Sunday, September 26, 2010

Nagasaki Penguine Aquarium!

I just got back from an awesome fall break in Kyushu! I spent a lot of time debating when and where to go exactly, and unfortunately I wasn`t able to visit my friend Charley like last year, but I got to see my Bible study pal Diana! Usually we meet over skype, so this was only my second time to see her face-to-face.

So last year there was silver week, a week of national holidays that all lined up. All we had to do was take off two days and we had a total of nine days off, including the weekends! This year it didn`t line up quite so nice, but we had Monday and Thursday off, so we had a three day weekend, and then for a four day weekend we could take off Friday. I was just going to do that, but last minute I decided to take off Wednesday too, since I didn`t have any classes that week due to testing. I`m kind of glad I did, because I took the night bus, which was extremely uncomfortable, and I was so exhausted when I arrived in Nagasaki on Wednesday morning! If I had taken it a day later, I probably wouldn`t have had any fun at Mt. Aso. (I thought I already learned the night bus lesson, but apparently not. This time I thought it would be better because I paid a little extra for the “relax” seat, but all that affords you is a small pillow and visor. The seat only reclines slightly more than a normal seat.) It was less than half the price of a shinkansen (bullet train) though, so I guess you get what you pay for. Train cost (including shinkansen) from Osaka station to Nagasaki station is about $170 one way on the slower bullet and express trains ($200 on the fastest) and takes from 4-6 hours, while the night bus is about $60 and takes about 12 hours, just to give you an idea. Had I known earlier, I would have left Wednesday night so as not to take Wednesday off (and thus not annoy my supervisor), spent some extra (about $100 and 13 hours) and taken the extremely comfortable and luxurious (at least for me) overnight ferry from Osaka to Kyushu, which is what I did for the way back. But more on that later!

So, I arrived at Nagasaki station at 7:30 on Wednesday morning very groggy and disoriented. And believe it or not, my camera broke on the train from Nabari to Osaka to catch the bus! The lens just refused to retract…so I was stuck with my I-phone for most of the trip. Dang. I had printed out my schedule and which buses to take before hand, so I thought I was good, but I`m glad I checked in with the tourist information center first. The bus route had changed from the information online! So I got a bit of a late start to Nagasaki penguin aquarium, arriving about 10:00. It really is, like the website says, an undiscovered treasure of Nagasaki. It boasts being the first aquarium in Japan to have penguins, and to this day possesses more kinds than any other Japanese aquarium, eight of the eighteen species. Besides the penguins, you can see some very interesting and unique fish up close. Here`s the sea horse:



OK, so not terribly interesting, but what about this crab that looks like a sea anemone:



And the “armored tanks” (look like dinosaurs to me):



And here`s the tropical display:



But of course, being a penguin aquarium, our fine feathered friends were the stars. Here`s a happy little rock hopper:



A little blue, the smallest species:



And, something I`ve never seen before, a parent feeding a baby. Here`s the two of them together:



I couldn`t tell if it was the mom or the dad, because both parents care for the eggs and offspring. They feed it by retching up vomit, or “penguin milk.” It sounds disgusting, but it really doesn’t look that way. It looks like they`re kissing. I didn`t get a very good picture of that because everyone was crowded around causing reflections in the glass, but this is pretty close:



Several school groups were visiting, including a school for the handicapped. One little girl in a wheel chair decided to practice her English by reading the English text. The teachers asked me to help with her pronunciation. In Japan, I`m always on duty. I can never fully get away from my job! But I don`t mind. It`s fun to see the kids get all excited about talking to a native speaker.

After I hung out with the kids and penguins for three hours, I laid on the small “penguin encounter” beach next to the aquarium. No swimming allowed due to the jelly fish, but a nice view of the sea:



I had fun walking around the small harbor. Kyushu is a subtropical area. Check out the huge palm trees:



But I dropped my huge water bottle into the bay! Oops...

There was also a nature center in the vicinity filled with all kinds of subtropical plants and wild forest crabs running around. Cute little fellows:



While nice, it`s a small aquarium and surrounding area, so I was done by about 2:00 (and this from a person who likes to linger). I`m glad for it, though, because I got an early train to Diana`s town down in Ueki near Kumamoto, arriving about 6:15pm. We had homemade spaghetti at her place, chatted, and went to bed early. It`s a good thing, too, because the next morning we got up early to head for Mt. Aso caldera (caldera is Spanish for "cauldron," a volcano filled with water)!

Stay tuned next time for toxic gas-spewing monstrosities and horseback rides through misty mountains!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Osaka World Performance Festival and More!

Howdy! Just got back from the most amazing weekend in Osaka Tempozan Harbor Village at the World Performance Festival! The first day, Saturday, I went by myself and saw some pretty neat acts. First, check out this robot guy:

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Next, there was a girl who danced with hula hoops. Here`s her best dance:

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Ever seen a statue act? Here`s one. I knew he was a person right away, but he fooled an old man taking pictures. Here he is, playing a trick on the poor ojisan (grandpa):



Likewise, there were these creepy eyes:



And best of all were the fire performers! Here`s an American who called himself "Rocky." He played the typical tough guy/actually a sissy routine:



Here`s the best fire act, I think, a really funny pair. The guy on the unicycle played the full-of-himself braggart who usually chickens out at the last minute, and the guy balancing on the cylinder and boards was the annoyed boss. Here they go:

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At 6:00 there was a combined fire show. These two were the best, I think:

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And last of all, they all juggled together in a circle! Pretty cool:

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You know, one of the best parts about Osaka is the food! Cheap, inexpensive, American junk food! Every flavored fries, caramel popcorn, KFC, real burgers (not McDonalds or the Japanese meat loaf version), and subway (OK, so that last isn`t exactly junk food, but it`s comfort food), not to mention all manner of international ice cream and sweets. All in the Tempozan food court! Well, I didn`t actually eat all of that, and what I did eat was over a two day period, since I went back on Sunday.

