Archive | April, 2013

Let’s go west~

13 Apr

ImageOver my spring break, along with S and CT, I visited the Kansai region, namely to do some sightseeing in two of most popular tourist destinations in Japan: Osaka and Kyoto.  Being an art history nerd, I was very excited to visit the various temples that can be found around the region, but we also planned to check out Osaka’s famous Kaiyuukan aquarium, a woodblock print museum, and,of course, the shopping scene in Nanba!  I was also personally looking forward to one of my favourite treats, matcha and vanilla swirl soft-serve!  While it’s possible to get it in the Kanto region where I live, it’s way more common in Kansai, and since I love anything matcha or Japanese green tea flavored, I was really looking forward to it!

ImageAfter spending our first night in Osaka shopping, looking around the area, and taking the chance to sing karaoke together, we headed out the next day to Kyoto to see some historical sites.  Our first stop was Kinkakuji, a very famous and popular destination for both Japanese and foreign tourists.  Kinkakuji was originally a villa owned by Muromachi period shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and, after his death, it was converted into a Zen temple, as per his wishes.  Architecturally, the building is interesting and complex because its three floors are each designed in a different style: the first floor is in the old Kyoto court style used to create buildings for the aristocracy in the Heian period, the second floor is built in the style of samurai buildings, and the third floor is built in traditional Chinese Chan (or Zen) Buddhist style.  The garden around the building also contains plenty of visual interest; it contains various illusions to Japanese literature (a common aesthetic choice in Japanese garden design) and as a whole is based on descriptions of the Western Heaven on Zen Buddhism.  Additionally, Kinkakuji is the famous titular temple described in Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which is based on real events that took place when a monk burned down the temple in 1950.  All in all, Kinkakuji is full of visual and historical interest, and though I had been once before, I was happy to go again!

ImageAfter Kinkakuji, our next stop was Maruyama Park, where we planned to do hanami.  While Japanese culture is highly fond of all four seasons and the plants and nature that go along with them, the most celebrate flower of all is the cherry blossom or sakura, which only blooms in Japan for about two weeks.  Because the briefness of the beautiful sakura blossoms echoes the impermanence of life as taught by Buddhism, it’s been the subject of many poems and works of art throughout Japanese history, and even today, hanami is a must-do for many people during the sakura season.  It’s hard to define hanami in just one word, but it’s comprised of the characters for “look” and “flower,” so I guess “flower-watching” is one way to put it.  Typically, doing hanami means going to a park or somewhere with sakura trees in bloom and having a picnic or meal, drinking alcohol, and talking with friends, all the while admiring and enjoying the scenery of cherry blossoms.  Since Kyoto is a scenic and picturesque place, it seemed like a great choice for hanami, and luckily for us, the weather was perfect, and our timing was just right to catch the cherry blossoms in full bloom!

ImageAfter our hanami, we headed to our next temple destination: Kiyomizudera!  Kiyomizudera is a temple comissioned by Tokugawa Iemitsu, one of the important political figures of the Edo period in Japanse history (the period famous for isolationism, samurai, and kabuki).  It is set into a steep hill in Kyoto, and thus is a very popular tourist destination for its great views… however, this also makes it a pain to get to because you have to walk so far uphill!  But it’s well worth it, and seeing it surrounded by cherry blossoms was quite the sight, even if the place was packed with tourist.  Actually, some of the Japanese tourists provided an interesting addition to the temple itself; while I’ve never seen this in Tokyo or Gunma or anywhere else in Japan, there were many Japanese (and some Chinese, actually) tourists dressed in traditional Japanese kimono, and I enjoyed admiring them as well as the scenery.

ImageWalking around Kiyomizudera is quite the undertaking because the path leads around the side of the mountain and back again, but it really does give a beautiful view of the temple and its surroundings, as well as of the city of Kyoto on the horizon.  Especially with all of the sakura in full bloom, I was happy to get a chance to see the sights.  There are a lot of sub-buildings (and even an entire separate temple sort of off to the side) around the grounds, as well, so I was happy for the opportunity to get to check them all out!

ImageAfter Kiyomizudera, we headed back to Osaka for the night, and then, the next morning, we headed out to the Kaiyukan Aquarium!  While it’s nothing that special, it’s a large aquarium with lots of different species and even some aquatic-related mammals, like the recently-popular capybara! After the aquarium, we headed to Shitennouji temple, for which I was quite excited!  One reason, embarrassingly, is that one of the schools featured in the popular manga and anime series Prince of Tennis is based off of Shitennouji, or, to be exact, the attached middle school there.  But mostly, I was excited to see their five-story pagoda!  Many Buddhist temples in Japan have five-story pagodas, but the special feature of Shitennouji’s is that tourists are allowed to ascend to the top!  Most temples only allow tourists in on the entry level or not at all, and so I was excited to go inside.  While what was inside was actually not that interesting (the interior had obviously been redone since it was build, with linoleum floors and all), the view from the top, as well as the basic architectural elements were really beautiful!

