to the Bon Odori Festival instead! But next time.

The final stop of the tour was shopping, and Mom got to see what a traditional Japanese market looks like. I love sea glass! I don`t know why, but it`s really pretty. Some of the free food samples were good, but Mom refused to try any. I have to admit, she wasn`t missing much by rejecting the pickled plums and salted salmon guts.

After the bus tour, I made a reservation for scuba diving. I was so nervous! I`ve always wanted to go, but I was afraid of going far underwater. My three biggest nightmares are getting stuck in a tiny space I can`t get out of, drowning, and being eaten alive by dinosaurs. No, I`m not kidding about that last one. That`s why I can`t watch dinosaur movies. If someone actually gave me the option of traveling back in time and there was any chance I might meet a dinosaur, I`d turn them down flat. So drowning isn`t quite as scary as that, but it`s a more practical fear, I suppose.

Anyway, I really lucked out. The shop had absolutely no customers and I had the guide (who was one hot dude, let me tell you), all to myself. Here`s him and me just before the dive:



And here's me alone in my wet suit. I look like a female cat burglar or that tomb raider chick or something:



First he instructed me on basic underwater hand signals, how to clear my ears as the pressure built up the further down we went, how to sink, how to float, all that stuff (we weren`t actually in the water; he was just telling me). Thankfully he spoke pretty good broken English, (that`s what I call the ability to use decent vocabulary in fragmented phrases), and anything he couldn`t explain that way I could discern from slow Japanese and lots of gestures. Then we went out. At first I was really scared and couldn`t figure out how to swim with those giant flippers. I practically clung to the guide, unable to keep myself from being flung every which way by the waves. It was hard not to breathe through my nose when I had what felt like a giant gag in my mouth (the oxygen tube), to keep biting on the tube really hard so it wouldn`t slip out of my mouth, and take slow, deep breaths. There was a lot of painful pressure in my eardrums and we had to keep pausing so I could equalize it by holding my nose and blowing. But after about ten minutes I got my scuba legs and was able to swim on my own wherever he guided me, without any discomfort. He had a little plastic etch-a-sketch thing he would write the names of the fish on, first in Japanese, then in English if he knew it. We saw octopus (I got to touch it), anemone (definitely didn`t touch that), urchins, clown fish, sand dollars, regal tang fish (think Dory from Finding Nemo), yellow tang, coral (kind of chalky like it was dead), crab, pencil fish, eels, sea stars, and lots of little blue neon tetras! It was so cool! After twenty minutes I was pointing at everything and dragging him around! He wrote on the etch-a-sketch that I was a real natural.

I was surprised when he said it was time to go up. I was expecting us just to take a little break and then go back down, but he said the tour was over. I had thought it was supposed to be for three hours; that was what the advertisement said. He laughed and said no one, not even experts, can stay down for three hours, adding that normal first dives usually last only thirty minutes, but he extended ours by an extra ten because I seemed to be doing well. The three hours covered everything; suit up, instruction, dive, suit down, and free shower after, but all that together still only took an hour and a half.

I just looked it up, and it isn`t uncommon for shallow dives to last two hours with just a single tank of oxygen. Oh, well, I really can`t complain. After all, usually he takes more than one person at a time, so he was getting less than his usual pay for this one. Just be forewarned: scuba diving is REALLY expensive, about one hundred dollars for that short dive, and even if the place advertises longer, it might not be as long as you would think. I still believe it was worth it, though. Afterward the guide sat with Mom and me and talked quite a while, all of us drinking tea and relaxing in the shop. And when we were ready to go back to our hotel, he gave us a free ride, even recommending a cheaper one for next time.

But before we headed back, we hung out at the beach. I climbed all over the cliffs and rocks, finding little sea creatures and barnacles. Oddly enough, one thing Japanese beaches lack is sea gulls. Can`t say I really miss them. One time my aunt was at Lake Michigan eating an ice cream cone, and one swooped down and snatched it right out of her hand! They`re noisy and always fighting and they spread disease. Annoying trash cans with wings. Not rats with wings. That`s pigeons. Japan, on the other hand, has cranes. They`re much more beautiful and majestic. And quiet.

Finally, Mom and I left that beach to go to the Bon Odori dance. This is a traditional style of Japanese dance performed around the Obon Festival to welcome the deceased sprits of ancestors and dead relatives home. At first it wasn`t much; they played the same annoying traditional Japanese song over the loud speakers again and again, you know, the kind with the singing cat women, yelps, and atonal instruments. Mom asked me if the words meant anything special. From what I could tell, they were only saying, “This is the special Shirahama dance we do every year at summer time. Listen to the pretty music. Dance the steps. Aren`t we having fun?”

But then the dancers came, all dressed in the same, uniform, traditional yukata summer robes, and beckoned me to join them. I couldn`t help it. If there`s a dance, I have to be in it, even though I have two left feet and the coordination of a drunk monkey on speed.

Anyway, here are the dancers, before I ruined their dance:



It wasn`t that bad, actually. The steps were easy, repetitive, and I caught on fast with the help of a very enthusiastic lady beside me. We danced down the street until we came to a sort of village green. There we danced around the center of the green several different dances with our complimentary fans, then had a raffle based on the numbers on the fans. Mom and I didn`t win anything, but we met the hotel managers there, and they walked us home so we wouldn`t get lost in the dark. On the way the lady stopped by the store, to pick up some ice cream, she said.

“Should we buy some too?” Mom asked.

“She told us very sternly to wait here,” I replied. “Besides, she`s going to bring us some.”

“Oh, really? Did she say that?”

“No.”

“Then how do you know?”

“Because she`s Japanese.”

Mom just stared at me. “What does that have to do with anything?”

I shrugged. “I know the Japanese people. They think it`s rude to buy something for yourself without offering some to others.”

Mom shook her head. “They haven`t exactly been nice to us. This morning when I tried to get some more bread for breakfast they glared at me, crossed their arms, and wouldn`t give me any, even though it`s included in the cost. You really shouldn`t expect her to bring us anything. You`ll be disappointed.”

“No, I won`t.”

Sure enough, the lady appeared two minutes latter with ice cream for all three of us. I winked at Mom. She still looked shocked. “Should we pay her for it?”

“No, that would be rude. It`s a gift. Just say “oishi” (delicious) over and over and thank her profusely while bowing several times. That`s the Japanese way.”