After I got bored with the performers and snacking, I checked out some of the attractions in Harbor village. The ninja house and pirate treasure hunt were gimmicky but cool for someone like me who loves exploring mazes and searching for stuff. But by far the best attraction (for me) was the animal house! They had a llama, monkey and meerkats you could hold and feed (well, usually; they wouldn`t let me hold the monkey or meerkat because it was around their dinner time, but I still got to touch them), and a room for small dogs, one for big dogs, and one for cats! I spent almost an hour in the cat room, mostly cuddling the big fluffy Persian. I miss my cat back home! I`m not allowed to keep pets in my apartment because the land lord says they would tear up the tatami mat. Makes sense, I guess.

Here`s the llama:



I didn`t pay to feed the meerkats, but I watched someone else do it. This video is for my mom; she loves these little guys:

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The next day, I returned to the festival with my friend Kayoko. First we went to J-house church at 10:00 for, as always, an awesome service and fellowship. Then we went to the festival and saw two shows, but it was pretty much the same stuff as the previous day. I had been expecting a lot of variety from the “World Performance Festival”, like Indian dancing, traditional Chinese music, Mongolian throat singers, that sort of thing. No, they were all street performers, and I noticed there was a formula to their acts. They all started out with cheap cheesy stuff like balloon animals, miming, etc, and then moved on to juggling, increasingly difficult juggling, culminating with knives, fire, or both, then balancing. The grand finale was almost always balancing while juggling fire or knives. A couple had clever add ons; one guy somehow managed to speak like a squeak toy, one fellow was an extremely gifted pantomimer, and one could stick his head inside a balloon and sing while blowing it up. That was not so much impressive as rather silly if you ask me. We talked to one Australian guy after his act and he admitted that there was a definite formula they learn from watching other successful street performers. He said he`d been making his living doing this for eleven years. You have to be a little crazy to do that, I think, sometimes in a good way, but they all struck me as a wee bit…strange too, especially the last fellow we saw, almost occult with all his demon masks. Here`s his floating ball trick:

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About 3:00, bored of the performers, we took a cruise around Osaka bay. The Ferris wheel in the background is the one we took up over the city night-scape later that evening:



We decided after that to see the aquarium, but we still had an hour to kill before the 5:00 discount price, so we hung around Tempozan market place. We went inside this “magic tunnel” that was really cool. Here`s a picture:



It`s an optical illusion. Only the walls are spinning, but it feels as if the whole room is. You couldn`t walk straight to save your life!

And here`s another illusion. Where`s the water coming from?



Answer: The water is not actually being poured from the spout, but being sucked into it. Then the two transparent tubes on the side drain the water back down into the hole.

One more, though this is more perspective than optical illusion. There was an artist doing sidewalk chalk painting. Here`s Kayoko and me on top of the geyser:



We also saw this silver dude, a Japanese version of the Blue Man rock group I guess, though not nearly as cool. Not terribly impressive, but silly me decided to interact with him and I got pulled into his show:



He just made me sit there and hold this guy`s hand. Weird. At least I got a free sucker out of it.

So the aquarium was nice as always. Here`s a cute puffer fish:



And finless dolphin (better named "dorsal finless dolphin, but that doesn`t have quite the same ring to it):



I love the river otters! We actually got to see them swimming this time rather than just being their obnoxious mischievous selves. There was also a baby dolphin with it`s mama, and a penguin with a baby under its fat pouch. We didn`t actually get to see the baby, but we saw the penguin go after several others that came a little too close. Here`s the proud mommy/daddy (you never can tell with penguins, especially since both parents care for the young):



Kayoko went crazy over the shark exhibition. She got to touch a shark and a sting ray for the first time. There was also a short 3-D film and a model of the largest shark that ever lived, (now extinct), bigger than a whale shark!



Ancient Japanese who found the teeth of this beast thought they were the claws of oni (demons).

After that, we watched the beautiful sunset over Osaka harbor while eating ice cream cones (what could possibly be better)?



Dinner consisted of okonomiyaki (Osaka pancake stuffed with seafood; Japanese junk food), and the fries I mentioned earlier.

To top off the perfect day, we rode in the world`s second largest Ferris wheel (the largest being the London Eye). It was so scary! We were closed in on all sides, but the walls and floor were made mostly of glass. It took us up over 100 meters, or 350 feet! Fortunately, there happened to be a giant stuffed Pooh Bear in our car, so we kept hugging it and talking to it the whole time. “How many times have you gone up in this, Pooh Bear? You`re still here, right? You haven`t fallen out yet.”

Here`s a view of Osaka at night from the top:



The whole ride was about fifteen minutes. Then, alas, it was time to go home. We left about 9:15, and I got back to Nabari around 11:00. I was planning to go to Shirahama beach near Toba (not to be confused with Shirahama beach in Wakayama), the next day with my friend Kae (Monday was a national holiday), but she was sick, and I felt pretty tired myself. Plus, according to the Toba locals, the jellyfish have started coming out in droves. Ah, well. So I spent the day resting and planning my upcoming trip to Kyushu during “silver week,” (a long weekend of national holidays). I leave on the night bus tonight! First I`m headed for Nagasaki penguin aquarium (I know, I`m a dork), and then I`m going to Kumamoto to hang out with my friend Diana. Thursday we`re going to Mt. Aso volcano, Friday (when she has to work), I`m going to Kagoshima volcano, and Saturday I`m visiting the seven “hells” (various geysers, bubbling mud, and steaming sand) of Beppu. I`m calling it my “volcanic activity” tour. It`s gonna be AWESOME! Pictures and videos when I get back, of course.

Prayer requests for this week: Safe travel to and from Kyushu! And that the volcanoes aren`t acting up too bad so I can actually see them (admission is closed if they are erupting). And please pray for my friends Kae and Diana who are experiencing some healthy problems.

Until next time, keep loving and praying,
Laura Jane Popp (L.J. Popp)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Bunka sai!

Wow, I’ve been in Japan for a year! Can you believe it? This past week, I felt like I came full circle, for it was my second time experiencing the annual school bunka sai, or cultural festival. It was different from last year, because I actually knew what was going on! I was able to read some of the schedule (asking questions about stuff I couldn’t read) and understand a lot of the Japanese, as well as having some background on the various traditions.

