Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Mt. Yoshino, most famous cherry blossom spot in the world!

April 16th (was that really nearly a month ago?), my friend Gale and I went to see the most famous cherry blossom viewing spot in Japan, Mt. Yoshino. It is written about in many Japanese poems, including the poems of Japan's most celebrated poet, Basho (who's hometown is near my city of Nabari, by the way). Thousands of people come to see it every year. Why? Because there is a temple there, and traditionally people dedicated cherry saplings to the temple for loved ones who died. They've been doing it for over one thousands years, so there are over ten thousand tress scattered throughout the slopes. There are over one hundred varieties, each blooming at a different time, which means that Mt. Yoshino also has the longest blooming season of any cherry blossom spot in Japan.

With the huge crowds, we had some trouble finding each other. While I waited for Gale to arrive, I couldn't resist the sakura (cherry blossom) flavored ice cream. It tasted like cherry, only milder, with a floral smell. I don't like cherry flavor, but I like sakura flavor! Interesting.

You can ride to the top of the mountain on a gondola, but there was a long line and it cost 600 yen per person, so we just walked. It was a beautiful hike. Here are some pictures we took along the way:












Here's a view from the top:



At the summit, they were having a "sakura symphony," which is why I decided to go that particular day, but I was dissapointed to find that it wasn't really a symphony. It was just a bunch of groups from all over. Here's the taiko drum couple, from my view own prefecture of Mie:



Yes, the man is wearing traditional taiko dress. Don't worry, he's probably not cold. He actually sweating. Nowadays they usually wear a team uniform, but men almost always perform bear-chested (they dance and carry shrines that way too, for some reason). Sometimes girls and women wear strips of cloth or tape across their chests and stomach when they do those things, (maybe traditional?) but you don't see that so much anymore. Nowadays they wear the same uniform as the men, except with the over shirt closed instead of open. In the last video there was a woman on the other side drumming with the man, but you can't see her. Here she is in this video:



They were pretty good, but you can tell the guy was out of shape. He was lacking in the energy taiko usually has.

After that there was some ugly bald dude with giant yellow sunglasses and the most awful, growly voice I ever heard. We stuck around because we saw a choir and a really pretty singer and thought they might be next. Here we are with the singer:



But when they got up on stage, they just joined the ugly dude! His singing was so loud and awful, he covered up the choir or the girl! Talk about a bad musician. Why does Japan like all the weird, bad ones (Lady Gaga being another example) and couldn't care less about people who can actually sing?

After that offense to the ears, we took a different route down, and saw some beautiful blossoms around a pagoda. Here it is at a distance:



And up close:



On the way down, we saw some beautiful sakura snow, or "sakura fubuki." You can probably guess from the video what it is:



The streets were also lined with seasonal shops. They must make a killing on all the tourists for that one month sakura season. Here's them cutting some mochi that Gale bought. Mochi are rice cakes. Supposed to be good for your "cho" or intestines. These are rolled in some kind of sugary flour:



I bought way too much, natural foods locally grown, a beautiful sakura towel, an umbrella, and sakura jam. It was all stuff I needed to buy anyway, so I didn't feel so bad, and they weren't so overpriced. For dinner we bought from the festival venders: fried bamboo shoots on a stick, sweet potatoes fries, chicken and vegetables dipped in barbecue sauce (on a stick) and hazelnut ice cream. Goodness, I love Japan. It's going to be hard to leave.

Until next time, keep praying and loving, no matter what the cost,
L.J. Popp

Friday, April 15, 2011

Kyoto Imperial Palace, Gardens, and my school

Wow, life is just amazing! A new trimester started April 8th and the new students seem excited to learn! For the opening ceremony, they all marched into the gym in pairs, their proud parents looking on. The school band played between the buildings and the parking lot as the parents were leaving as a way of saying thank you. People always ask to see more of my students, but it's illegal in Japan for me to post their faces on the internet. So the only time I can show them is when their backs are to me. I did get two videos of the band like that, so here you are!