The next morning they were nicer to us and gave us all the rolls we wanted instead of limiting us to two each. We took them as our lunch. I had tried unsuccessfully to decipher the complicated train and bus schedules that were outdated and only partially correct. We were going to head for the cave at Sandanpeki we had to skip earlier, but we decided just to chill on the beach. I`m really glad we did. I love just swimming and sun bathing in the clear blue ocean. And plum ice cream. Soon I`m going to buy myself some snorkeling gear so I can do that whenever I want. It`s a lot cheaper than scuba diving.

That evening after a five hour journey home, Mom really wanted to go to my school`s band concert, even though it was in another city. We took and train and a taxi and ended up being about thirty minutes late. Of course, Japanese concerts lasts about three hours, so that wasn`t a problem. But there were two hours of just solos, most of them miserably ill-prepared, but it was amazing to hear the disparity of levels (everything from “Lightly Row” to Bach— I think Partita in Minor for flute, something most flutists can`t play until college). Mostly disappointing, except for the three band pieces at the end. That made it worth it.

I was worried about how we would get hope, but luckily I ran into one of my former students who used to live in America, and she took us to Kentucky fried chicken, then back to my apartment. I`m telling you, that`s how I live my life in Japan. If I want to do something but can`t figure out the logistics, I still do it, knowing that somehow, someway, it`ll all work out. And it always does.

Guess what we did Tuesday? After all that, we went to Toba to play island hop and play with the dolphins! More about that tomorrow!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Amazing Japanese Summer Vacation with Mom: Adventure World (Best!)

The next morning we went to Adventure World, which proved just as amazing. We actually took a taxi so we could get there right when it opened, which for two people wasn`t so bad (rather than have to catch two buses without knowing the time schedule).

I`ve been to a lot of zoos in my life, all over the world, from Beijing, Chicago, Africa, and Kobe. This was the best by far. If you go to one zoo in your life, go to Adventure World in Shirahama, Japan. It wasn`t just a zoo. It was a theme park, farm, petting zoo, animal research and training center, museum, and performance arena. We could have seriously spent two days there and still not have done everything! Mom agrees. She said the ocean section alone was better than sea world!

Right from the beginning I could tell this wasn`t a normal zoo. Maybe it was the flamingos in the fountain. Or the giant Ferris wheel and roller coaster flying over the puppy garden. (Yes, they have a puppy garden filled with all kinds of breeds of puppies you can play with, but alas, that was one thing we didn`t get to.)

When we first arrived, we were just in time to see the penguin feeding (they are the only zoo I know of that has nearly all seventeen species of penguin, including Emperors). I have never seen such happy penguins in my life! Here`s a little macaroni, all excited about getting fed:

He`s a “hoppy” penguin if I ever saw one!



And here are the penguins soaring through the water:



Who says penguins can`t fly?

Outside there was a really cute display to show the variety of bird life: Penguins, flamingos, and parrots. Very interesting:



They had sooo many penguins! There were at least three giant tanks full of them in various buildings plus random ones occupying various fountains. They must have had about at least one hundred! The viewing areas to see all the animals were great; you could see them all angles; above, behind, below, face to face. Next when we went to see the polar bears get fed, we could look on them from up high. There was even a baby polar bear in a separate display playing with the snow! Here he is:



We kept jumping from one feeding/petting/show time to another. Everything was so close and easy to get to and timed perfectly so we could see most things. Around noon, at the hottest part of the day, there was a “splash party” in which the staff brought out a lot of animals and soaker hoses, spraying everyone down while the animals did tricks. That was pretty awesome. After that there was a penguin parade. Here they are:



Followed by a show about a bunch of animals that got stranded on a tropical island. It was so cute! One of the main characters was a little girl with a pet river otter. It followed her around just like a dog, doing everything from barking to playing dead to running around with a toy ambulance on its head, right on cue. Afterward, I got to pet one! I was so happy. Here`s an Asian river otter:



Aren`t they so cute? The keeper spent a lot of time petting and playing with them, especially scratching behind their ears, which they seemed to love. They`re really mischievous, though. In other zoos I`ve seen them steal things from the keepers bucket and rip their boots. Plus they don`t seem to have any issue with doing rather disgusting or disturbing things in front of a huge audience. Never fails. Just watch them for five minutes and you`ll know what I mean. I don`t think I`d want one for a pet.

I`ve got to say, these animals weren`t bored. I`m used to seeing zoo animals sleep or pace behind cages, but these guys were all playing with the toys in their enclosure, interacting with their spectators, and running around, wherever we went. Japan as a whole I've noticed is pretty good about giving their animals lots of "enrichment," or stuff to do.

Speaking of lively animals, check out these weird pelicans:

I`ve never seen them do that before!

And I've never seen a sea lion do this:



Another thing that really made this zoo stand out is that you could feed just about any animal you wanted. Sometimes you had to pay for it, sometimes not. But I bet the paying ones really cut back on the cost of animal feed. You have to pay $5.00 to feed the lion raw meat through a chute. Crazy, huh, but over ten people paid to do it! Mom was happy with her free chance to feed the hippo. Gosh, that thing was disgusting! Here it is:



And of course, we went on the safari! This is going to sound really corny, but I`m serious. It was like the real safari I went on in Africa! Only the tram was closed and air-conditioned, which I am totally not complaining about. We went through this gated area and all the animals were roaming free. And not just African animals, but Australian, South American, basically anything really big and dangerous. We rode right up to them. We saw some park keepers feeding the grizzly bears out the windows of their jeep. No thank you.

Here`s what the safari park looks like:



There was also an herbivore area, where you could do a walking safari. We didn`t get a chance to do that, but that just means we have to go back! I want to hang out with the elephants and baboons without any fences. If you have food they chase you. No one`s gotten mauled or maimed…yet.

Speaking of being mauled or maimed, here`s a totally unprotected keeper in the cheetah cage. It was a pretty affectionate cheetah:



That doesn’t look safe to me.

Next to the cheetah was a baby lynx and some other cute babies. How many animals do these guys have? At least a thousand! On their website they`re always advertising a baby something. By the way, this is their website: http://aws-s.com/english-new/index2_afp.html. Sorry to say, they're not a chain. The only one exists in Japan.

We had dinner at one of the many cafés, which was surprisingly good and inexpensive for theme park food. Then we went to the night party, which was a little song and dance show with animals. Cute. Then two sea shows, one featuring sea lions, another dolphins! Here`s a dude riding the dolphins:



A major reason I planned Adventure World for later in our trip was because of the night adventure. They usually close at 5:00, but for the month of August, they`re open to 9:00 with special shows and stuff. The final dolphin show ended with all the dolphins and people dancing together, with spectacular fire works and a theme song. Yes, the park has its very own theme song. We heard it a million times throughout the day as a Rachmaninov piano concerto, a guitar piece, an a capella solo and a full-out pop rock band extravaganza. It took us all day to figure out that they were singing in English...or Engrish, anyway. “Sankyu wall” in Engrish apparently translates to “Thank you all” in English. Even though we got sick of it, it was a nice touch and I still have it stuck in my head.