We started off with the opening ceremony, of course. (You can’t do anything in Japan without an opening ceremony!) Last year we had a Chinese circus come, which was amazing, but this year was equally incredible with a taiko group! Taiko, as I said in one of my first posts last year, is an ancient form of drumming, the heart beat of Japan. I was really glad they came, because I missed most of the taiko festivals this summer while traveling around with my mom. This was a modern group from Osaka, more of a “boy band” perhaps, but very, very good. Unfortunately, my poor quality camera can not pick up the deep booming base, and the rhythms sound very…sloshy, but it’s interesting to watch. Here’s the intro:

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And the middle:

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Aren’t they so genki (energetic)? These guys put on an hour and a half show! They spent nearly the whole time jumping around like that banging on their drums! They don’t look all that muscular. I think every nationality has an in-born super power. People from Africa are born knowing how to sing. People from India are born knowing how to dance. Chinese are born with an uncanny endurance to take just about anything, and Americans…I think we’re born with the ineffable talent of always saying the most awkward, obnoxious thing possible at just the wrong time without meaning to…or maybe that’s just me. Anyway, the Japanese seem to have an infinite supply of energy that they get simply from being Japanese. That, and super neat handwriting.

So, here’s the end with singing:

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I’m telling you, there’s nothing hotter than a guy who can drum like that and play the flute AND sing. It helps that I can actually understand what he’s singing about. Follow your dreams, reach for the stars, etc. Stuff performers typically say to a high school audience. They also gave six of our kids a chance to drum on one of their songs (after teaching them how, of course), but I don’t think I can show that, because it might embarrass the kids.

After the opening ceremony, everything was free for all. Each of the approximately fifteen classes had prepared something, plus the clubs. Two classrooms had been turned into haunted houses (one really good and the other very lame), two or three rooms had carnival games, others a photo gallery, three movies, painting exhibition, student-made comic books, lots of food booths outside, and a stage featuring Japanese game show-type entertainment. These included “name that song,” karaoke, an English speech resuscitation of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” (which I had to miss even though I coached the girls because I had play rehearsal), doing random crazy stuff, and the most popular, boys dressing up like girls. Puts a whole knew spin on the term “pretty boy.” I don’t get it. The thing is, with most of them, you really couldn’t tell the difference. Japanese men are feminine enough already…do we really have to emphasize it?

Besides those stranger things, there was also a band concert, koto (Japanese harp) performance, shodo (calligraphy performance), and sato (tea ceremony). The first two I loved, of course, being a big music fanatic. Here’s a more traditional taiko piece the band performed:

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And a little dance:

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The koto concert, while beautiful, did not provide any good videos, because of the noise from the stage outside. They could have planned that a lot better. As for shodo, that’s a kind of art form I will never quite get. Giant sloppy black strokes on a page are not particularly beautiful to me; I about cried when they rent that awful black line through the lovely Nabari city flower. It's interesting what different cultures see as "good art" and others find to be "ruining good art." Anyway, here’s a picture:



No matter how much time I spend in Japan, the tea ceremony is another one of those arts I will never fully appreciate. It’s…tea for Pete’s sakes. Yes, I understand the spirit of humility and subtleness, how each movement is like a dance and you honor your guest with the precision of your movement, but I’m sorry, I don’t really feel honored when my host is so busy frowning and making sure everything is just so that she won’t say a word or even smile or greet me. It’s just…awkward, and I think modern Japanese typically feel that way about it. I noticed quite a few nervous giggles from the teachers and students as we exited the tea ceremony room. But I have to admit, tea ceremony tea is always superior in flavor to regular brewed tea. It’s so light and frothy, without any tea leaves swimming in it, and never too hot. That’s probably due to the special tools and methods they use.

Friday morning brought the “highlight” of the festival: the choir contest. I will not subject your ears to that. In one choir, a boy sang so loudly that he drowned everyone else out; the students were giggling and he probably got made fun of later. I must say, though, I admire the Japanese for requiring students to sing in a choir at least three times in their high school careers, with student conductors and pianists. Being part of a choir is a good education, just like their mandatory marathons and sports days, and America could certainly benefit from similar customs. (Though sadly, I don’t think in America you could find a pianist in every class.) I just wish they wouldn’t force everyone to listen to them when they have no real vocal training. A good compromise might be to have several teachers coach them on the songs instead of relying entirely on student conductors, and having only the top three choirs perform for the whole school. Two hours of out-of-tune screaming is no fun for anyone, least of all the students. Also, someone needs to write more Japanese choral music. Of the fifteen choirs, there were only five songs, so each got repeated three times.

Ah, the food. That was probably the best part. Ebi sembe (shrimp flavored rice cracker) with egg…mmmm. And karage (fried chicken) and hot cakes with ice cream and barbeque yaki tori (grilled chicken on a stick), yaki soba (fried noodles with pork and cabbage), shaved ice with cream, yes! All made by the students, of course; there had to be six or seven food stalls selling multiple things, run by various classes. I love Japanese festival food. Except the sausage, which gave me a killer migraine on Thursday. Dang, I have to remember not to eat sausage, even in Japan. Especially in Japan.

Last year they had me do karaoke. This year, drama club procured me as the foreign student in their play. That was…interesting. We had exactly one rehearsal before the performance. I guess the kids got a kick out of it because it featured their teachers as students, each with a special “talent.” One guy played the drums, another did tricks with a soccer ball. I just spoke English and Japanese. Oo, ah. I guess I had a boyfriend or something because I was hitting on this one teacher at the end, and then another man came on stage, and I ran to him shouting, “Oh, my darling!” and skipped with him off stage. Odd. I only understood about half of it. The kids went wild, screaming “Laura I love you!” and afterwards, one of them cornered me to help him with his English essay. So, awkwardness aside, I guess it was a success.

Finally, the closing ceremony. The students got ratted out royally by the principle for being very “uncultural.” Most of the students had spent their time around the game show, which got way too loud and disruptive of other more “refined” cultural gems. I was inclined to agree with him. Hardly anyone showed up for the more traditional Japanese performances and exhibitions. Will they disappear? No, I don’t think so. There will always be those with an interest in preserving such things, particularly retired people who like to take up hobbies. Even in America and Europe, there are still people who know how to spin wool and play the hammered dulcimer and can speak Old Gaelic. In Japan, I think the traditional arts will always be stronger than that. Japan simply has two hearts, one beating at the frenzied, tech-savy, materialist speed of modernity, and the other at a slower, steadier tempo, unchanging, quiet, yet never dying.

