Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Kumano and school taikusai

Wow, the last few weeks have been crazy! Friday, May 23rd, I left right after school for my Kumano writers’ meeting. (Our group is called MEWS, though I don’t remember what it stands for.) I arrived around 10:30pm at night to be picked up by my friend Marissa, a Kumano local. I stayed with her and her cute kitten Zepher.

The next morning we had breakfast at a café overlooking the famous shi-shi no ishi (lion rock) formation and the beautiful Kumano beach:

Jacinda, also coming from far away, arrived at the café with the other local, Susannah, around 10:00am. Then we enjoyed a lovely sightseeing tour of Dorokyo Gorge. It was raining, so we were lucky that the boat was covered. Here’s some pictures:

The boat:

The gorge:

About halfway through, we took a break on a little pebble beach between Nara and Mie prefectures. Here’s Marissa and me:

A waterfall on the way back:

And turtle rock:

This was the person who took our tickets when we got on the boat and said “arigato gozaimas” as we left:

She’s dressed like an “ohimesama” or daughter/wife of a shogun or samurai. (Imagine the woman from the famous Akirakurasawa film Rashomon and you’ll see what I mean.) They dressed that way when they traveled along the famous Kumano Kodo pilgrimage road that runs from Tokyo to the temple complex on Mt. Koya. The people who owned the boat must have also had some franchise on Kumano Kodo as well, because they kept encouraging us every chance they got to visit that place too.

Here’s a view of the boat and river from the mountain roads:

For lunch, we stopped at a quaint little restaurant. They served really good pasta, pizza and pie. But we were really freaked out, because there was a little girl who kept coming to our table. At first, she looked to be about two or three, but when she came back, we could have sworn she’d grown! We finally figured out that there were two little sisters, about a year apart, dressed identically, and they never came out at the same time! That and the misspelling of “float” as “froat” on the menu gave us a good laugh.

Next, we drove to the famous tiered rice fields. It was very misty and beautiful. Here are some pictures:

Then we finally got around to our writers’ meeting. I brought a submission to a contest, the first 20 pages of Treasure Traitor and the synopsis. Those girls are so helpful! They really made the first chapter more realistic and tactile.

The next day, we got up early and had a second meeting. This time I read the synopsis, and they really helped me work out a better ending and add more tension. Yea!

In the afternoon we went to Onigajo, or demon castle rock. Really beautiful place. Here’re some pictures:

The following Friday, my school had our taikusai, or track and field day. All the different classes compete against each other. (Unlike American high school students, Japanese students don’t get to choose what classes they want. They stay in the same classroom and have the same classmates all day like American elementary schools, and teachers come around to the various classes to teach the different subjects. I really don’t like that system, because it means that a student really good at a certain subject might get stuck in a really dumb class, and a student who might need a little extra help in one subject has to struggle to keep up with everyone else. Also, there’s no freedom of choice.)

And something really hilarious, the warm up. Yes, Japanese students do this same warm up every single day of their lives in P.E. and before sports, and they’ve been doing it for the past 60 years. Some schools require it in the morning before first class. Some companies even do it! I can`t show you the video though, because it shows the students` faces. Can you imagine grown men jumping up and down? It’s funny to see 800 kids all doing it together.

I just wandered around for most of the day, talking to students and taking pictures. The most amazing event was how they could all jump rope together more than twenty times in a row.

At the end of the day, there was the “folk dansu,” performed the third year students, which I also participated in along with a few other teachers. First we did a Russian folk dance, then a modern Japanese dance, then an American modern dance. A student took some videos for me, but of course I can`t show them.

I was planning to stay home the next day, Saturday, and rest, but the weather was so beautiful and I was feeling down, so I went to the beach. I heard of a really nice one about two hours away in Kashgojima called shirohama, which means “white sand,” but by the time I got there around noon, the ferry to the island was already gone. (I assumed the ferry came every hour, but apparently it only went twice a day.) So I went to asogohara beach in Ugata instead. That was interesting, because I didn’t realize it until I got there, but that was the same beach where we had the welcome party when I first arrived in Japan. All things come around. This time, it was nicer too, without the sand blowing everywhere or jelly fish stinging. Here’s a picture of the beach:

There was hardly anyone there, since swimming season doesn’t officially start in Japan until July 1st. Just surfers in wetsuits. But I wasn’t afraid of the water!