Jazz song:


Anime song:


That evening, we teachers all had an enkai, which literally translates to "drinking party," but I didn’t have to drink. Most of the women don't. Enkais are a huge part of Japanese society, and all employees of a company or organization are expected to attend at least twice a year. It starts with an obligatory cup of sake which you kampai, or toast with, but after that nobody cares if you just drink ocha, roasted tea. There was a whole huge meal involved, and lots of speeches by the new teachers and those who are leaving, and singing of the school song by those who were drunk. The whole thing lasted about three hours, from 6:00-9:00. It was kind of fun. The food was really good, anyway. Here's a picture of my baby squid.



So maybe my tastes are changing. There was also bean custard, deep fried peppers, sashimi (raw fish and beef) and shabushbu, or raw meat and vegetables that you cook yourself in a broth. Shabushabu gets it's name from the sound that the food makes when you mix it back and forth in the broth. I guess the translation would be "swish swish." It's one of my favorite Japanese foods.

Oh, backup just a little. Wednesday, April 6th, I taught my Wednesday night adult class. Gail, the American refugee from Tokyo who's staying with me, came too and said it was a really good lesson. We started with a really fun song called "To Be with You" and the students filled in the blanks on the lyrics worksheet I gave them. By the third time around, we were all singing along, having a great time. We then made a list of things for our earthquake safety kits in English, and when they finished I passed out a list of items recommended by the U.S. embassy. We then made our earthquake safety plans, preparation for the earthquake, during the earthquake, and after. I again passed out a list of procedures recommended by the American embassy. The students really appreciated that class, and Gail said she learned a lot too. I certainly did, after doing all that research. That's one reason I really like being a teacher. I never thought I would like it so much. In fact, as a kid, I swore I would never be a teacher. But basically, I get paid to do what I would do for free: research, writing, music, and making educated conversation. Those are my four favorite things, so I guess this is the job for me. I'm really excited about the new trimester at the high school too, because I really like the textbook this year, Voice. It focuses on practical oral communication, doesn't have mistakes in usage like the old one, and has a lot of room for fun activities. The other teachers actually asked my opinion and picked the textbook I wanted! Yea! I like being in control of my own classes!

Saturday, April 9th, Gail, my Japanese friend Kayoko, and I went together to the Kyoto Imperial Palace. Twice a year the palace opens to the public and you can see their beautiful gardens and treasures like the golden sliding doors and painted folding screens. Mom and I went before, but it wasn't opened up, so we were pretty disappointed. This time it was amazing!





The cherry blossom gardens were also so beautiful! Here are some pictures:





After that, Gail had to get some things she left at a school in Kyoto, so we walked to the school along the famous Komo river lined with sakura, cherry blossom trees. Here I am crossing the river on the turtle rocks:



And here are the trees lining the river:



Here is Gail and Kayoko beside a cherry tree and some "ground sakura."


Near the Kyoto botanical gardens there are pink weeping cherry blossom terraces:



At a festival booth there, I met an old friend, a woman who worked at the combini, or convenience store I frequented near the school. She wanted to move back to her hometown Kyoto to be closer to her family and do the work she loves there. I was happy to see her dream come true! She's the one in front making the peace sign:



After Gail got her things, we went to the special light up at the botanical gardens. Unfortunately, because it was dark, the pictures didn't show up very well. But the illuminated cherry blossoms were like magic, veils of white and pink shimmering under the lamp light. But I would say the fall leaf illuminations are better. Nothing can beat them.

Wednesday, April 13th, one of my adult students, Junko, took Gail and me to Onodera temple. (We joked that the best way to remember the name is to think "on no!" temple (dera means temple in Japanese.) They had a famous weeping cherry tree that is over 300 years old! Here is the picture of us in front of it:



There were many other beautiful flowers too, including a kind of daffodil I'd never seen before:



This year is very strange in Japan. The daffodils, plumb and cherry blossoms, and magnolias are all blooming together! Even the Japanese have never seen anything like it! What a beautiful spring, after such a long, harsh winter. It's as if the earth itself were trying to cheer us up after all the terrible disasters.