The other funny thing was their slogan. Like many Japanese slogans, it was printed only in English: "Enjoy nature for your emotion." Why do they do that? Most Japanese people can't read those signs anyway, and English speakers just laugh at them. I've explained to Japanese people seeking my help with translation that they need to be a little less...vague in their English descriptions. "Emotion" is a very ambiguous word. "Enjoyment" or "Pleasure" or "Happiness" would be much better choices. The other day I was helping an English teacher studying for her qualification exams and her speech was just full of ambiguities like that. "It gives me feeling." "That is a thing that people do." "He is a person" and the like. This is very strange to me, because Japanese doesn't really do that. I think they must learn really awkward grammar constructions in school or something. My favorite one was, "This is a thing you say to me then that you are here listening to me I say it to you now." I think the phrase she was looking for was simply: "Like you said, ...."

Moving right along...

I`m telling you, from a capitalist point of view, Adventure World has the right idea. Zoos in America are always so low on funds. These guys have totally commercialized; there were shops and stands selling everything animal related everywhere we went. Take your professional photograph with the giraffe doing a funny pose, ride the elephants and camels, feed the cougar, swim with the dolphins, buy a special dog training whistle to play with the puppies in the puppy garden, ride a roller coaster over the mouth of the lions` den, they got the works! The amusement park alone probably pays for half of their feeding expenses. As a result, the animals are happy and the exhibits are always new and fresh. And for those of us who don`t buy into that gimmicky stuff and pay only the bare minimum to enter the park (like my mom and me), we still get the benefit of seeing all those extra funds at work. Man, if the Tulsa zoo did that, they`d never have to beg for donations again!

The one thing they were severely lacking was any type of conservation (apart from their breeding program, that is). Conservation is always a huge part of American zoos and aquariums. Every exhibit includes stuff about how to save the animals, be more environmentally aware, etc. But no, at Adventure World (and every other Japanese zoo I`ve been to), you can see a dolphin show, then go into the café and eat what you just saw. They call it the “aquarium special” in most places. They might even tell you that what you`re eating is endangered, but that just makes them up the price and beam at you for giving you such a rare experience. Not to mention they insist that it`s their “cultural right” to hunt endangered whales. Can you imagine this conversation: “Well, little keiko-chan, we just saw a really amazing dolphin show. Now lets complete your experience by EATING our cute dolphin friend. Forget that fact that in fifty years there might not be anymore for your children to enjoy. Oh, look, your plate even has a singing and dancing cartoon dolphin on it. Isn`t that precious?” Makes me sick.

OK, so dolphins aren`t really endangered, but they`re intelligent! And the Japanese DO eat endangered stuff, and they aren`t exactly humane about how they kill it either. I`m all for eating meat, but I like to make sure my meat is stupid and that it had a happy life without a painful demise. I won`t even eat octopus because I`ve seen them solve puzzles in the Oklahoma aquarium. Those things are smart!

OK, enough ranting. I just feel strongly about this. Every Japanese I have ever asked about it insists that it is their right as Japanese (not as humans) to eat whatever they have historically eaten in the past, regardless. When I ask them about intelligence as a factor, they say creating traditional flavorful dishes is more important. Leave conservation to the Americans and Europeans and Canadians.

We left Adventure World about 8:45, and had one more delightful surprise at the exit. A little African penguin, happily swimming in the fountain! Here he is:



All in all, I think Adventure World was the best part of my entire summer vacation with Mom! But there are still a lot of amazing things to write about. Stay tuned next time for Full Moon Island, sandanpeki cliffs, the glass bottom boat, and scuba diving in a coral reef!

My Amazing Summer Vacation with Mom: Shirarahama beach

Friday July 30th Mom and I arrived at beautiful Shirahama beach around 1:30. Even though we left fairly early, the journey took about five and a half hours. Originally we were going to take the regular trains, which would have been a fifth the price of the Limited Express, but we would have had to change train six times instead of just twice, and it would have taken all day. Only later did I learn that there are buses running directly from Osaka to Shirahama! Oh, well, next time.

One interesting thing that did happen on the train was meeting up with all the elementary school students on their way to school. Mom was shocked to see all the seven-year-olds traveling by themselves. She couldn't stop staring at them; they were so cute! They all wore little straw hats with red ribbons, and suspender skirts/shorts. When she got out her camera to take a picture of the rather annoyed little girl with pigtails who did NOT want her picture taken, I turned away, totally embarrassed. Gosh, American tourists! Are we really that bad? I wanted to shout in Japanese, "I don't know her! Even though we're the only two Americans on this train and we happen to be sitting together and she looks just like my mom..."

At first it was just that lone little girl, but after a few minutes her friends from other stations started to join her. They all grouped together in a little huddle in the middle of the train, stealing glances at us and whispering behind their hands. Finally, one little boy got up the courage to talk to us. He approached Mom first.

"Cato ga ski deska?"

Mom looked at me, puzzled.

"He's trying out his English," I explained. " 'Ski deska' is 'do you like.' 'Cato' is Engrish for 'Cat.' He's asking if you like cats."

Mom nodded, "Yes, I love cats."

They stared at her, clueless.

"Hai, cato ga daiski desu," I translated.

This sent them running away squealing in delight, back to their huddle to debate what they should ask us next. The same brave boy approached us again.

"Dogu ga ski deska?"

This time Mom was ready. "Hai, dogu ga ski desu." She's a fast learner.

This sent up more squeals of delight. I leaned over and whispered in Mom's ear. "The really funny thing is that they actually believe they're speaking English. This is how they're taught in elementary schools; isolated vocabulary with little to know context. And people wonder why Japanese English education is failing. You have to set up the right foundation from the beginning."

Then the only problem was, the kids couldn't thinking of anything else to ask us, so they just stared, giggling awkwardly. That's when I decided it was time to pull out cultural exchange tool #1. Pictures.

"Minasan, chochi mite," I beckoned them.

As soon as they realized there were pictures on my camera, they ran right over and swarmed around me.

"Minasan, kore wa nan deska?" I asked. (Everyone, what's this?)

"Fuji san!" they all screamed. (Mt. Fuji!)

