Tag Archives: travel

see no evil… only lots of beautiful shrines and temples

11 Dec

ImageLast weekend, friend CT came to visit me, and she likes visiting temples and historical sites just as much as me, and so we headed out to one of the most popular tourist destinations in eastern Japan, which just happens to be about two hours by train away from me, Nikko.  Nikko is the temple/shrine/mausoleum where Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man who unified Japan and started the Edo period of peace and prosperity in 1603, is enshrined as a Buddhist diety in the form of a Shinto kami… in other words, it’s a great example of the historical co-existence of Buddhism and Shintoism in Japan, as well as a beautiful place for sightseeing, as both the mountains and nature around Nikko are stunning.  The view off the mountains going to and from the Nikko shrine/temple site is really breathtaking, and while I didn’t get a chance to go, there’s also a famous waterfall at Nikko.  The buildings themselves host visually stunning relief sculptures in amazing detail, as well as beautiful colours and use of gold foil, and also is the home of two iconic images in Japanese culture, the three wise monkeys and the sleeping cat.

ImageEven most Americans have heard of the three wise monkeys whose poses teach us to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” but a much fewer amount of people are aware of their origin.  While the moral involved was not completely new at the construction of Nikko, the use of monkeys (a play on words: in 1600s Japanese, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” was said, “mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru” and “saru” or “zaru” means “monkey”!) was popularized by the sculpture at Nikko.  The three wise monkeys are part of a longer relief sculpture that goes around the top of the building, and each monkey represents an idea or stage of life, but for some reason, only those three monkeys got popular!  In the photo, the monkeys are the second panel from the left; click on the photo to enlarge it.

ImageUnlike the three wise monkeys, the sleeping cat is less popular in the West, possibly because it has less moral significance, but… come on, who doesn’t like a cute sleeping cat?  The carving of the sleeping cat (nemuri neko in Japanese) is a little hard to spot, in a rather obscure ledge over a doorway, but it’s one of the most popular sights at the temple.  It was carved by legendary Edo period artist Hidari Jingoro, who loved cats and whose work influenced the depiction of animals in Japanese sculpture at the time.  No one is exactly sure if the cat has a specific symbolic meaning, but I’ve heard it hypothesized that it might have been meant to represent the Tokugawa regime; peaceful (as shown by the sleeping) but ready to strike at any time (you can’t see it in the picture, but the cats front paws are tense).  Perhaps this isn’t the real meaning, but either way, Japanese tourists and foreign tourists alike seem to love this cute cat~

After our visit to the temples and shrines, we headed back into town and got a snack at the famous Meiji no Yakata coffee shop!  Meiji no Yakata is a famous historical restaurant located very close to Nikko’s Rinnoji temple, housed in a Western-style mansion that was formerly a vacation home for an American diplomat.  It’s famous enough for its cakes and pastries, however, that it also has another location, a small coffee shop with cheesecake, scones, and other treats right by Tobu Nikko Station.  Their cheesecake was really delicious, covered in a thin layer of what seemed to be lemon meringue, and the coffee also lived up to the store’s reputation!  It was a bit pricy, but well worth it for the scenic location and delicious food.

All in all, I had a great time at Nikko, but there was still a lot that I didn’t get to see, so I predict that I’ll be back sometime in the near future!


Gunma Orientation, round two!

18 Aug

ImageLast year, I was a first-year JET participant, and as a result, was required to go to the prefectural orientation at Gunma’s prefectural office in the capital city, Maebashi.  This year, however, I went back again as a volunteer, helping to organize the orientation as a member of the Gunma Orientation Committee.  This means I helped to organize the schedule, give informational presentations, answer any questions the new JETs had, generally show them around, set up, and clean up the orientation.  It was a lot of work and was absolutely exhausting, but it was also a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed helping the new people and trying to make the orientation as useful and not-overwhelming as possible… and hey, I got to see Gunma’s prefectural mascot, Gunma-chan, too!