The centerpiece of the temple is a giant carving in the adjacent stone wall, about thirty feet high, of a famous Buddhist saint. It was carved just after the Hein period, about 800 years ago, so it's faded over time and unfortunately you can't see it very well:



This is the most famous view in the garden:



The best part about Onodera temple is that it's free! Junko took us in her car, and there was no entrance fee. What a deal!

Recently, I've made a new friend, a preschool English teacher who lives near the school. I often go walking and talking with her on my lunch break. She has a beautiful Persian cat who sometimes follows us. So Thursday, I visited the park near the school with her. It too has lots of beautiful sakura trees:



The petals had fallen into a small pond:



Friday, May 1st, the English teachers had their own enkai. More speeches, more toasts, more good food. We ate fried chicken, fried shrimp in mayonnaise, squid pancakes with barbecue sauce (okonomiyaki), fermented beans and pickles, seaweed salad, cinnamon pasta, and some Korean hot-pot thing with chilly peppers. I'm so spoiled.

Another way I'm spoiled is through the day off I'm taking today. In Japan, there is something called "women's days." Basically, if a woman is having, to use the Japanese euphemism, "the visitor who comes once a month" and she feels bla, she can stay home, no questions asked. Today is definitely one of those days. Would I ever get that in America? No. But it's written into the Japanese business code of ethics. Women are entitled to take up to three days a month of menstrual leave, kind of like in the Old Testament, and in India today. Of course, I can't take them on a day that I teach classes. Today is a sort of special testing/club day. In some contracts, women's days are paid. In others (like mine), they're unpaid, but they're really nice either way! So I can stay in bed and do my lesson plans/intercultural exchange part of my job from here instead of going to the office miserable. One more reason to love Japan.

Oh, that reminds me. A lot of people ask me, "what do you do at your job anyway?" When I'm not teaching, correcting papers/tests, making lesson plans, or tutoring the other teachers in English, I am a kind of cultural ambassador. It's hard to say whether that's "part of my job" or not, but I consider it my responsibility while I'm here as a civil servant in Japan. It's up to me how I do that; one way is through these blogs, another is through the newspaper articles I write, through community activism, the volunteer work at the church, organizing and participating in relief efforts for the earthquake, organizing foreigner and exchange events, etc. It's pretty sweet. Like I said, I’d do this stuff anyway, so I really like having it as my full-time job. I love the amount of freedom and getting to do what I feel called to do.

Prayer requests for this week: Golden Week, a week of national holidays from April 29th-May 8th, I'm leading a group of about 10 foreign English teachers and Japanese to the Tohoku area (probably Sendai or Nasu city) to work with CRASH, Christian Relief, Assistance, Support, and Hope. We'll be cleaning up the rubble from the tsunami, helping people find their lost valuables and pets, distributing food and other resources, cooking meals at the shelters, playing with/teaching orphans, and providing emotional support for the victims. We really need prayers for safety, as there have been continued aftershocks. We're not really worried about radiation where we're going, as the levels in the air have hardly gone up at all (just no swimming in the ocean or eating the seafood/local grown produce).

Also, Sunday, April 24th, Easter, we're having a big charity concert at the church. 29 of my students are coming to play with the school band! Please pray that they will have a good-sized audience, that we will be able to raise a lot of money for the earthquake victims, and that their hearts will be opened to our message of God's love for Japan in the midst of all this devastation.

Please also continue to pray for Gail, the cancer patient refugee from Tokyo who is staying with me. She's having a really hard time right now with finances. She lost EVERYTHING because of the earthquake. She also has to find a job and permanent place to live in Kyoto. My friend Pearl from the Philippines also lost everything and must decide whether to stay in the Philippines or return to Japan. My Singaporian friend Ying-Ying also has to make that difficult choice. People think it's a no-brainer, but it's so hard. Asians really value promises and sticking together and not abandoning their friends and family in need. It's the core of honor. Everybody can't just up and leave Japan, or everything would fall apart worse than it already is.