ImageAfter Shitennouji, we headed back to the Namba area to check out a woodblock print museum, and then grabbed dinner before catching our train back to Mie.  The past night, we had been too tired for an extravagant dinner, but on our last day, we decided to get a regional specialty,
okonomiyaki!  I had okonomiyaki once in Gunma with my coworkers, but since its origin is in the Kansai region, we had to try some here, too!  It’s often described as “Japanese pizza”… but I don’t really understand why.  It’s usually a cake-type item made of a batter of flour, some sort of potato, cabbage, and egg, as well as whatever meats and vegetables are desired.  In the past, I haven’t liked it very much (it often contains ginger, which I really dislike), but I had to admit, these Kansai okonomiyaki were very delicious!

And with that, we headed back to Mie, full, tired, and happy.  It was a great spring break, and I hope I can do more traveling with CT in the future!

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This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it… shrine?

5 Apr

ImageWhile the break between school years in Japan– spring break here, rather than summer– is relatively short, I did manage to sneak in a trip southwest to see a friend, CT, who’s a JET in Mie prefecture!  We planned to spend a few days in the Kansai region (best known to Westerners for famous historical cities like Osaka and Kyoto), but first, there was a site I wanted to see Mine: Ise Shrine.  

Ise Shrine is considered the most important and holiest shrine of all in the natively-Japanese Shinto religion.  In short, Shinto worships gods found in nature, and there are any number (hundreds, thousands) of gods or kami in Shinto because any natural item may have a kami spirit in it.  The most important kami is Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and her spirit is said to be enshrined at Ise Shrine.  As such, access to the actual shrine buildings at Ise is highly restricted, and the high priest or priestess, the only person allowed inside the main shrine building itself, must come from the imperial family.  

ImageHowever, the general public is allowed on the grounds and to see other buildings surrounding the main shrine buildings, and is encouraged to pray for happiness at one of the many sub-shrines.  Ise is also a great place to see the typical style and architecture of Shinto buildings, characterized by unpainted wood and thatched roofs, as well as torii gateways at the entries to various sacred areas.  Shinto buildings are usually unornamented in an effort to showcase the natural beauty of the materials used to create the structure; since Shinto kami can be found in nature, in Shinto architecture, the natural state is considered the most beautiful state.  Another common factor in Shinto architecture is the two beams sticking up out of the roof on each end.  The grounds at Ise contain many interesting buildings and a lot of beautiful nature, so even if the main shrine remains secret, it’s a great place to visit even if you’re not someone who studied Japanese art history in college and thinks this stuff is super fascinating like the nerdy person I am.  

ImageOne final really interesting fact about Ise Shrine is that it’s dismantled and rebuilt on an adjacent plot of land every twenty years.  In other words, it moves back and forth between two spots every twenty years, in order to represent destruction and renewal in nature, a central concept to Shinto.  Excitingly, this year is a year in which it’s being reconstructed, and so while it’s difficult to see much of the shrine itself over tall sight-blocking walls, I was able to see older and newer parts of the structure, which was a very interesting experience.  It’s hard not to think of shrines as old and historical buildings, so to see it being rebuilt using modern technology, scaffolding, and shiny new wood was quite the sight!  

Everyday I’m shufflin’

5 Apr

I have to admit that I know next to nothing about what it’s like to be a teacher at public school in America.  While I went to public school and know from experience what sort of things my teachers did and taught, I don’t know anything about the rules and regulations they faced on an everyday basis, or what sort of outlines they followed in order to prepare their lessons and test their students’ knowledge.  But I’m fairly certain of one thing: that the system is different from Japan.  

The end of the school year in Japan is a big deal for Japanese teachers.  The end of the school year (around the end of March) means that not only students will face changes, but the teachers as well, because in the Japanese system, teachers are sometimes– often, even– transferred to different schools at the end of the school year.  In Japan, the break between the end of one year and the beginning of the next is a whopping two weeks (unlike the three months between the end of school in June and the beginning of the new term in September in America), which leaves these teachers with a very brief period to adjust to a new environment, a new school, new coworkers, and new problems and challenges.  

On top of this, I was informed recently by a coworker that in Japan, the license to teach elementary school is the same as that to teach middle school is the same as that to teach special education.  In other words, a first grade teacher could suddenly, over the course of two weeks, be switched to teaching geometry to fifteen year olds, and a middle school music teacher could be forced to quickly become accustomed to teaching every subject to elementary kids with special needs.  I can’t possibly imagine mastering so many subjects to the point that I could teach them at all comprehensively, and the whole system is admittedly rather mind-boggling to me.  

As someone who’s hired outside this system, I stay at the same school for my duration as an ALT.  But the spring shuffle (as we call it) means that every year, I have to learn to team teach with new teachers and develop new relationships with new coworkers.  I’m sure some of the changes this year will be for the better, and that I can put my best foot forward, but since it’s my first year, this sudden change in staff is very disorienting to me.  I guess there’s nothing to do but try my best!