So I showed them all my Fuji pictures, my Osaka Tenjin pictures, Kyoto, all the places Mom and I had been, famous places they had heard about, but never been. They were all ooing and awing for the next ten minutes, and when I ran out of pictures, it was song and dance time. We did the "ABCs" and "Head, Shoulder, Knees and Toes," which they all seemed to know. Then it was time for them to leave. One rather precocious little girl asked us where we were headed and gave us precise directions of how to get there (in Japanese, of course). All the kids were really good about telling us how many stops we had left to our station. They all waved to us as they got off the train. There were quite a few relieved sighs from the adults when they did. I don't think they appreciated the commotion I was creating with all those kids. But I can't help it. They were sooo cute, and I'm a born teacher. It's in my blood. I see random unattended children and I MUST engage them.

So, after another four and a half hours, we finally arrived. Shirarahama beach in Shirahama is probably the most beautiful beach I have ever seen, with a blue-green sea filled with coral and pure snow-white sand. It`s also the most popular one in Japan, and that weekend it was jam-packed for the fireworks! Mom and I found a little cove off to the side where it was a bit less crowded and enjoyed swimming for about two hours.



Then we went to find our hotel. I had spent a lot of time selecting it; originally I had just wanted to go camping but it was supposed to rain, so I searched all over the internet, making many awkward broken-English/broken-Japanese phone calls until I settled on Hotel Meiko, reasonably priced but nice, and according to the advertisement only ten minutes from the beach. Well, after half an hour of wandering and asking directions, we still couldn`t find it! I finally stopped in another hotel, thinking we could just stay there if nothing else. But when I told the clerk about our reservations, she jumped to her feet and led us there! Can you believe it? A bored hotel employee actually took half an hour, climbing uphill in 100 degree heat, to show us where a competitor was! That`s Japan for you. They almost always go out of their way to help you, and businesses don`t typically see each other as competition. Banks of different companies are even known to bail each other out in times of financial struggle!

That said, we should have stayed at that other hotel. Imagine my shock when Hotel Meiko charged me double for two people! Who does that? In the U.S., you usually pay by the room; four people in a room costs the same as one person in a room, or in the very least the second person is half off! But no, they charged double for two people, despite the fact we were sharing a room. I almost stormed away, but Mom was tired, and there was the matter of the reservations, so I shut my mouth and paid the money. Then we checked out our room. Ha. More like a closet. Mom couldn`t help but complain that we had to sleep on stained futons on the floor, the showers/bath were public (something I was expecting, but it shocked Mom), and she kept asking where all our fluffy bath towels were. Sorry, they don`t make fluffy towels in Japan. They only provided us with one small hand towel (but they give you all the free toothbrushes and toothpaste you could ever want, plus a bathrobe to borrow, which I ended up using to dry off). At least the tiny air-conditioner worked, once they showed us how to use it in rather irritated Japanese. (The advertisement said their staff spoke fluent English, but that was about as far from the truth as a duck speaking fluent Chinese. I could understand their Japanese OK in the beginning, but when it came to asking the clerk on duty for complicated directions at 5:00 in the morning, I got a little sick of being yelled at in a slurred Wakayama accent I have yet to decipher as an intelligible version of any language.) Later they gave us a free ice cream sandwich and some very bland white bread, as if to make up for it. Mom and I reflected how different Japanese hospitality is from American. For $100 a night. Moral of the story: don`t stay at Hotel Meiko. You`d have a better time camping, and spend about 1/3 the money. Also don`t eat at any Shirahama restaurants at high season. We went to this Italian place and they charged us $25 for one eight-inch pizza. And that was the cheapest place. Yeah.

OK, OK, enough complaining. We got back to the beach just as it was getting dark and did what we should have done instead of the restaurant: bought food at the festival stalls. Japanese festival food is soooo good! It was Mom`s first time eating a crape. Besides that we had fried chicken and barbequed corn on the cob with soy sauce! Of course there were some rather…interesting things too. Encounters with those usually went something like this:

Mom: Hey, Laura Jane, what`s that over there?

Me: You don`t want to know.

Mom: Oh. (Face turns green.) Is it…squid on a stick?

Me: Yep. (teasing) You want some? I`ve had it before; it`s not bad if you can get past the little suckers on the end of the tentacles.

Mom: (Hands me the rest of her fried chicken.) I think I`ve lost my appetite.

We sat on the steps to the beach and enjoyed our not-so-strange dinner until the fireworks started at 8:00. Wow. That`s all I can say. If we did nothing else in Shirahama but see those fireworks, the trip would have been worth it. They were shot up over the ocean from boats so all the colors reflected in the water. I`ll just have to show you what they looked like. Here`s the beginning:



And here is what I call “fire from heaven”or "golden rain." It also reminds me of the "thread" in Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series that falls from the sky to destroy the world. Who knows, maybe this is where she got the idea.



A chandelier:



The screamers I was raving about at the Nabari fireworks:



And the finale:



They lasted for a full forty minutes. I was crying they were so beautiful. You just NEVER see that in the United States. Who cares about an over-priced sleazy hotel?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mout Fuji with Mom!

So Tuesday morning, after getting back really late Monday night from Kyoto and having no electricity or air conditioning, we headed to Nabari station at 6:10 to catch our bus for Mt. Fuji! It was super convenient, just down the road and across the street, but the bad side was it cost a lot, we were the only non-Japanese, and our guides didn’t speak a word of English! Fortunately, I had read up on the trip and knew what to expect, and I understood most of what the guide said. We and two more ladies were the only people from Nabari, but we stopped to pick up others at Iga, Matsusaka, and then switched to a larger bus full of people in Nagoya. We slept many of the eight hours there, when I wasn’t frantically trying to get a hold of my landlord to fix the electricity, making reservations for Nara, or at a rest stop, anyway. Japanese rest stops always crack me up. There’s the free food samples (which range from squid guts to cookies stuffed with green tea flavored cream) and interesting little souvenirs. One was a “cat in a bag,” a robotic thing that looked exactly like its name, with the tail sticking out of the bag, and rolled on the floor for your cat to play with.

We got to Mt. Fuji about 3:00 and had lunch. Mostly pickles, white rice, and salmon with all the bones and skin still attached. I don’t mind even having the head still on, but Mom couldn’t really eat it, and I was glad I’d brought some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for her.

At 4:30 we met our main climbing guide and began our accent. Here’s our group starting up; the walls are to prevent falling rocks during a sudden earthquake (but that's a bit redundant because all earthquakes are sudden):



And here’s the little shrine at the beginning where people take the bells and ribbons from their walking sticks they bought in the souvenir shop and throw them on the pile as an offering to the god for safe climbing.