There are many, many people who have suffered fates as bad or even worse in these disasters. I'm really worried about the family of the two girls who stayed with me before, because they refuse to leave Fukushima where the radiation is much, much higher than is safe for human beings. Please pray for all of them. In my opinion, everyone needs to be evacuated out of the 20km danger zone and move somewhere else in Japan.

Until next time, keep praying and loving, no matter what the cost,
L.J. Popp

Friday, April 8, 2011

Tennoji Zoo and Osaka Castle

Last Saturday, it was such fine weather that I decided to go to the Tennoji zoo and castle in Osaka. The Tennoji zoo is good, not great. About average, probably. Here are some pictures:



I know most people don`t go crazy over black vultures, but this guy looked JUST LIKE ACHA in my Bird Girl novel series (I`ve finished writing the first two books and am currently working on the third), so I got lots of pictures of him.

I`ve never seen a camel kneeling before, but come to think of it, they must do it quite often. How else do people get on their high humps?




Here`s a cute cat:



Pretty Pheasant:



Red Panda:


Spectacled Bear:


In the Pavilion, there were some performers. I stopped to see the "Hula Hoop" girl, as I`ve come to call her:





And a brother and sister stunt act:





My favorite exhibit was the nocturnal animal house. Check out these bats. So cool!





That`s why I like going to different zoos. Even though they sometimes have the same animals, they act differently depending on how the exhibit is set up. I had never seen them eating and fighting over food like that before.

After the zoo, I saw the attached botanical gardens:











Then I went to Osaka Castle. So much good food there for the hanami (flower viewing) parties! The sakura (cherry blossoms) were just opening, but they were still beautiful:



I must have bought $12 in fair food. The castle itself is nicely preserved on the outside, and a museum on the inside. Here`s the castle:



With Sakura:


Up close:


There, I learned all about the history, especially the summer campaign of 1615 when the castle fell to Tokagawa Iesu. I really don`t like him. I`ve nicknamed him "the Japanese Hitler." Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the guy who built Osaka castle, had worked really hard to unify Japan and was a generally nice fellow, as far as pre-modern rulers are concerned (he was liked by the locals, anyway). But Iesu destroyed the peace and unity that Toyotomi had worked so hard to create, slaughtered everyone in the castle, killed the children in front of their mothers, and raped the women. He did it to Nagoya castle too. And he was a terrible dictator. He massacred all the Christians, banned foreigners on pain of death, forbid any Japanese to leave Japan, and ruined the Japanese economy. He was also the first ruler to claim he was a god. What a rotten fellow.

There was a place where I could pay to put on Samurai armor and try one of their katana swords. Normally I don`t pay for extras like that, but I wondered, "where else am I ever going to realize my dream of looking absolutely ridiculous pretending to be an ancient warrior? So I put them on in front of the tiger statue, which happens to be my Oriental zodiac. Here`s a picture:



The pose I`m doing is a traditional defensive stance. I looked really dumb in my attacking ones because I couldn`t wipe that stupid smile off my face.

On the way out, I saw some locals feeding the stray cats. There must have been 10 cats eating the spoiling fish! Here they are:



Tuesday, another refugee came to stay with me. My first two got free housing from the Kyoto government, so they`re there now. This one is an American and she`s really nice. I never realized how much I like having someone else in the apartment.

Next week, I`m headed for Kyoto with my friend Kayoko. What fun!

Prayer Requests: This refugee came to stay with me because she has cancer. The radiation was really, really bad for her, made her sick. Please pray for her health. And of course, please continue to pray for the other earthquake/tsunami/radiation victims as well.

Until next time, keep praying and keep loving, no matter what the cost,
L.J. Popp