Prayer Requests for this week: I am trying to organize a food drive at my school for Second Harvest Nagoya, but the teachers and students are less than understanding, mostly because they’ve never even heard of a food drive before. Please pray that I am able to aptly explain it and everything goes well! Please also pray for my friend Kae, who is going through some tough health problems right now.

Until next time, keep loving and keep praying,

Laura Popp (L. J. Popp)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Nagashima Spa Land and Nabano Sato

This Saturday (September 4th), I went to Nagashima resort in Kuwana! That's about a two hour train trek, plus twenty minute bus ride for me, but it was worth it (at least later on in the day)! Many of the assistant language teachers in Mie prefecture were planning to go to Nagashima Spa Land water park, and my idea was to go early and meet up with them later. Ha, ha. The water park was so crowded, I might as well have thought I could find a specific fish in this crazy cluster of carp:



Actually, this picture is from later on, and I'll get to that place later. In the mean time, I ended up wandering around by myself from 11:00-3:00, which was no fun. The rides, though numerous and fairly original, had lines nearly an hour long. The salt water wave pool (supposedly the largest in the world), was packed so dense you couldn't swim, and even the little kids area spewing geysers and dumping giant buckets of water was rife with running, screaming little munchkins ready to bowl you over if you got in their way. And everything was salt water! I guess that beats chlorine, but the whole place just felt like a fake, crowded, cemented-over beach. If I hadn't kept hoping to run into someone, I probably would have left earlier.

This was only a small portion of Nagashima Spa Land, a theme park that also includes one of Japan's best conglomeration of roller coasters and rides, the chief being the original "steel dragon," not to mention a pretty popular onsen (hot springs). They say, actually, that both the water and theme parks have the most rides in the smallest amount of space of all amusement parks in the world. So if you're into that sort of thing, I guess it's the place for you, but I'm not big on coasters. I always get really sick on anything that goes over thirty miles an hour in a less than straight line. So I avoided the extra cost of the rest of the park and decided to go to the famous flower garden nearby, nabano sato, also a part of Nagashima resort.

Now that was much more up my ally. I love flowers! It costs 1,000 yen to get in, but then they give you 1,000 worth of vouchers which you can use for dinner, shopping, or looking at special exhibits. There's also a free foot bath and cheap onsen on the premises, not to mention one of the best collections of restaurants I've ever seen in one area.

First, I just walked around the outside. That's where I took a picture of those crazy carp. I leaned over the bridge and pretended to sprinkle food into the water. Quick as bullets, they shot right up to me, opening their jawless mouths in eager expectation. Sorry, guys! Ain't got nothin' for ya. Next time I'll bring the feed I have left over from Yamanakako last year. Though you can actually buy feed at the park from a vending machine, and it's only 100 yen.

There wasn't a whole lot blooming outside because of the heat; even the roses had all wilted. In Oklahoma, they usually last through the summer and into the fall, sometimes for up to six months. Not in Japan, unfortunately. I took a ride up on the "fuji elevator" to get a view of the whole park and the surrounding ocean. Wow! Here's a picture of mountains and sea in one shot:




The last bus back to see the Nagashima Spa Land fireworks didn't leave for another two hours, so I grudging gave up my 1,000 yen in vouchers to see the most popular garden of all, the begonia greenhouse. Boy, am I glad I did! That was the highlight of the trip. They had two entire rooms of giant begonias in pots and hanging baskets, plus two full rooms of just hanging baskets and petunias. I can't really describe it; here, let me show you:







This, I think, other than maybe Full Moon Island, is my favorite view in all of Japan:



I spent an hour and half all to myself in those greenhouses, running among the flowers. I felt like a little kid. I am SO going back when the cosmos and the dahlias are blooming next month, not to mention the fall colors! I can't wait!

I had dinner at the famous "beer garden" restaurant, a fancy jazz joint that brews their own beer. I asked if I could get half a pint and they just looked at me like I was crazy. So I ended up with a cream of mushroom sea food fondu in a sour dough bread bowl. Amazing! And not too pricey, considering the atmosphere. If I still had my vouchers, it would have cost practically nothing! I would definitely call it a good "date" place.

At 6:15, I pulled myself away to catch the last bus back to Nagashima Spa Land. I still had over an hour before the fireworks, so I passed the time wandering around the shopping outlet Jazz Dream. Not very interesting to someone like me who doesn't like shopping, but I stumbled upon a street performer who specialized in fire tricks. He didn't just juggle batons. He danced with flaming nunchucks, breathed fire, and ate fire! Woah! Sorry no video...he was too fast to get anything good, and unfortunately the fire doesn't show up well.

I was just in time for the fireworks! You'd think I'd have enough after seeing four major displays already this summer, but each one is so different! This one featured ground fireworks, huge shapes that twisted and spewed sparks on poles. Gosh, I wish my camera hadn't run out of batteries! Darn. I need to start bringing spare.

I booked it outta there as soon as the fire works were over, but so did everyone else. On the packed bus I finally met up with some other ALTs, but we spent most of the next hour stressing as the bus crawled through the traffic-clogged streets, wondering if we'd catch the lasts trains out. I missed the final regular, so I had to pay extra to get the very last Limited Express, which brought me home at around midnight. At least I made it! Sleeping in a train station is not my idea of topping off a wonderful day.

So, if you happen to find yourself in the Kuwana area at any time of year, stop on by Nagashima Spa Land and Nabano Sato! Even in the winter time they have one of Japan's largest "light up" festivals that lasts for four months with millions of colored lights. It's on my list of things to do during the dreary, dark days.

Sunday after church I helped everyone clean the church. That was fun; I washed all the windows! It makes me happy that I could help make our building spick and span, all in preparation for the upcoming International Night in November and revival in December! Yea! Please pray for those events.

Until next time, keep loving and keep praying,
Laura Jane Popp (L. J. Popp)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

My Japanese Summer Vacation with Mom: Nara!