I wouldn’t be surprised if the priests collected them all at the end of the year and recycled them. Otherwise the pile would probably be as big as the mountain! Every year 200,000 people climb Mt. Fuji, most of them during the official climbing season of July and August. You can climb at other times, but the mountain huts where you can buy food, water, and oxygen, and also the medical station, are closed. So if you get hurt or run out of supplies, you’re SOL: simply out of luck!

Before we got any further, I asked Mom if she was ready.

“You bet,” she said. “I walk three miles every day.”

I couldn’t keep from laughing, even though it offended her. “What?” she asked. “That’s pretty good for an American.”

“Mom, it’s not that it isn’t good. It’s just that…comparing going for a three mile walk every day to climbing the tallest mountain in Japan is sort of like comparing bench pressing 250 pounds to giving birth to a baby. Both are impressive, but doing the first really isn’t going to help much with the second.”

She realized all too soon what I meant.

About halfway to sixth station, Mom got severe altitude sickness. Since we started at fifth station, we were already over 2,000 meters, or 6,500 feet, high, above the clouds and tree line. According to an article I just read, that’s when altitude sickness can begin. Nothing was growing at all; there was nothing but volcanic rock. Mom had it really bad, like a fish gasping for air on land. She felt dizzy and even started laughing uncontrollably. At first I was really mad at the guide, because she said there was no way we could take Mom back. She had to climb all the way to the top. But I argued with her, reminding her stubbornly that I had paid nearly five thousand yen for this trip and she was hired to take care of us. Thankfully, we finally came up with a compromise. Mom had no choice but to struggle to the 6th station rest house and stop there at 6:00 to sleep for the night. I really wanted to go on, but the route up and the route down were different. Fortunately, someone at the 6th station who had also decided he couldn't go on agreed to look out for Mom and help her down the mountain the next morning. So I was able to continue on with the group.

It’s a good thing Mom stopped, because after 6th station it got a lot worse. First of all, because we had lost quite a bit of time waiting for her, we started booking it with only a few short rests. The ground became very uneven and the volcanic rock tumbled out from under our feet. There were places when I had to grab onto the rope and pull myself up to keep from falling. But for me, it wasn’t a very hard climb. All the way to 8th station I never got altitude sickness, not even a hint, and my muscles weren’t sore at all. I wonder if living in Japan has anything to do with it? Maybe I’m used to altitude. But then, I’ve always been that way. I remember being on top of Sandia Mountain in New Mexico with Mom once. Mom was gasping away while I was running around with more energy that I have on flat ground. Something about the chill, thin air energizes me. I can go a lot further and a lot faster. As long as it’s not hot and I’m scrambling on my hands and knees, that is. That mountain in Komono, though much smaller than Mt. Fuji, is a lot harder to climb and I couldn’t keep up with everyone else.

One annoying thing about Fuji is that you have to pay $2.00 to go to the bathroom each time, and water is $5.00 a bottle. I had brought two liters of my own water, but I drank it all before we were ¾ of the way up. Maybe that’s what kept me so strong the whole time. I ended up buying three bottles for the rest of the climb.

At seventh station I met a lady from Matsusaka who loved Oscar and Hammerstein musical. She hardly spoke any English in conversation, but she knew all the English words to their songs! We spent the whole climb from 7th station to 8th station singing and discussing religion, travel, and our respective lives in broken Japanese and English. That was fun. We reached 8th station about 11:30, about seven hours after we started. We slept there until 1:30, and then were given the option to stay there or climb on. I definitely wanted to climb on. But all I had was a light sweater and my rain jacket. Fortunately, the lady I had befriended gave me her extra pants, blizzard jacket, neck warmer, and head lamp to light the midnight path. I would have died without them! Not only was it below zero, but it was so windy! Sometimes I thought I’d be blown clear off my feet. And thank God for my hiking boots and gloves! I’ve heard some people climb Mt. Fuji in flip-flops, but I wonder if they come back missing a few toes. I certainly couldn’t feel mine after the first hour out from 8th station!

I guess they were worried about me or something because they assigned the best English speaker in the group to watch out for me. But most of the time he was behind me, and there was nothing hard about the last leg. Much of the time we had to stand in narrow cues and wait for the person ahead to go on. All I had to do was keep my eyes on the lady in front of me, and her neon blue suit practically glowed, so that wasn’t hard. I taught my helper a little English chant, since I got tired of him saying, “gambatte” all the time. “Almost there, almost there,” I said. Not exactly the same sentiment as “fight,” but it works.

From 8th station it took us until 5:00am to reach the top, so total climbing time of about ten hours. But it was so worth it! We were just in time for the sunrise. I will cherish these pictures forever:







See how the sun peaks over the horizon, as if checking to make sure the world is safe? Has it changed during the night? Is it even still here? “Ah, yes, there’s my mountain, my Fuji San; I will rise to kiss his face and blossom over the rest of the world.”

And here’s a panoramic video:



Don’t they look like islands in the sky? Maybe this is where all those legends of floating islands come from. Nearly every fantasy universe has them, including mine. I just never realized how beautiful King Timmer’s “Enchanted Realm” would be. Now I know! I think I’ve gained more experience for my writing this past year traveling all over Asia than I ever did in my twenty-three years in Oklahoma!

There’s a shrine on the top where you can buy souvenirs, but I wasn’t wasting my time. I spent it running around on top taking it all in. I will never forget that glorious victory. I wanted to scream and shout and soar! Only…we were packed in like sardines at the summit. It’s flat on top, but there must have been at least 500 people up there. It was so freezing! I had to keep running back inside and warming myself by the coal fire before running back out again. But I can’t remember a more happy time in my life. My friend Lu once told me that in China they have a saying about people who love mountains versus people who love oceans. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something like mountain people have big hearts and are very giving in a personal way. Ocean people have big hearts too but are less personal about it, preferring to help a lot of strangers. Oddly enough, I am a bit of both. I love mountains and oceans about equally. That’s why I love Japan! And oddly enough, I can see characteristics of both the mountain and ocean person in me. But I think I see a trend in my life of preferring to serve others in a personal way. I’m no Billy Graham or George Whitfield, preaching and serving the multitudes. I’m more of an Ester/Jonathan Edwards. I work my best in small groups.

Mountains remind me of faith. Sometimes we’re all a spiritual high and we never want to come down. We always inevitably do, but that isn’t because God isn’t close to us anymore. It’s because we’re mortal! We can’t stay up in the clouds forever, the air’s thinner and there isn’t so much work to do up there. Sometimes it’s in the valleys, where we meet people who are hurting or suffering, when we ourselves are hurting and suffering, that we can do God’s greatest work. So if you’re in a valley, don’t be discouraged. Look for the opportunities God has given you there and soon you’ll find that valleys can be beautiful places too.