Until next time, keep praying and loving, no matter what the cost,

Thursday, June 2, 2011

My maiko experience

Every girl in Japan`s gotta do this once! So it`s the ultimate in self-indulgence and vanity, but let`s face it: every girl wants to be a maiko for a day. A maiko is a geisha`s apprentice, all decked out with kimono and cherry blossoms and white makeup. A geisha, in contrast, is an older woman who typically wears much more natural and demure clothing and makeup.

Traditionally, the distinction came between unattached virgin students and experienced teachers consorted to a single man or attached to a geisha house or hot spring resort. Basically the Japanese version of courtesans. These days, maiko and geisha just host at parties and dance/play traditional music at festivals, though there might be some other stuff on the side that people don`t talk about. It is true that geisha even today usually don`t marry, and when they do, they usually stop being a geisha. A lot of girls apprentice as maiko but never become geisha. It`s a sort of Japanese charm school for some. They study traditional dance, music, games, Japanese culture, the art of conversation, modeling, sometimes tea ceremony, etc. They`re supposed to be “walking works of art and cultural heritage.”

I won`t go into the whole history of it; two useful books in English are Memoirs of a Geisha for understanding the history and A Geisha`s Journey for the modern practice. They`re two of my favorite books about Japan.

So I went to the shop Aya in Gion Corner in Kyoto with my friends Hisae and Junko from Fukushima. They stayed at my apartment after the earthquake two months ago for about two weeks and are now living in government housing in Kyoto looking for jobs. Great girls! I know you`re just dying for pictures, so here you go:

Putting on makeup and wig. (Usually maiko use their own hair, but for purposes of time they put a frame on my head and simply wrapped my hair around the frame, so that is, technically, my own hair sprayed black.)

Putting on the makeup and kimono took one hour. After that, we had about fifteen minutes with a professional photographer. Here are the best of those pictures:

Then we had ten minutes in the traditional garden to take our own photos:

Here`s a silly video of me trying to dance like the maiko I saw on stage with Mom:

If you want to see more of my maiko pictures, you can check out my facebook page where I have most of them posted. I`ve already taken up too much blog space with my own face for one day.

Then we waited fifteen minutes for the pictures to develop and for the photographer to make a CD. (They say to give the whole maiko experience about two hours.) Minus the CD, it was 120,000 yen, or $147.51. With the CD it was 140,000, or $172.10. Yeah, really expensive, I know, but I`ve been wanting to do it ever since I came to Japan. I`ll have the pictures forever, so I think it was worth it. There are more expensive packages where you can prance around Kyoto for an hour with a photographer following, but I thought that was just toooo much. I can only tolerate so much vanity in myself before I start getting sick of myself.

Next, we debated about whether to see the wisteria or Nijo Castle, and settled on Nijo Castle. I`m glad, because it was a World Heritage Site and really beautiful. Here`s us at the entrance:

And some of the beautiful gold work on the entrance arches:

We went inside but no pictures were allowed there. What beautiful art work! All the sliding doors were painted and the walls inlaid with gold foil. Talk about extravagance, especially by Japanese standards! It was ten times better than the Imperial palace, because guess who lived there? Mr. Infamous Shogun Tokagawa Iesu built it for himself as his secondary headquarters for controlling Japan behind the Emperor`s back. He and his family were the real power in Japan from about 1600-1868, and he wasn`t about to let anyone forget it. In every room there was a raised platform where he stood above everyone else, even the Emperor`s royal messenger! His rooms were painted with tigers and pine trees, symbols of longevity and strength, and the images went all the way to the ceiling, while the paintings in the official`s rooms cut off at face level. All the doorways the other officials had to enter through were very low, so they had to bow as they entered each room, but his doorway was much taller. He had body guard chambers in every room, and I couldn`t help but notice that in all the reconstructed sets his attendants were always female, bowing and scraping.

Also, when he wanted someone else`s home, he just took it. He had an entire ancient castle relocated to Kyoto, nearly destroying it in the process. While he was at his regular home in Tokyo, he required the strongest warrior from each samurai family in Kansai, fifty all together, to defend his palace. That kept the samurai from being able to mount a rebellion against him.