ImageBasically, the orientation was a series of presentations
on the first day, followed by Q&A from an anonymous box and then a “party” in the evening in the prefectural office basement cafeteria hosted by the education division.  There was food and drinks, as well as a few speeches and an opportunity to sign up for Gunma tourism emails and talk to various Japanese workers in the prefectural education division.  Afterwards, the JET association hosted karaoke parties, but I was far too exhausted after a day of moving things, running around the prefectural office building, and giving presentations.

ImageThe second day was a few more presentations, followed by a series of workshops.  The new JETs could be pick two between options like “Fun in Gunma” and “Special Dietary Needs.”  I presented on “Modern Pop Culture” and while sadly, there wasn’t a large turnout, I had a really good time talking about the things that I enjoy!  I hope that maybe I can be involved in the committee again next year, and that I can do a better job advertising it so that more people will choose to come.

ImageAfter the workshops was lunch, and then after that, there were cultural workshops! I was an assistant for the karate workshop, so I got to watch the karate classes, as well as the demonstrations that the teachers did.  They broke a lot of boards, which was really impressive, and did some sets of karate movements, as well.  To me, that was almost more impressive, because you could see how much technique and practice was involved in their precise movements.  They also taught the JETs to punch a hole in a newspaper, among other things, and it was fun to watch them learn and succeed.

ImageAfter the cultural workshops, there were some meetings between regional
representatives and the new JETs living in those areas, and then more Q&A from the box.  And then that was the end! We sent the new JETs on their way before cleaning up all the posters and decorations.  I was exhausted by the time we were done, but it was a really rewarding experience, and I hope that I can be involved again next year!

I’m a con(cert) woman

23 May

ImageMay has been the lucky months of many concerts for me!  S and I were lucky enough to land not one but two sets of tickets to Sexy Zone’s Japan Tour concert in Yokohama Arena, and I also hit for a ticket to Hey! Say! JUMP’s Tokyo Dome show, where Sexy Zone would also be appearing to celebrate the creation of their new fanclub!  We also were lucky enough to win tickets to a Johnny’s Livehouse Ginza in the tiny Crea theatre, seating only 600! That show will be on May 26th, so I have yet to see what it will be like, but I’ve been to the other three now, and after talking about concerts in passing for a while, I figured I’d take this opportunity to explain just what going to a Johnny’s Entertainment concert is like!

ImageThe first confusing thing about Johnny’s concerts is how one comes about these tickets.  Unlike in America or for a concert by a non-idol group in Japan, you can’t just call up a ticket office and purchase a good seat (or a decent seat, or a bad seat).  You can’t use the internet to buy a ticket, either.  Instead, you must be a member of the Johnny’s “Family” Club (fan club) designated for the group whose concert you wish to attend.  A membership costs ~¥5,000 per year, and once you’re a member, you can use Japan Post money orders to ballot for tickets.  In essence, the way tickets are awarded in a lottery; whether or not you get a ticket is random and how good your seat is is also random.  Everyone pays the same amount for tickets, usually between ¥5,000 and ¥7,000, though sometimes stage shows in theaters are more costly.  They mail the tickets to you about a week before the show in order to try to avoid resale; because some concerts have less availability or the group is very popular, resale tickets can go from anywhere from base price to ¥80,000.  On an average scale of $1 = ¥100, that’s around 800 US dollars for one ticker.  So really, that ¥5,000 membership fee isn’t so bad!  

ImageAnd then, at the venue on the day of the show, you can buy goods before the show!  Usually, there is a much wider variety of goods for Johnny’s concerts than one might expect at an American show.  ~4 x 5 inch photos of the idols, plastic folders with photos of the idols on them, uchiwa fans with the idol’s faces printed on them, a pamphlet book with interviews and photos of the idols, and posters are all common goods, along with tote bags, T-shirts, scrunchies to be worn around the wrist or in the hair, and penlights.  The penlight is something I hadn’t heard of before coming to Japan; in America, people seem to use their cell phones, other electronic devices, or glowsticks in concerts, but in Japan, basically battery-powered light sticks like glowsticks replaced actual glowsticks.  Johnny’s took this one step further and makes penlights specific to each group and concert.  Generally, it’s not expected that you buy a new penlight at each concert, but it’s odd to use a penlight from the wrong group at a different group’s concert.  