Finally, my last blog about my summer vacation with Mom! On Friday, August 6th (wow, was it really a whole month ago?), Mom and I went to Nara, the ancient capital of Japan, celebrating their 1,300th anniversary! It`s really quite daunting to realize, "the emperor used to stand on this spot all those years ago! Great battles were fought here and love stories played out. And to think, in America you`re lucky to find some place more than four hundred years old!" (One hundred in Oklahoma.) Of course, most of the buildings aren`t really that old, since they`ve been burned down on numerous occasions in various accidents and sieges. But at least they`re perfectly restored.

I had scheduled us to meet the volunteer English guide at 10:15, but we were a little late, and there was no guide! I realized then that there are actually TWO Nara stations, one for JR (Japan Railway; the national company) and one for Kintetsu (a private railway company limited to the kansai area). I missed this simple fact for three reasons: I always take Kintetsu because that`s the only railroad in my town, company train stations are often connected into one large station, and the guide hadn`t specified that there were two. Well, when I called, it turned out that wasn't the problem. The guide had misunderstood and had the wrong day scheduled! They said he couldn't make it until noon. So Mom and I spent the time playing with the deer that randomly roam through the city. Here's Mom and me petting them:



And here`s a baby with it`s mama:



And the baby alone. Even little Japanese kids were pointing at it, saying, "Mama, Bambi!" It`s funny how Disney has become the universal language of the world.



Be warned, the deer of Nara, though "tame," can be very belligerent if you have something they want to eat, particularly deer cookies! As soon as we bought some from one of the many vendors, (who aren`t particularly nice themselves), we were stampeded! And they ate my English map! It was sticking out of my pocket and a buck just came right up to me and ripped it out! Our guide later told us that these were magical deer. They can sense when a piece of paper is important and therefore must consume it to be forever entombed in their sacred bellies. Ha, ha. They will eat your shirt too, if you're not careful. But he also taught us a special way to feed the deer. You hold the cookie over their head where they can't reach it. Then they will beg for the cookie by dipping their head up and down (kudasai, kudasai-- please, please), until you give it to them. It's really cute!

We returned to the station at noon to eat our packed lunches and meet our guide. He was an elderly gentleman who had lived in the United States for a number of years, so he was quite fluent in English and also very knowledgeable about Nara, his birthplace and the location he had decided to retire. I believe he said he was seventy-two, and for that old, he sure was fit! He led us around the city for six hours, completely free of charge! If you find yourself in Nara and want a free guide, you can contact the Nara YMCA: 0742-45-5920. E-mail: eggnaraymca@hotmail.com. I recommend them!

This guy was really good and very nice, though he did have an odd sense of humor. When I remarked how beautiful and well-maintained the grounds of Nara park were, he said, "That`s because we employ some very good gardeners."

"Oh, really?" I asked.

"Don`t say, `Oh, really,`" he replied in a very serious tone. "Their wages are grass."

At first I assumed from his seriousness that he was using some strange metaphor to say they needed to pay the gardeners more. Then I realized he was talking about the deer and laughed self-consciously. Japanese delivery style of jokes (Japanese irony, I guess), is a little odd sometimes. Or maybe I`m just dense.

Near the station there was a little graveyard for children. There were a number of little Buddhist statues with red bibs. Parents bought the red bibs for their deceased children. It was pretty sad. The guide explained that in modern Japan, Shinto is used for happy occasions like weddings, births and New Years, Buddhism for sad events like funerals. For this reason, you clap when you go to a Shinto shrine, and ring the gong when you go to a temple. Clapping is too obnoxious for a sorrowful place, he said, and the gong too solemn for people who are celebrating. There is a saying in Japan: "You are Shinto when you`re born, Christian when you marry, and Buddhist when you die." More on this later.

Our first stop was the outside of Kofuku-ji temple and the various surrounding pagodas, the largest being five stories high. Here I am, holding it:



That picture was the guide's idea, having just returned from the Taj Mahal in India and seeing everyone strike that pose. Ha, even I did that when I visited the the Taj!

So what is a pagoda? It's the Japanese version of a traditional structure that supposedly houses some of the original Buddha's ashes. Basically, the guide said, the only part that really matters is the little orb on top where the ashes are. The whole rest of the building is just for show! There's nothing in there, and no one's allowed inside. As for there actually being any ashes...nope, sorry, even Buddhists will tell you they don't believe that. There are buildings like this for Buddha's ashes all over the world, (each country has their own style), built hundreds of years after he died! It's kind of like how in the Catholic church during the Middle Ages, priests and monks used to say that any old piece of wood was a piece of Christ's cross and sell it. Goodness, it must have been a gigantic cross!

So, to make a long story short, pagodas these days have pretty much no meaning, even to Buddhists (in contrast to temples and statues). They're just architecturally impressive. The tallest one in Nara used to be seven stories high, but it was burned down in one of the fires started by the devote Shintos who were ordered by their leaders to destroy all the Buddhist temples and monuments, because the Buddhist priests were trying to take power from the emperor and regional lords. Actually, that's why the capital moved from Nara to Kyoto, and finally Tokyo, to get away from the religious leaders vying for political power. Sound familiar? Funny how history plays out so similarly even on different continents.

Speaking of fires, all the pagodas had gold or bronze rings on their spires, a charm against fire. Here's another interesting anti-fire charm on the top of Todaiji temple:



Can you see what it is? Gold fish tails! I don`t think they helped much, though, because it burned down twice. The second time, due to insufficient funds, they had to rebuild it at only 2/3 the original size. Can you believe it; it`s still the largest wooden structure in the world!

Inside Todaiji Temple was far more surprising. It`s the only temple in Nara, I think, that charges an admission fee, so at first Mom didn't want to go in because she didn`t want to cost me more money, but once the guide and I explained that it's the main attraction in Nara, she consented. The guide wanted us to go through the ceremonial purification by drinking and washing in the sacred water. I was surprised how insistent he was. I humored him by picking up the cup on the end of the long bamboo stick, but I didn`t drink the water or splash any one me. If it was a really serious thing that was a requirement for anyone entering the temple, I might out of respect, but a lot of people don`t do it, and I really don`t like going through religious motions I don`t believe in. Simply going through the motions is disrespectful in and of itself, I think, because I would be offended if someone with only a basic knowledge of Christianity walked into the church without any faith and took communion. That symbolizes the blood and body of Christ! So I don`t mess with stuff like that.