What a jerk. In his lust for taking over Japan, he slaughtered everyone in Osaka and Nagoya Castle, declared himself a deity (descendant of the son goddess), massacred all the Christians, and outlawed any religion except ones that worshiped him (Buddhism and Shinto). He forbid all Japanese from ever leaving Japan, and expelled all foreigners (except the Dutch traders just visiting Nagasaki so that he could have their guns). That was his secret. He was one of the few rulers in Japan who had guns at the time, and that`s why he won all his battles. But you know what? A lot of Japanese think he was a hero because he “unified” Japan under one leader. Well, yeah, dictators tend to do that. I call him the “Japanese Hitler.” Killed about as many people.

His isolationist policy brought about one of the greatest economic depressions in Japanese history, and I think it played a role in Japan`s subsequent Imperialist policy from 1900-1945. The isolationism forced them into a very weak position with the West, being so far behind in technology, and when they finally caught up, they still saw the West as a threat. (Though, admittedly, that`s also largely because the West still treated them like a second-class nation and insisted on colonizing huge chunks of Asia. A lot of what Japan did building up to World War II was to create a “buffer zone” against the expanding communist USSR and a “co-prosperity” sphere to push out European colonial powers such as France and England from places like Vietnam and Hong Kong. But we won`t go into that because it`s a really long story.)

How do I know all this? Some of it I already knew from visiting other castles and reading Japanese history online, but I also splurged and bought the audio commentary for the castle which filled in the details I didn`t know. For instance, the palace wasn`t just used for the Tokagawas. In cases of invasion (which were common during the warring states period of Japan), the people of Kyoto stayed in the fortified castle. He might have been a jerk, but at least Tokagawa Iesu looked after his people.

Here's a nice view of the surrounding mountains from the top parapet of the castle:

And a pretty Japanese garden he kept out back. You can't really see them in this pictures, but in other places in the garden there were lots of pruned pine trees with super long branches:

For dinner, we went to a famous ramen (Chinese noodle) shop in Kyoto. Here`s what I ordered:

On the way back, we saw this pretty kimono on display at the train station. I took a picture of it for Mom, because it has musical notes and butterflies:

And that was my maiko experience in Kyoto!

Last of all, I wanted to share what's going on in my spiritual life this week. Here's something I wrote to my good friend Ying Ying in Singapore. I met her at a Christian conference in Fukushima. She used to teach there but her parents told her to come home after the earthquake. We write back and forth a lot:

"Thank you so much for the Laura Story music recommendation. I literally spent over an hour listening to her songs on youtube, bawling my eyes out. I'm not kidding! I was so starved for English worship music. Her testimony is so powerful too. Her husband has a brain tumor.

Honestly, in my own life, I haven't got anything that bad, but I feel broken right now. I'm so worried about my future and not knowing what I should do. It gnawed on me day and night, so that I couldn't eat and couldn't sleep. I had such a hard time giving it to God. I kept trying, but something still gnawed at me. After hearing that song "Blessings," I knelt on the floor of my living room and just cried and cried out to God. I told him to take the broken pieces of me and do what He wills. I had forgotten that God wants what's best for me, that His love is greater than any love I have for myself or anyone else can ever have for me. I need to spend more time thanking Him for that and praising Him.

I'm so excited! I'm making a new dedication to Christian fellowship. You asked how you can pray for me. Guidance and peace in my life would be good. I feel strongly somehow that God has a big plan for me as a missionary in Japan or another Asian country, but I don't know the how, when, where, or what yet. I also feel the strong pull to publish my Christian writing, but again it's a matter of how, when, where, and what. I also feel a strong pull to marry another missionary, to share the missionary joys and burdens and raise up an international family of adopted children within that Christian environment. Again, how, when, where, what. Waiting is so hard! I try to make a habit of going through the fruits of the Spirit in the morning to see which I need to ask God to help me with. I think, "love, I'm a pretty loving person, joy, I'm a pretty happy person, peace, I'm a pretty peaceful person, patience... yep, that would be it. God, give me patience today! I want it right now!"

I also struggle a lot with depression and anxiety. I always have since childhood. I've always felt unworthy and guilty. Living alone in a foreign country highly aggravates this. But I consider it a "thorn in the flesh," something God has allowed me to suffer through in order to make me more dependent on Him. I ask Him again and again to take it away, but He always says, "My grace is sufficient." Well, Amen. God's will be done."

Prayer Requests for this week: same thing I told Ying Ying! I think that letter about covered it.

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