And so at 5:45, it was time for the descent. I had my mountain moment, now it was time to come down. That was the hard part! Not getting up; that was easy. But because I’ve hurt my ankles on numerous occasions, they really swelled up on the way down. That’s when my Japanese buddy came in handy, along with some tape that the guide provided.

Here’s some snow near the top. Snow in August! Who would have thought?



We met up with the others who stayed the night at 8th station on the way down. Here’s me inside with the lady who leant me all her extra clothes. She was so nice:



Then she and everyone else went on ahead, but my buddy stayed with me to help me down, lending me his and the guide’s walking sticks. So that’s why everyone but me brought one! I should have bought one before the ascent, or at least at the summit. They made it a lot easier.

After that, the trail differed from the way up. A little warning to the wise. On the descent of Mount Fuji, you have to climb halfway down the mountain before you reach a bathroom! I started going a lot faster when I realized that!

Here’s what the descent looks like:



And here’s a Shinto priest blessing something from on top of the mountain. Fuji isn’t the most sacred place in Japan (that distinction goes to Ise Grand Shrine), but it comes close in most Japanese minds:



On the path down there were a lot of signs warning against falling rocks, and lots of falling rock shelters. That’s why you DO NOT want to climb in winter! It’s bad enough with the rocks; imagine what it would be like with avalanches to worry about besides.

After climbing and declimbing for fourteen hours, I felt ready to drop dead, so my buddy and I rode a horse drawn carriage for the last ten minutes. Here we are:



You can actually hire a horse to take you all the way down the mountain, but it’s really expensive. They’re also used in emergencies.

We got back to fifth station about fifteen minutes before it was time for our group to leave on the bus. Mom saw me come into the shop and ran to me, throwing her arms around my neck. She had been worried when I didn’t come back with the others, and since she can’t speak any complete sentences in Japanese, she didn’t know how to ask about me, and didn’t understand their explanation. We had just enough time to buy a souvenir walking stick with the Japanese flag (a little late to be of use, but I collect flags), use the bathroom and buy some ice cream.

The bus headed back at 10:00, but before going home everyone stopped at an onsen (hot spring) to soak out the soreness and have a buffet lunch. Japanese buffet food is…interesting. Mom was still pretty exhausted, and laughing hysterically about every little thing. “Come to Japan, climb mount fuji and get naked!” Though she took the whole naked bathing thing surprisingly well. Much to her relief, we had the bath pretty much all to ourselves.

We finally got back to Nabari around 9:00 on Wednesday night. Fortunately, I had been able to get hold of my land lord on the bus exactly one hour earlier, so he came out and fixed the electricity. I felt really stupid when he just flipped the circuit breaker above my door. I should have thought to do that, but I had no idea what a circuit breaker or that strange box above my door were before he told me. Well, live and learn. My dad always gave me a hard time when I was kid and I couldn’t remember how to do easy repairs on cars and household appliances even after he’d showed me a dozen times.

“You better marry a mechanic or a really rich guy!” he always shouted at me.

Well, I am a single woman living in a foreign country making a fairly modest income and I seem to be doing just fine, thank you very much. Most of the time, anyway.

Thursday we were planning to go to Wakayama, but ended up just stayed home. Can you blame us? I might not have felt it the day before, but after a good night sleep my thighs felt like they’d be stretched in a taffy maker! We cleaned up and organized a bit, then left the house about noon to take our laundry down to the laundry mat. Like most people living in Japan, I have no dryer or car, so I had to haul it 30 minutes to the laundry mat and 30 minutes back in Mom’s suitcase. I was planning on taking Mom to the nearby yaki niku restaurant for dinner (about 15 minutes further down the road) but it didn’t open until 5:00 and she was really hungry, so we ate a MOS burger first. Very different from American burgers (not as meaty), but it temporarily satisfied Mom’s craving for American food. After that we went grocery shopping, finished our laundry, and went to the yaki niku place. We did a lot of walking that day, so we weren’t exactly lazy. My calves wanted to kill me the whole time.

Friday we headed for Shirahama in Wakayama prefecture! You get to hear all about (and see) the pristine beach, beautiful fireworks, Adventure World, scuba diving, and other wonders next time on L.J. Popp’s blog…Now it’s time for me to do some REAL writing. AKA fiction. Does that sound ironic?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

My Amazing Japanese Summer Vacation with Mom: Kyoto!

The Lord is good! That is what has become so real to me these past few days as I have struggled with whether or not to take the publishing contract, emailing other authors, praying, reading the Bible, through tears and sleepless nights to come up with a decision. The publisher said they would allow me to make any changes I want, and all my published author friends told me to go for the deal as it seems like a reputable publisher, one that has won awards and all that. One of them said "writers are like hookers. We stand on the street corner and when someone calls us, we go, as long as there's money involved." He's a Christian, so I'm really shocked that he would use such a metaphor. My other friends, however, have suggested I go with my instinct. God has blessed me so much. There have been times in my life when I felt God was telling me to wait, when I wanted something so bad and he said, "No," and I just frankly hated Him for it for awhile. But He was always, always right. Whether it was in relationships or travel or business, He's never been wrong. I definitely don't want to lock myself into a five-year contract with this sick, nauseating feeling in my stomach the whole time, feeling like I failed before the book is even published. So I will hold off on a contract for now. When I get back to America, that Christian agent said she’ll probably be interested in helping me, and if all goes well, we can strike a deal with a traditional publisher together. It feels good to know I’ll have a mentor helping me along. Of course I’ve had plenty of amazing teachers at the University of Tulsa and Night Writers and Oklahoma Writers Federation Inc, but now I have someone who really shares my vision, loves my stories and can stand beside me, helping me hone my craft to the best of my ability.

Now, back to my amazing adventures with Mom in Japan! Monday, July 26 we woke up bright and early so we could leave Kayoko`s house before she and her mom had to go to work, ate custard and bread for breakfast, and headed out at 7:15 to catch the bus for the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji). Kayoko showed us which bus to take on the way. We got there about 8:00, but it didn`t open until 9:00, so we spent the time wandering around the grounds and deleting bad pictures off our memory cards so we`d have room for more! When 9:00 came and the gates opened, we got our first look at the beautiful temple:



You can`t quite see the golden phoenix on the top, but it`s there. It was originally built in the late 1300s as a retirement villa for shogun, but after his death he requested that it be converted to a Zen Buddhist temple.

