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On a beautiful spring day in Kamakura, we happened upon this wedding party.  We had come to enjoy the sakura while they bloomed, but this beautiful bride was the highlight of my day.  She carried herself like royalty, taking perfect tiny steps, and making only slight movements.  Yet, she was beaming with happiness, and everyone was stopped in their tracks to witness such a special moment.

Last night we went for a walk and took some pictures of a few New Year’s decorations in our neighborhood.  Enjoy a tiny taste of our town as it celebrates the coming of 2012.

A local shrine decorated.

The fire stations shimekazari 標飾り.

A local restaurant celebrates extravagantly.

Our New Year’s shimekazari!

Last week, one of my students asked me if Shishimai visited us last year.  I didn’t know what that was, so he explained it to me.  Shishimai is the Japanese Lion dance, where a Red Lion dances to bring good luck in the New Year.  And I believe to ward off bad spirits and to bring a blessing to your house.  It is an Asian tradition, and varieties of the Lion dance exist in China, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.  They are pretty different in each country (based on my extensive wikipedia research).  In our region of Japan, one person dresses as the Red Lion, but in other countries sometimes it is 2, 3, or 4 people.  Last year, we had just moved into our house, but I remembered hearing the Japanese bamboo flute and drums.  We were too busy moving in to really investigate further, and figured it was something happening at our local shrine.  Apparently, it was Shishimai!

This year, I am excited to say, we were visited by Shishimai!  We thought we would not receive the visit, as Jan. 1st came and went.  However, on Jan. 2nd our doorbell rang and the Red Lion, along with a group of five or six musicians were at our door.  James came running into the bedroom, yelled “Shishimai is here,” and I think I woke up faster than I ever have!  I ran down stairs just in time.  We tried to come outside, but they motioned us to go back in and then asked if they could come in.  Before we knew it we had a red lion dancing in our house to bring in the New Year.  AJ was not entertained and was a bit freaked out.  It was awesome.  Then someone with a mask came in and danced, but I’m not sure what that was.  After it was over, we thanked them, and then they invited us outside to take some pictures. When we were outside, the Lion was trying to bite AJ, which I think means good luck. I wish I had been more awake, but it was still a great way to start the year!

Please look at the picture below.  This melon costs ¥5780, or about $75.  For one melon!  And believe it or not, this is fairly cheap for a gift melon.  In Japan, high end fruit is often given to show your appreciation for someone who has done something for you, or for an important guest or client. Most of the ones I have seen in our area cost about $100, but they can go as high as $300 or $400.  And for perfect or rare fruits, you are looking at thousands of dollars. In 2008, a pair of melons from Hokkaido broke records when they sold for 2.5 million yen!

Gift melons are perfect in shape, and they are carefully hand tended and cared for throughout the entire growing process.  Any fruit that is deemed imperfect doesn’t make the cut. I saw an ad in Tokyo that showed the fruits being grown in greenhouses at the top of skyscrapers.  I wish I’d taken a picture of the ad so I could have found more information about these skyscraper fruits.  I have never had a gift melon, so I can’t say what they taste like, but I would hope they taste amazing for the price. It should be noted that these are fruits you only buy for others. If you were buying a melon for yourself, you would buy the $10 or $20 one at the regular grocery store.  (I know….I still haven’t adjusted to fruit prices here!) I have also heard there are square gift watermelons and black watermelons, but I haven’t seen either of these.  Right now is a gift-giving season (I believe) because the stores are suddenly full of expensive gift fruit.  I can’t imagine spending this much money on fruit….can you?