Then they guy tried to get us to light some incense and offer it to be Buddha statue still behind the closed doors. Uh, no thanks. "You don`t have to believe it," he persisted. "It`s just something everybody does. It`s free, and see, it smells nice." He practically shoved a stick in my face.

Why was he being so pushy about this? Even in my English and Evangelism classes, I don`t coerce people into prayer. I just tell them what I believe and invite them to think about it and ask me questions. Some people respond very strongly to my message, others don`t, but I try very hard not to put people on the spot or force something fake out of them. I actually had to tell the guide "no!" in a rather sharp voice before he stopped bugging me to light a stick of incense. I felt bad about it, because he was a nice guy and I think he was just trying to give me the "cultural experience," but it never ceases to amaze me how bent on fitting in the Japanese are. Everyone else was lighting incense, so of course we should too. They don`t really stop to think about what they`re doing.

The next scene illustrates this perfectly. We finally went inside and saw the largest bronze statue in the world, the Great Buddha:



Of course, I had seen it before, at Obon festival last year, but that was surrounded by thousands of sweaty people bowing and praying and chanting monks, amidst the fumes of a million sticks of incense and glowing candles. That was sort of an intoxicating experience, very strange and other-wordly. One could almost see, in that mystical cloudy twilight, how people can, in the right atmosphere, come to believe that anything is a god. This was an entirely different experience. In comparison, this time there was hardly anyone in the temple. The light was normal, the air clear, though sweltering with August heat. And there before us sat the statue, a beautiful work of art to be sure, but clearly a work of human hands. I couldn`t help it. I had to ask the guide,

"So, I`m curious. I`ve read a few books on Buddhism, but none of them mention statues. In fact, the Buddhism I`ve read up on doesn`t really have any gods and utterly rejects the idea of a creator god as something that holds you back from the ultimate fulfillment of nirvana. So...what is this statue exactly? Is it a god?"

"Yes," the guide replied fervently. "For Buddist believers, this is a god."

Now this didn`t make any sense to me. So I kept on. "That confuses me. Because this statue was made by human hands, right?"

"Laura Jane," Mom whispered urgently, "now`s not the time..."

"No, no, I really want to know," I insisted. I turned back to our guide. "So are you saying this god was created by people? They made the statue, so they made the god?"

The man thought about this. "No, that can`t be. You`re right. I think the god must have existed first, then went into the statue."

"Now that makes more sense." (This was a common belief in the Old Testament too that largely prevented the Isrealites from understanding and therefore properly treating their Gentile neighbors. They thought the other people were actually worshiping wood and stone, when in actually they were worshiping some supposed spirit within the wood and stone. I think this understanding could have saved them a lot of blood shed.) "But I`m still confused. Where did the god live before it entered the statue?"

The man looked very puzzled. After a moment he admitted, "I don`t know."

"Who might know?" I insisted, because I have never found an answer to this question, no matter how many books I read or people I ask. There are some theories that the god once lived up in heaven or some similar plane of existence, but because Buddhists believe so firmly in reincarnation, that heaven is only a waiting room for souls, most reject this idea. There is nothing in Buddhism that lives up in heaven, except for mortal beings that are stuck there by pleasures and concerns that prevent them from reincarnating, but these stuck creatures have no special powers or ability to grant prayers. Those creatures that may seem like gods when you die are only figments of your imagination that you must see past in order to reach Nirvana. Or, some being may think he is a god because he is lonely and then people appear around him, but this too is only a misconception of reality, they say.

"I don`t think anyone knows," the guide replied, a little sadly. "Not even the priests. The Buddhist sutras (the holy texts) have little if anything to say about this."

And there, my friends, is my point. The Japanese just go through the motions of this religion, which doesn`t make any sense. It is obviously a mix of old Indian/Chinese Buddhism with their own Shinto beliefs of enshrined gods. This was a tactic to protect themselves against those devout Shintos who kept burning down their temples and killing their priests. They thought, "let`s just merge the two religions and everyone will be happy." Interesting how eternal truth can change to be more convenient and suit the fashion of the time and place. As a result, there are many, many sects of Buddhism with beliefs so different that many do not even consider each other to be the same religion. It`s not like denominations or sects in Christianity, Judaism or Islam, which are sometimes adaptive, but not to the point of forsaking their central teachings which connect them to other denominations. Each Buddhist culture simply incorporated all their old beliefs into the new system, much like old Catholicism in Europe, whether or not the two systems actually make any sense together. And the Japanese simply go through it because...they`re Japanese! "That`s what we do!"

Now let`s be fair. There are some things that people don`t understand in Christianity, that are a mystery because, we admit, it is impossible to know the mind of an all-knowing, all-powerful, infinite creator God who has been around since before the beginning of time, or perhaps better put, outside of time. But at least we try to make sense of it. We understand what we can, and have faith for what we don`t. Most Japanese have no faith; they will tell you they don`t actually believe what they`re doing. Occasionally (extremely rarely; as in I have only met this kind of person twice in my whole year here), you will meet someone who says they really do believe in Buddhism or Shinto (in the two cases I found, both), but when you ask them to explain their beliefs, they can not, in English or Japanese. It`s extremely frustrating from both a religious and cultural exchange standpoint. When the most important thing in life is what you were made for and your eternal destiny, most people honestly don`t care. It`s the equivalent to knowing a fire is coming and having no training in fire safety or evacuation. Many people justify this by claiming that there`s no way of knowing how to combat the fire until it arrives, so there`s no point in getting caught up in all the dozens of methods of fire fighting, (agnostic), or that the fire will consume and destroy everything and nothing you can do will stop it, so there`s no point in trying (atheist). If you think about it, many try to ignore the certainty that the fire is coming, but nobody actually believes that the fire doesn`t exist and will never come. The fire in this metaphor represents death.