ImageAside from a penlight, the other item of must-have concert goods is an uchiwa, which I talked about in this post a while back.  Every good fan has at least one (more likely 4 or 5, or even 20) stuffed into her bag, along with her goods and everything else she’s brought along with her.  All this gets looted through at the door the venue, because for some reason, staff are required to check for cameras, even though, at this point, every phone is equipped to audio and video record, as well as take still photos.  But for some reason, the staff still glance inside every concert-goer’s bag and asks politely, “Do you have a camera?”  Once you say “no,” they let you in!  From there, you can usually spot the display that will always be set up to showcase the various flowers the performers receive from magazines, TV stations, producers, and various other related companies and people who had worked with the idols.  In Japan, flowers are a necessity in all sorts of situation (such as a new business opening), and there will almost always be flowers on display before a performance! 

ImageNext it comes time to find your seat, which can be harder than you think!  Obviously seating in every venue is different, and differences in shape (like an arena versus a dome) and size (how many floors, for example), as well as changes in the setup for the concert inside the venue can really change your concert experience.  For example, we were at the very end of the catwalk and in a very close row for our first Sexy Zone show (in the photo it’s a bit hard to tell since I was surreptitiously taking the photo with my technically illegal camera… ) This gave us a great view whenever they did anything at the end of the catwalk, but a really crappy view of the stage (or rather, we could easily see the stage, but the idols on it looked like tiny specks!) However, for our second show, we were right next to the stage– like the people on the far right of this photo– and a little bit farther away.  That made it a little harder to see everything, but we could watch the stage quite easily!  Both of our seats were really not bad, but definitely gave two very different experiences, even in a concert with a typical setup of a round catwalk around the arena, a main stage at one end, a small stage at the other end, and a center stage in the middle.  

ImageEverything was completely different for the Hey! Say! JUMP concert, however.  It was in Tokyo Dome, which, being for baseball, is shaped in a circle, rather than ovular, like arenas.  In the past, I’ve felt that this leads to a better view for everyone, but this time, the setup of the dome was very odd.  The stage was small, and there were seats almost all the way around behind it (I happened to be in one of these unfortunate behind seats.  There was an inner and outer catwalk, and then a center stage, as well as other stages attached to the catwalks.  I’ve never seen a setup like it, and apparently the band members designed it themselves.  I feel like perhaps it was good in theory but less good in execution: I was only on the second level, and yet when the members were on the center stage it was hugely difficult to see them, and because the screens were so far away, it was hard to rely on them.  Overall, not the best seats I’ve had, but in terms of my most recent concerts, it’s hard to compare Tokyo Dome to Yokohama Arena, anyway, considering that Yokohama Arena seats around 15,000 people and Tokyo Dome seats around 45,000!  

So… now you’re all prepared to attend a Johnny’s concert on your own!  I’ll see you there~

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!

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!  

“Wow, you can speak Japanese really well!”

5 Feb

ImageThis past weekend, S and I decided to take a weekend trip to Tokyo.  This isn’t out of the ordinary in any way, and nothing (besides the two pairs of shoes I bought, yay) about it is really worth mention… except for a particularly amusing exchange I had in a makeup shop with the shopkeeper there.  

A little background information: Japanese shopkeepers are hugely attentive to their customers.  In clothing boutiques, in my experience, shopkeepers will often hang around to admire the clothes you try on and say that they suit you, or to find other items to match your outfit.  In makeup stores, it’s much the same; they offer you various tools with which to sample the products and suggest things that they think will suit your style or your skin tone.  

In this particular makeup store, S and I were checking out some glittery nail polish when the shopkeeper came up to offer us slips of cardboard on which to test the products and to tell us about the line of nail polish.  When she picked up a particular shade, a commented that actually, I had already bought it, and was wearing it at the moment, as well as another colour of nail polish also sold from that makeup brand.  The shopkeeper was really shocked, and responded, “Wow, you can actually speak Japanese really well!”  