On the first MWR tour Angela and I went on after she returned to Japan took us to Shizuoka prefecture where we learned of a strange ancient legend/myth that must have had something lost in translation.  We traveled to a picturesque black sand beach on a curved bay with a commanding view of Mt. Fuji.  Except it was cloudy, so we saw no Fuji-san, but saw posters of it looking awesome.  Along the beach were groves of coastal pines, apparently ancient, and many of them were tagged.
It was explained to us they were numbered to be either be protected from construction or have been treated against pests, not sure which one was true (our local tour guide spoke good english and was great but we had some trouble believing some of her answers to questions as they seemed THAT far fetched).  As we walked up to the beach we visited a shinto shrine and were enlightened of the local history.  We heard two legends.
The first:  At some point in the past, angels saw how beautiful the beach was and came down from the heavens to bath in the surf. They would hang their holy garments on pine tree branches before getting in the water.  At one such gathering of heavenly spirits a local fisherman happened upon the garments hanging on the trees and took some for himself.  When one angel discovered she had no clothes she was in distress as she should not return to heaven without clothes (obviously).  She came across the fisherman somehow and he made her dance for him to get her clothes back. End of story.  There are statues of a dancing angel near the beach.
Second version: The angels come down and bath, and again a fisherman steals one set of clothes except this time he hides them in his home.  The naked angel cannot return to heaven and turns to a certain local fisherman who happens to be nearby for help.  He houses her, and they promptly fall in love and get married.  They have a child and are living their life when the former angel discovers her clothes hidden in the home.  When the fisherman comes home from work she is wearing her clothes and says goodbye, returning to heaven. He is left as a single dad.  End of story. There is a statue of him holding a bit of angelic fabric and staring into the sky.
Those are the versions we heard, and everything in the area was themed around the legends of the bathing angels.  In fact a fragment of the angelic clothing is said to be enshrined in the local shrine (which reminded me of medieval catholic saint relics).  Our tour guide then informed us of a fact that I cannot believe.  We were marveling at the black, very clearly volcanic sand (you can SEE Mt. Fuji) when she comments that the sand was white until a few decades ago when the shinkansen line was built (which is no where near there) and the associated pollution (electric lines) caused the sand to turn black.  I think she was very environmentally conscious… but wrong.  If pollution had been that bad, the ancient trees would have died…
But we had a good time and enjoyed a unique cultural experience! We never know what we will experience here, so come visit where everyday is an adventure!

It’s June, it’s HOT, AJ is waking me up at night slurping his water dish dry… so I am going to post about a snowy winter trip to the ancient city of Kyoto to cool off.  Our first trip to Kyoto was in July 2010, on a one day trip to see the Gion festival about warding off evil disease kamis… I think, and enjoyed the few sites we saw.  To save money and leave days (time off) we have utilized the base tours as much as possible, and while we want to spend much more time in Kyoto, we figured why not get a cheap tour to four famous spots in the city.  The bus ride from the Kanto plain takes anywhere from 6-10 hours depending on traffic, but Angela and I have always enjoyed bus trips (perhaps stemming from all the band trips we took in high school and college).  Leaving in the cold dark of morning, we were woken by a traffic jam on the freeway, caused by a blinding snowstorm.  The bus plowed through and we arrived in Kyoto on time.

 Our first stop was Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), an ancient Buddhist/shinto complex built along the side of a mountain stream/water fall that has some purification significance.  To get to the complex we had to walk through narrow streets full of street vendors selling shrine trinkets for pilgrims and tourists while in increasing snow flurries.

We walked past the pagoda and through an old building built in the 1600s, with a gigantic wooden stage. The stage was cordoned off as it was explained to us that it was constructed without a single nail… pretty incredible! 

 

Since we don’t really understand the language or cultural subtleties, we always come across something we think is completely random but must make perfect sense to the Japanese.  Located within the complex was a small Shinto shrine dedicated to finding your soul mate, we think.  There were two “lovers” stones with an associated legend we did not grasp, and were instructed that if a couple stands at each stone some indication of their love or compatibility would be manifested.  Again, I am not really sure what we saw, but took pictures of the sign in English!

 

Kiyomizu-dera is known for its pure water pouring out a rock waterfall into three distinct streams.  Each one symbolizes health, longevity, or success, respectfully, and as a visitor you would stand in line to use a long wooden cup to scoop up the water you desired.  Except we were freezing and did not want to get cold, but watched others in our tour group drink to health, longevity, or success!

 

We had some free time so wandered around the commercial district, accepting hot green tea and purchasing regionally flavored kit-kats (success!).  We also tempted fate on some cursed stairs.  According to our tour guide if you slipped down this particular set of stairs you would die within three years.  Angela and I walked carefully and made it without falling, so good for us!

 

After thawing out on the bus we drove quickly to our second stop, the Moon Bridge of Togetsukyo on the outskirts of town.  On an picturesque shallow river in the rolling mountains was a 20th Century reproduction of a 12th Century bridge emperors in the past would utilize to get to an important shrine across the river.  Around the bridge was a park and numerous stores and restaurants with rickshaw pullers waiting for tourists.  Except an exceptionally sharp windchill prevented anyone from wanting to spend much time outside, and we really didn’t understand what was so significant about the bridge (it had been rebuilt with concrete and did not seem so special to us, but it was very cold and we didn’t understand its history). 

The pour rickshaw pullers were jumping up and down for warmth.  Angela and I walked the main strip looking for a good place to eat, eventually settling on a noodle place overlooking the river.  We had hot tea, beer, and steaming udon noodles.  The meal hit the spot exactly and off we were to our next tour on the whirlwind day.

 

Our third stop was at one of Japan’s most iconic images, Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺, Temple of the Golden Pavilion).  An enormously wealthy samurai built a house with gold paint on a man-made pond in a beautifully sculptured garden.  Somewhere in history Buddhists turned it into a shrine, perhaps for meditation, I am fuzzy on the history as we got a fly by explanation due the shrines popularity. 