But heaven forbid religion just be a kind of cheap fire insurance! Since this life directly effects your life in eternity, how we live now directly effects our eternity. So many people think that by living good lives they are appropriately preparing for the fire. Well, what if the fire is just a little too big for you to handle? What about your water source? The Creator of Life, the opposite of death, is the provider of water in this metaphor. You may be the best fire fighter in the world, but if you ain`t got no water, you`re gonna get burned. And that water, more than just effecting your life in eternity, effects your life now, helping you fulfill your purpose, the purpose you were specifically designed and created for, here and now. It`s hard to do anything properly without water, from daily tasks like washing the dishes to running a marathon. It`s hard to do anything when you`re thirsty. I think this is partly what Jesus meant when he said he was "living water." He is water for really living.

OK, ok, I think I`ve stretched that metaphor to taffy consistency.

Moving right along, there was a column in the temple with a small hole in the middle that you could try to jump through, if you were brave enough. Another example of Japanese conformity. Everyone had to jump through the hole, and at first I was going to, but chickened out last minute. Remember how my three greatest fears are being eaten alive by a dinosaur, getting trapped in a small space, and drowning? Well, I conquered the third one when I went scuba diving. I can conquer the second one next vacation, and then sometime in the far future I can sky dive and pretend there`s a dinosaur at the bottom waiting to gobble me up or something. Or I could just ride the Jurassic Park roller coaster at Universal Studios Japan...nah.

There was a creepy wooden statue outside the temple. I think it`s supposed to look unpleasant, because it depicts a guy who disobeyed the original Buddha by performing signs and wonders in front of the common people. So he is forever banished outside the temple. He kind of looks like a decrepit skeleton, but that`s wood:



We also saw some beautiful old relics: bells and hundreds of ancient stone lanterns with paper covers or face plates, prepared for the upcoming Obon festival the following week. Families or companies pay the temple for the covers and put their prayers (or in some cases advertisements) on them. As far as I can tell, temples stay afloat by selling statue bibs, aprons, and shawls, lanterns, lantern covers, souvenirs, and sometimes charging entry fees, and shrines stay open by selling charms for love, traffic safety, passing exams, etc, wish papers, special entry into the inner shrine, and blessings from the priests (they bless babies, couples, pets, cars, just about anything). These days, with no government taxes, wealthy patrons, or parishioners, they have to be very business oriented. It`s interesting to see how Japanese religion has evolved with the times, but every religion must or it is no longer relevant. I guess it`s the blatant commercialism in place of willing donations that rubs me the wrong way. The Japanese idea of god is very shallow, something that grants your wishes, that serves you. They visit the shrine when they need something, as an extra bit of insurance, even though they don`t believe there is any special being with power there to grant the wish. There is no love or relationship between gods and men in the Japanese mind set.

The lanterns were pretty, though, some decorated with stone flowers, leaves, and deer, in comparison to the very stark temple architecture. The guide told us that deer were here long before people settled in the area, and were considered sacred because they were seen as messengers of the gods. He joked that the antlers work as antenna. To kill a deer was a capital offense. When the god in the main shrine was brought to Nara, they say he was brought on the back of a white stag. The way shrines work is that each shrine houses some sacred thing, and the god resides in that thing, be it a tree or a stone or a jewel or some such. Hence, where the Japanese Buddhists created the idea of a god enshrined in the statue which is not indigenous to the religion. Anyway, Mom said she wishes every town had their own herd of deer. It would be interesting, but devastating in some areas, I think! It takes a lot of resources to maintain the deer. There is a volunteer deer hospital, a deer antler cutting ceremony twice a year so they don`t hurt each other, people, or objects (like parked cars that happen to get in the way of buck brawls), people who count and tag the deer to make sure the population stays around 1,300, and numerous barricades and deer police that keep them out of the streets! Car accidents involving deer are fairly common, not entirely eradicated despite all their best efforts. So in light of all that, I would say I rather prefer that Tulsa (my American hometown) settle for our own local population of squirrels.

At some point the guide took us to a new Earthquake-proof building and showed us the difference between non-earthquake proof and earthquake proof using a special chair that shook back and forth. It was pretty neat! Unfortunately, no building in my town is Earthquake-proof. Well, I have an earthquake plan. Two actually. One is very practical and involves non-perishable supplies hidden in the strongest part of my apartment and evacuation to the middle school. The other is very similar to the fire plan I described earlier and involves a lot of faith.

All together, we must have visited four or five major ancient sites, including a primeval forest, all of them World Heritage. World Heritage means it is nominated by some important secretary of the Japanese government to be brought before the United Nations World Heritage Committee and after a long and demanding process is accepted to be included in the world-wide list. Many sites don`t pass the tests, which require a certain level of conservation, age, authenticity, significance, uniqueness, etc. If you fail to keep up the criteria, your site loses it`s status. Japan has fourteen major groups of them involving dozens if not hundreds of individual temples, shrines, roads, monuments, forests, caves, mountains, rock formations, etc, the "Monuments of ancient Nara" being one of the major groups. That`s a lot compared to the rest of the world, for understandable reasons. Japan has always taken very good care of their natural, historical, and cultural resources. The U.S. has twenty-three (among them the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon). In principle only, World Heritage sites belong to "the brotherhood of humanity," aka, everyone, but in all but name they belong to whatever country they`re in. It`s up to their mother country to maintain them, protect them, etc. But if one country were to attack another country`s World Heritage site, it would be considered an act of war rather than terrorism. So, for example, if Al-Qaeda had attacked the Statue of Liberty instead of the trade towers, history might have played out a little differently, which is why I think they didn`t and why no one probably will, unless they actually had the power to back it up. I`m just waiting for North Korea to "accidentally" blow up one of Japan`s sites. That could get really messy. It`s funny how human beings will fight over stuff and objects that merely embody a concept. Not that they aren`t worth preserving, but I don`t think it`s worth human lives.

So our last stop was what the guide called American turtle pond:



"Oh," I said, a little surprised when the guide told us the name.