ImageThis isn’t the first time I’ve had this reaction.  When I respond to Japanese shop keepers with anything more than nodding and “thank you,” they often are shocked to discover that I’m capable of making conversation in Japanese.  I suppose it’s surprising with the number of foreign tourists in Tokyo (and particularly in Harajuku, where this particular shop was located), but it’s always a little amusing to receive this comment, nonetheless.  It also always inevitably leads to the conversation about how long I’ve studied Japanese, where I’m living, what I’m doing, etc.  

Eventually, we got back to the topic of nail polish, and after complimenting my Japanese abilities, she also complimented my nails, and even noticed that I had planned it so that they matched my sweater.  Very few people notice these intricacies in my outfits, so I was really pleased.  All in all, it was a funny but positive experience… and I’m always glad when someone seems to actually mean it when they tell me I’m good at Japanese, rather than the common reaction of “You’re so good!” when I so much as say “hello” in Japanese.  I always knew I liked that makeup store, but this definitely added to its good points!

Tokyo Tower

18 Jan

ImageAnyone who has ever watched the popular anime Sailor Moon might be familiar with the large, red, Eiffel Tower-esque structure that stands in Minato, Tokyo, Japan.  Or at least, this was my experience as a child; I was unsure why Sailor Moon and the other characters in the show visited a red, Japanese Eiffel Tower in the series, but at age six, I didn’t ask too many questions.  But Tokyo Tower continued to appear in many of the anime shows I liked as a child, and so as time went on, I became more and more interested in this broadcast tower in my youth.  

ImageTen plus years later, Tokyo Tower is fondly nostalgic to me.  As the second-tallest man-made structure in Japan, second only to the much more recently constructed Sky Tree, which was created to replace Tokyo Tower in its function as a broadcast tower, Tokyo Tower is a popular landmark and tourist destination in Tokyo.  It reminds me of my childhood, and so, when I studied abroad in Tokyo in 2010, it was one of the first places I chose to go.  ImageIt’s usually packed with tourists and can get quite hot when the sun shines in the windows on the observatory deck, but really, the view makes up for it.  It’s not the tallest point you can look out in Tokyo, but it’s still a pretty nice view.  You can see across multiple prefecture, include into Tokyo Bay/out to Chiba, as well as to Yokohama and even Mount Fuji, on a clear day.  The view of Mount Fuji, in particular, is quite spectacular, but unfortunately, it doesn’t photograph well.   However, I highly recommend it for anyone who’s planning to take a trip to Japan in the near future!

ImageAnother really fun feature of Tokyo Tower is the look-down windows on the first floor of the observatory deck.  These are simply small glass windows made so that one can look directly down inside of Tokyo Tower, but they’re pretty effective at showing off how high one is when one is in Tokyo Tower.  Unfortunately, they’re also a popular attraction for small children with a death wish to jump on, so it’s almost impossible to get a photo without the feet of small children in it.  Oh well.  

ImageAnother fun thing about this trip to Tokyo Tower was that it was decorated for New Year’s!  Last time I went, it was August, so there were no major holidays for which to decorate.  But this year, the place was decked out for the New Year, and the first floor of the observatory deck was decorated with a kadomatsu!  These popular New Year’s decorations are basically all over the place as soon as Christmas is over, but the one in Tokyo Tower was particularly fancy!  Usually the bamboo is green and unpainted and the decorations are not quite so elaborate, so I particularly liked the Tokyo Tower kadomatsu.  

ImageTokyo Tower was only one stop on my trip to Tokyo with my sister, who I was showing around.  We had a great visit, but after two days looking around the city, we headed out to Yokohama for the final event of our weekend: seeing the Sexy Zone New Year’s Concert!  My sister had never been to a large concert before, so I was excited to be able to take her to one, especially when going to concerts is essentially my hobby right now.  I think she enjoyed it, so I’m really glad I was able to take her!

And then, after our exciting trip to Tokyo… I came back and almost immediately got really sick.  Alas.