At the temple, we saw a really big, beautiful butterfly. Japan has a lot of these:



The gift shop was a good place to buy souvenirs. I got a gorgeous calendar full of traditional Japanese art (only a little more flashy) and a book about a modern day apprentice geisha.

After the temple we had lunch at the famous parfait place Kayoko took me once, karafuniya, that sells over 99 different types of parfait. The name sounds almost Spanish, and ironically, we met some Spaniards on the bus who decided to come by the restaurant later. It was sooo good! I got the cheese sandwich for lunch and the strawberry cookie chocolate parfait for desert. Mom, still craving American food, had the hamburger patty and chocolate/raspberry parfait. For two people, it was about 25 dollars, very cheap for Japan! Here’s a picture of the parfaits:



Then we went on an English tour of the old Kyoto Imperial Palace. I gotta say, not much there. Just a lot of staring through gateways we couldn’t go in on an ugly gravel lawn in 100 degree heat and 100% humidity. I can think of a lot better ways we could have spent the time. The one and only cool thing (figuratively and literally), was the Japanese pond park the Imperial family kept to remind them of the ocean:



It seems to me that at least Japanese citizens should be able to go into the actual palace. They pay taxes to maintain it, and it's not like anyone lives there anymore. But the guide told me the precious artifacts inside are in too much danger of being damaged by tourists.

"So why not encase them in glass or put them in a museum for people to enjoy?" I asked. After all, what good is art if it just sits there without being enjoyed by anyone?

"We can't," was all the tour guide said.

She also told us the palace burned down at least three times while the emperor lived there.

“Then why did they keep rebuilding it out of wood?” I asked.

“Because it’s cooler,” the tour guide replied.

Ha, ha, I thought. She doesn’t live in a wooden apartment with rice paper walls. The Japanese have no concept of proper insulation.

I bit my tongue and said instead, “You’d think they would be more concerned about protecting the royal family than staying cool. After all, he was considered a deity.”

“Coolness is most important,” she replied seriously. As if that really answered the question.

I found out later from a much wiser tour guide that the real reason is because Japan doesn’t have stone. Just a lot of wood. Now that makes a lot more sense. I know from experience that the Japanese are not so stupid as to keep doing the same thing wrong over and over again at risk to their own lives. They are always changing and adapting, whenever possible.

But a little advice: don’t visit Kyoto in summer. It’s much hotter than the rest of Japan because it’s in a valley and the sun beats directly on it. Also extremely humid. So why build the capital there? Valleys over good protection, and the river decent trade. Plus the winters are a lot more tolerable.

If you must visit in the summer, a good place to go is kyomizudera (water temple.) It’s up in the mountains and as the name suggests, there’s a lot of water. Here’s a picture of the temple in the late afternoon sun:



The view of Kyoto and the surrounding woods from the top was spectacular, It’s a lot more colorful and decorative than most Japanese temples, reminding me of the temples I saw in China. The architecture was also similar. Here’s a belfry:



And here's a bunch of cute little Buddha statues (or maybe Ebisu; it's hard to tell the difference sometimes since they're both fat and happy) decked out in red robes:



We rested under the shade of a giant wisteria bush, about 500 years old and so big that it covered four lattices like giant tree roots. But I’ll wait to show you the one in Nara, which was about 1,000 years old.

This is the highlight of the temple, the sacred springs. You’re supposed to take the cup on the long pull, get the water, and drink it, but Mom and I aren’t into the ritual purification thing, so we just filled the cups, poured out the water and put them back in their ultraviolet sanitation lights. Here's me:



In ancient Japan, people who visited the temples must have gotten sick a lot, because thousands of people shared the same cup and they were rarely cleaned. Maybe that’s what caused the great plague in Kyoto 1,000 years ago, the reason for the Gion festival these days.

After that, we went to a fifty minute geisha show in Gion Corner. They demonstrated koto (Japanese harp), ekebana (flower arranging), traditional court music and dance (very atonal, and esoteric), meiko (apprentice geisha) dance, Japanese traditional comedy, and bunraku (giant puppet play that requires three men to control one puppet). Everything was…strange, but interesting. The least strange was probably the comedy, very similar the Western comedy, a story about two servants who tried to steal their masters sake and ended up getting drunk and beaten up. Also interesting, just as Greek drama always consisted of several tragedies and one comedy, so it was with traditional Japanese theater. A very long Noh play would be accompanied by a short comedic piece.

Here is the meiko dance:



And part of the bunraku play. The story is about a girl who fell in love with a temple page boy but her parents won’t let her marry him. Her love is forced to leave with his master because the master lost a very precious sword. Then the girl finds the sword. But the gates of the city are closed; no one can come out or go in, and the master and her love will leave first thing in the morning. This is the portion of the play where she is trying to decide what to do:



She finally decides to strike the fire bell to bring her love out of the city. She fears punishment, but bravely goes on with her plan.

We got home about 11:00. I immediately stuck in the rest of the Tai chicken for dinner while Mom turned on the air conditioning. Oops! Everything switched off. Neither of us knew what had happened. With no light and no cooling, (not to mention no way to call my landlord so late), we decided to get up at 4:45 the next morning to pack and prepare for Mount Fuji. The bus would come at 6:30am! Suffice it to say, in the unbearable heat and worrying about things, I didn't sleep much that night. Then how did I manage the great Fuji-San? Find out in my next post!

Monday, August 16, 2010

My Japanese summer vacation with Mom: Osaka Tenjin Festival!

Sunday July 22nd, Mom and I went to the Tenjin festival in Osaka, one of the three largest, loudest, sweatiest festivals in Japan! First we went to J-house church where we had a combined Japanese/English service. Mom was impressed to see people from all over the world worshiping together; it was really touching. The doctrine was sound and the people welcoming; everything a church should be. They shared lunch with us and Mom got to know a little bit about Japanese missions. Afterwards, we headed for the festival. How strange, that after the worship service we should see a number of men going around blessing the shops in traditional Japanese form, shouting and clapping. This was followed by a parade, carrying small portable shrines to the big Tenman shrine dedicated to Tenman Tenjin, who used to be just an ordinary poet back in the Hein period (794 to 1185), but was later deified as the patron god of art and learning. Nobody believes in that anymore, but the festival and all its customs have a history over 1,000 years old. It`s celebrated throughout Japan just like the Ebisu matsuri and a lot of others, but Osaka has the biggest shrine and therefore the biggest festival. Mom and I watched young Japanese men and women carry giant floats on their shoulders, jumping and shouting and dancing with umbrellas as they paraded down the covered shopping street. No cars allowed; too narrow even without the parade. It was impressive, but very hot and crowded!