Despite the cold this was the busiest location we visited all day.  Snow piles made the golden building stand out even more, and it sort of glowed when the sun shone directly on it.  Apparently you are supposed to get there right at sunrise to get the days first full sunlight on the building for optimum viewing.  We only had a few minutes to gaze at the building as a long line sort of pushed us through and we had to make our next stop. Angela was playing with her new dlsr camera I had bought for her and was pushed along with the crowd, but managed to get some good pics. We would like to spend more time at the Golden Pavilion, but in a warmer season.

 

Our last stop was at a Nijo Castle (二条城), a Tokugawa built complex with a wealth of history.  We had actually visited hurriedly the gardens of the castle on our previous visit to Kyoto, but Angela and I had stumbled onto it and only had a few minutes.  This time we got a great tour and got to enter the actual castle building.  Nijo Castle was built by the Tokugawa shoguns in the early 1600s to give them a proper place to reside when visiting the emperor (they had moved the capital to Edo, or modern Tokyo which means “eastern capital”). 

When the emperor regained political power with the Meiji Restoration, the last Tokugawa Shogun in the 1800s relinquished power to the emperor at Nijo Castle, and it is well preserved today.  We had a great tour of the magnificent interior, resplendent with “nightingale” floors.  The wooden floors surrounding the palace had iron hooks underneath them so when you walked on them they “chirped” announcing the presence of would be assassins (ninjas).  While maintained, the floors still sang of our presence!

 Large tatami floored rooms for the shogun and his entourage were painted with beautiful tapestries on the ceilings.  We were shown hidden rooms where body guards would hide in case their samurai lord was in danger (apparently powerful people were marked men in the Edo period). And again we encountered samurai dressed manikins, as we have in virtually every historic place in Japan, which I find a little creepy.  But we had a great interior tour we did not get last time, and then set off on a winding garden tour.  It was neat, but frigid.  I wish we had time to buy tickets to the tea house on property, as we could have warmed up to some hot matcha, but we had to press. 

 

Soon our whirlwind day in Kyoto was over again and piled onto the bus. A great thing about Japan in winter is the vending machines found on every corner (even along hiking paths) that contain hot and cold drinks.  We bought several cans of hot chocolate or coffee drinks and used them to warm our hands and neck.  Soon I will have enough leave and some spending money and we intend on riding the shinkansen down to Kyoto to spend more than a few hours there, we welcome anyone interested in visiting one of the worlds most cultured cities!


Spring in Japan is bathed in pink, as cherry blossoms (sakura) awaken the dull winter landscape and life begins anew.   Each year weathermen forecast the precise area for peak local sakura viewing with detailed maps, much like the fall foliage tracker in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but much more intense.  Large crowds flock to castle parks and along river fronts to hold a “hanami,” a sort of picnic where one is to contemplate the shortness and beauty of life extrapolating from the brief life of the plentiful pink blossoms.  Of course, that could be the sake talking as these picnics often turn into all day/night parties of a very festive atmosphere where offices will send out a person to hold their spot of ground and party until the moonlight illuminates the sakura.  Commercially, the sakura season does well as stores sell any and everything Sakura themed. Starbucks even makes a Sakura Latte flavored with real petals here.  The springtime Sakura and Hanami are very uniquely Japanese that took on a somber tone this year though.  Sakura had just begun to bloom in southern Japan, on Kyushu, when the March 11 earthquake hit.  Every year the military base here opens its doors to the locals and have a large Sakura picnic, as most of the major streets on base are lined with large, old Japanese Cherry trees.  The base picnic was canceled as most families had evacuated, and Angela left without seeing any blooms.  I didn’t even have a camera to take pictures of our very own Sakura blooming in our front yard, so I bought one and tried to enjoy the beauty.  The trees really were magnificent, just sad this year.  The petals became so voluminous that walking into a breeze it looked like pink snow, and streams soon ran pink with petals.  A few short weeks and the blooms were gone, and a saddened country remained.  Next year the Sakura season will likely be quite an event as Japan marks one year since the earthquake and will no doubt enjoy hanami again and contemplate the shortness and beauty of life (and I can enjoy it with a Hanami of our own with AJ, Angela, and myself contemplating the beauty of life, though AJ will likely spend it begging for food!)