"Don`t say, `Oh,` he told me sternly. "This pond is "set living things free" pond. Once a year at a special festival, people used to set their pet goldfish free here. It used to be a very pretty pond filled with all kinds of native Japanese carp. But in recent years, Japanese people started keeping American red-ear slider turtles. Japanese apartments are very small, you might have noticed, and the turtles get very big. So when they are too big to keep, the people started secretly releasing them in this pond. Well, the turtles took over. Now the fish are very sad; no food for them."

"Oh," I replied, a little more solemn. Unspoken words: Darn invasive Americans. Why can`t they just stay where they belong? (Cough, cough; awkward silence.)

He laughed. "It`s all right. Like after World War II. We like American turtles. And we like Americans."

I didn`t really see what was funny about it, but it made me more relaxed, and I laughed with him. I`m never going to get this Japanese humor thing.

I wanted to thank our guide some way; after all, he`d led us around for six hours in the heat for free, giving us an expert rundown of everything and enduring my incessant questions. Mom asked if we should tip him, but I explained that this would be VERY rude, as you never, ever tip anyone in Japan, unless they aren`t Japanese, and even then it might be seen as insulting. It`s hard to explain the mind set. In Japan, you get a set salary. While they do have bonuses, if you as an individual were to give them extra money for some service, it`s like a slap in the face. What, you think I need some extra incentive to do my job right? You think they don`t pay me enough here?

Honestly, I think the tip system is awful. Why can`t we just pay people a living wage for crying out loud? It`s like you have to bribe people to actually do their job. And what if the service person does good work but the customers are stingy, or just plain poor? Why can`t things just cost what they say they cost? I loved Mexico, Africa and India for their simplicity and focus on non-material things, but what I hated was turning around every second, seeing a set of eyes scan my skin, and hearing a garbled, "tip, Madam?" It made me feel icky and ashamed, like some undeserving high and mighty wielder of power just on account of my race, and it must be terribly degrading for them to have to keep reminding me how poor they are. Everyone should make a living wage. Period.

Ok, so anyway, giving him a tip was out of the question. I tried to offer him ice cream several times, and then when he showed us where a nice okonomiyaki (fried meat pancake) place was, I offered to buy him dinner. No, no, he wouldn`t have any of it. I kept insisting, but then he said his wife was waiting for him at home, and I couldn`t argue with that. That`s the difference between a country without a living wage and with one. The elderly retired gentleman could refuse my kindness and retain his dignity, rather than having to beg for it. Japan`s got it right in a lot of areas, better than America.

Dinner was delicious, though Mom was surprised that we had to cook it ourselves on the grill fitted into the table in front of us. She was even more astounded by the fuyuseibutsu dancing on the top of her pancake.

"What is that?" she asked.

At the time I told her it was fish flakes, but I have since learned that it`s actually plankton, as in the tiny microscopic plants and animals that whales it.

"Is it alive?"

"No."

"Then why is it moving?"

I had to explain it was simply the heat curling and crisping the flakes. "It`s really quite good. Try it."

"Uh...no thanks." She ended up scrapping them off. But at least she tried the barbecue sauce and mayonnaise. The Japanese love mayonnaise like Americans love ketchup. I`m not quite so fond of either myself, so I always ask for them on the side.

We completed the evening with a stroll through the candle festival. That`s in preparation for Obon, welcoming the ancestors back home, and the city puts out hundreds of thousands of candles to light the path around the temples and shrines. Here`s a particularly luminescent picture on the steps to a shrine:

We were originally planning on walking all around to see the monuments lit up in that eerie glow, but after walking for six hours in the 95 degree heat (which due to the humidity did not improve after sunset), we were too exhausted to traipse up and down the long flights of stairs. So we went home early. It was just as well, because on the 8:45 train, we didn`t get back until 9:45.

Another thing we cut out was Osaka the next day. We`d been planning to see the castle, take the harbor cruise, visit the aquarium, see whatever performances were in the Tempozan village area, and ride the giant Ferris wheel. Well, surprise surprise, we didn`t feel like going all that way after Friday. I just took Mom to the local temple and shrine in Nabari and a really nice Indian restaurant. Much to my astonishment, she loved it! Yea, finally a foreign food she likes! No, Mom, American foreign food doesn`t count. Everyone knows that American Chinese is not real Chinese, American Japanese is not real Japanese and American Mexican is not real Mexican (I can attest to all these myself). I don`t care how "authentic" they say they are or how many natives they have working there. Only a handful of times have I actually had food in local restaurants that tasted anything like the American/Japanese adulterations. Purana Indian restaurant in Nabari is one of them. It actually tasted like Deli curry, though admittedly a little sweeter and less spicy. I think if Mom (or any of the Japanese, for that matter) had REAL curry, they would die. After ten days of it, though it was very, very good, I nearly keeled over myself!

Sunday we went to church and had another potluck after, which Mom enjoyed more that the first due to the Matsusaka yaki niku, or barbecued beef fed on corn, beer and given messages. Now that`s a cow I can eat in good conscience. If anything, their quality of life is far improved by the fact they will be consumed some day.

And Monday morning she left for her plane to America! I`m so proud of her; she was able to get to Kansai International airport in Osaka all by herself! She was so worried, but I kept assuring her, "Mom, all the signs are in English! You have six hours to get there and it only takes two. I`ll even put you on the right train!" And sure enough, when she got to the station she was able to find the bus just fine, buy the ticket, and arrive at her terminal with hours to spare.

So with everything set and done, I can look back on those two weeks as the greatest vacation of my entire life. We saw waterfalls, beautiful islands and oceans, the tallest mountain in Japan, dozens of ancient monuments, ate tons of delicious food, and had adventure after adventure. And soon I get to have more when that four day weekend in September rolls around! Heh, heh. I love Japan and its national holidays.

Prayer Requests (haven`t done these in awhile): The church has a big revival coming up December 5th! Arthur Hollins, one of the most famous speakers in Japan, is coming to speak! Please pray that it goes well, and of course, for Japan in general. I'm leading a Bible study among other Assistant Language Teachers right now on evangelism, and I hope we get really excited for God's work here in Japan. Plus there's the upcoming Japanese Exchange Teacher's Christian Fellowship national conference next month! I'm so excited!

Until next time, keep loving and keep praying,

Laura