Here you can see the people jumping up and down with the portable shrine:



That`s actually not the most impressive we saw; this is at the end of the parade so everyone is hot and tired. (It was about 98 degrees Fahrenheit outside, or 36.5 degrees Celsius.) You should have seen them leaping at the beginning! I almost thought the shrine would fall off.

And here`s the dragon dance:



In a full-fledged dragon dance, one guy plays the feet and the other the head, but these were just small dragons. There were also little kids doing the dragon dance. Not as impressive, but really cute!

Followed by the beautiful umbrella dancers:



I don`t know what they`re shouting, exactly. Sometimes it sounds like “Sore” which is basically “Yeah!” “Come on!” “Let`s do it!” etc. No special meaning. Then there`s the Engrish chant “Fighto fighto!” which I don`t think requires a translation. I swear, knowing Spanish really helps communicate with Japanese. Just add an “o” or an “a” on the end of any English word and about one quarter of the time they`ll know what you`re saying. Ha, ha.

Of course there were the usual street vendors, so I bought Mom a fried anko (red bean paste) and cream fish flour tortilla thing. It`s basically like a soft waffle, shaped like a fish, stuffed with sweets. She didn`t care for the anko, so I got her a custard one too. She liked that better.

Mom started getting really hungry (for something other than huge helpings of carbohydrate), so we stopped by a Subway along the street. She was really surprised how much she craved American food already (MEAT)! Giant bowls of rice just don`t satisfy most Americans, I guess. “Is that why you`ve lost so much weight?” she asked me. “Fish and rice? How can you stand it?”

“I like fish,” I replied simply. “But not the rice so much, or rather, so much of the rice.”

We stayed in the nice air-conditioned restaurant until about 4:00, then walked to the end of the street. Mom was surprised how long it went, covered and with only foot traffic and shops all along. Must have been at least two miles. At the end we found a lady with a cute little dog in her purse. Here he is:



The parade came to a culmination with the dragons all running and dancing. I guess they were trying to break through some sort of barrier but failing:



After that, we had about an hour to wait before the boat parade, so we went to a McDonalds for a strawberry shake. (Mom was still having American food withdrawal baaaad.) We had tried a few other restaurants first at my suggestion, but they were all filled with smoke. One thing that really shocked Mom was how many people smoke in Japan. They`re so health conscious, wearing long gloves over their arms so they don`t get skin cancer (or maybe they just like being porcelain white), but they smoke and drink so much. (Some of the first phrases Mom learned in Japanese from the Pimsleur CDs I gave her were how to order or decline beer. She thought she would never need to use them. Ha, ha.) The only place you can get away from it is in Western-style restaurants. In the McDonalds bathroom we were planning on putting on our yukatas, which we had brought with us. But the bathroom was so small, and while I knew how to put on mine, I had trouble with Mom`s. A little old Japanese woman saw us, muttered something under her breath, left, and five minutes later came back. It was like she left and then thought to herself, Well, I can`t let those stupid gaijin walk out of the bathroom looking utterly stupid. I guess I`ll go back and help them. I didn`t even ask her, she just came back in and started stripping us, redoing it the right way, and jabbering the whole time. I couldn`t understand most of what she said because her voice was all crackly like someone stepping on a bag of potato chips. But she was nice, and I can`t believe she took all that time in the cramped little bathroom to do us both up. And then she was gone. Just like that.

To be honest, I had sort of been banking on something like that happening. Mom kept asking how I would put on our yukatas, and I didn`t want to tell her that I hadn`t a clue how to do it myself, at least not on her. I`ve had enough experiences in Japan with random strangers helping me that I knew it would all just work out. That`s sort of how I live my life in Japan. If I want to do something but am totally clueless how, I either ask a passerby first, or just start doing it with the hope that some nice Japanese person will come along and correct me. It never fails, but I don`t think it would work in any other country in the world. What would I do if I ever had to live in a place like New York City? I guess I`d move to Little Tokyo.

Anyway, so there we were, all dressed up in our yukattas. By now a huge crowd was swelling toward the river, eager to see the world`s largest boat procession. Some idiot tried to drive his car through the middle of the throng, honking his head off. Gosh, how stupid and selfish can you be? I guess I`m so used to seeing Japanese people bend over backwards to fit in and be nice to everyone that it just strikes me as ridiculously rude when they don`t, but such a sight would be common in America or Africa or India or anywhere else I`ve been. There`s always some hancho who thinks he`s better than everyone else, no matter where you go.

So we had a pretty good viewing spot for the boat procession, but stupid me wanted to find a seat. We couldn`t see when we sat in the grass, and by the time we got back up to the bridge, the officers wouldn`t let us get our spots back. So we ended up missing the whole procession…darn. Then the fireworks started. Every seven minutes or so, they shot off thirty seconds worth of fireworks. It wasn`t particularly comfortable standing there in the heat amongst the huge crowd, probably well over 5,000 people, and I was liking our prospects for catching the last train to Kyoto less and less. So Mom agreed that we should leave early, about 8:15.

And boy am I glad we did! The river of people moving toward the station was nearly overwhelming, before the fireworks were even halfway over! Mom had to stop by the bathroom. I was relieved when there wasn`t a line, but I shouldn`t have been. Just as I was coming out, I heard an alarm blare. A few second later I saw Mom sheepishly come out of the handicapped stall, looking like she wanted to disappear. A security guard came but we hurried away.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

“Um…I couldn`t figure out how to flush the toilet. So I, uh…pressed all the buttons and then…”

“You pressed the alarm.” I couldn`t help but laugh. “You know, I did the same thing at an ATM once.”

Mom wasn`t laughing. “Um, Laura Jane?”

“Yeah?”

“I forgot my ticket in there.”

Oh. So we forced our way back through the crowd, like salmon swimming upstream, and got the ticket.

“Well, at least we`re even on the toilet mishaps now,” I told her.

The trains were so full we couldn`t even get on the first one. For the first time in my life I saw the pushers, who shoved and prodded and packed us in like fish in a crate. Fortunately most folks got off long before Kyoto. Otherwise it would have been a REALLY long ride.

Why did we go to Kyoto? Because we were staying with my friend Kayoko at her mother`s house. Originally she was going to come with us to the festival, but said she wasn`t feeling well. So I was a little surprised when she said she still felt good enough to put us up for the night. We were greeted with the usual Japanese hospitality, curry rice for dinner, hot showers and an air-conditioned room with beds. Kayoko and her mother had to work the next morning, but Mom and I enjoyed touring around Kyoto. I`ll write about that next time!