This June marked Angela and mine FIFTH wedding anniversary… and quite a memorable and exhausting five years it has been.  To celebrate, here living on the outskirts of Tokyo, we went to see a unique a production of an English play performed in Japanese.  Since I met Angela, she has always been a fan of musicals, and have accompanied her to live performances of RENT and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.  While I usually tolerate the show for her sake, I was blown away by the Japanese production of CATS.  In the past year a theatre company teamed up with Canon (the camera/printer company) to fund and construct a building specifically to house the CATS musical.  The Canon CATS Theatre takes up prime real estate in downtown Yokohama, with its own train station, and has at least one showing per day since it opened last Fall.  Since it plays so often, the theatre does not have to be that large and makes any seat you purchase close to the stage.  With the building constructed specially  for CATS, the entire auditorium is decorated like a junk yard (setting for the musical), complete with a circular, revolving stage.  We bought what we thought were expensive but good seats not realizing any seat was good, and was excited to find out we were only a few rows from the stage.  While I usually daydream a bit in musicals, I was very entertained and could follow the story, mostly, though it was all in Japanese.  I had never seen CATS, and did not realize how much ballet type dancing was in it.  Mostly I was impressed by the crowd interaction the performers had, at one point grabbing an audience member for a dance routine.  There was only one point in the show I found myself a little lost as to what was happening, but overall had a good time and recommend seeing CATS in a foreign language.  After the show we went to a quiet Japanese restaurant and had tempura and noodles. 

 

I love my wife and can’t believe all we have been through in five years!

To be official in Japan, you must have a signature stamp, or official seal, known as a Hanko 判子. Instead of signing documents, you simply apply your family stamp.  No signatures needed. I recently discovered that one needs a Hanko to open up a Japanese bank account, which I needed to accept a teaching job.  I had no idea how difficult it would be to open up an account, but it took me an entire week.  On Monday, I walked to a local bank and attempted to open up an account by myself.  After a failed attempt at describing what I wanted in my horrible Japanese, the bank worker came back with a picture of a hanko stamp and a passport.  Ah….I needed both of those to open up an account.   Not knowing how to order a hanko, I contacted a Japanese friend who was fabulous, and helped me with every step of the process.  She called a local hanko shop that could complete the task in two hours, wrote my name in Japanese for me, and then translated what I needed over the phone when my google translate app wouldn’t work.  She is amazing and I am very thankful for her!  We went with the cheapest hanko possible, but many in the shop cost between $200 and $300 dollars, with some costing upwards of $500!!

Based on extensive Wikipedia research, we learned that special hankos can be passed down from generation to generation, and many people will get new ones when their life circumstances change, like after a divorce, or a string of bad luck.  But this is Wikipedia of course, so you can never be sure.  We simply needed a banking hanko, so a cheap and quick material was fine for us.  For banking, you always use red ink, but for personal mail, you can use a variety of colors.  Back in the day, red ink was reserved for samurais and nobility, but today, red ink can be used by everyone, and it is used for all official documents.  Armed with my hanko, I went back to the bank and opened up an account.  I smiled the entire time I was stamping official paperwork.  Very exciting indeed!  I feel very Japanese now with our very own stamp.

Leaving Japan for such a long period of time made me realize how little time I actually have left in this amazing country.  With a new sense of urgency, I signed up for a few Japanese art classes, including Shodo 書道, Ikebana 生け花, and Chigirieちぎり絵.  Last week, I had my first Japanese Calligraphy class called Shodo.  While I am by no means an artist, I have always loved art, and I am a strong believer in strengthening our art and music programs in American schools.  It is so disappointing that these programs are the first to go in budget situations, and I hope that in the future we will be able to see beyond the budget and focus on educating our nation’s youth to become more whole and inspired human beings.  But enough of my beliefs on America’s educational system.  Back to the art of Shodo.

My class was taught by a woman named Edoyo Sekoh, which is actually her artist name, not her real name.  She holds a degree in Calligraphy from the Tokyo Gakugei University, which I thought was fabulous.  I didn’t even realize you could earn a degree in Calligraphy! A professional Calligraphist….that made my day!  We began the class with an introduction to Shodo: “Japanese writing KANJI with a brush.  Play with color ink.” I like that!  Play with color ink.  “You enjoy writing the Chinese character of Japan with the brush, and making the work today.” And enjoy I did.  We were given a list of kanji we might want to try, and since I am decorating the guest room with some of my “artwork,” I chose friendship友情.

Edoyo demonstrated what we should be doing with orange ink, and then we mimicked her using black ink.  It was really very interesting, and I enjoyed having a professional to learn from.  After each attempt, she would go over ours with orange ink to show us where we needed to improve.

My very first attempt was my best, and I got worse and worse, though I enjoyed it immensely.  After we had practiced our character, Edoyo wrote out our names in Kanji so we could sign our work.  It was amazing how difficult it was to write my name in Kanji.  And you have to write it very tiny.  My name ended up being almost as big as the character I was writing, but I figure it will get better with time.  It was very calming and peaceful to sit there focusing on each brush stroke, and I am really excited to be trying my hand at this beautiful Japanese art.

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