In November we tried to take advantage of having such a nice long extended fall season and tried to get to some of the best places to view autumn colours. Unfortunately I feel like our pictures don’t really do the colours justice, but also coming from a country where the maple leaf is on our flag for a reason, we couldn’t help thinking how awesome the colours can be back in Canada and no one makes a huge event out of it like they do here. Places like Kyoto are in one of their peak tourist seasons during autumn because people travel far and wide to see the what’s called ‘momiji’ or the red japanese maple trees.
One of our excursions took us to Inuyama castle, home to the oldest of the 12 original castles left standing in Japan. It’s a surprise it is still in place considering some of their revered structures (like Ise shrine which we also went to this month) get rebuilt every 20 years or so regardless of their condition. They’re aren’t much for vintage here. But at Inuyama, tiny narrow wooden staircases lead you up to the top of the tower giving a nice view of the surrounding mountainous area and Kiso river, known as the ‘Rhine’ of Japan. Made mostly of wood the castle is a bit of a glorified tree-house but is well preserved and very beautiful. Randomly, on our walk from the train station to the castle we were invited to a ‘party’ by a Japanese man we met in passing. It sounds a bit odd and we were a bit wary at first, but we soon realized it was totally safe. Inuyama is famous for its bi-annual festival which showcases massive ornately decorated puppets and floats like this:
Different families living in Inuyama are responsible for different floats, and the guy that invited us to his party was in charge of one. He told us maintaining the float, a job which he inherited, was his ‘most important purpose in life’, despite owning his own company. The float has been in his family for over 300 years. He couldn’t wait to tell us all about it, show us pictures and videos and even unpacked some of the puppets so we could see them. The party was more of a sunday afternoon bbq but they treated us to beer, sushi, BBQ tofu, and one of my new favourites takoyaki (fried breaded little nuggets of octopus covered in seaweed and dried fish flakes). They were all keen to talk to us in English and we practiced some of our Japanese and met somewhere in the middle to learn a bit about each other. It was so random but really awesome and we will definitely be returning in April for the next festival.
We finished the day off with some matcha tea at a teahouse where we had to sit on tatami mats, but because we were foreign, they know how inflexible our legs are I guess and gave us little stools to sit on. Everyone else just sits on their knees or cross legged.
Sunday night we headed to one of the Jazz bars in Nagoya, Jazz being very popular here since it took off after being introduced after WWII. We were blown away by the performance in a tiny smokey little bar called ‘Jazz Inn Lovely’. Again with the not so understandable translation since it wasn’t an inn, albeit it was jazz and it was lovely.
My Japanese class is sponsored by the Lions club, which in Japan is loaded! We had an all expenses paid day trip to Gujo city this month which was fantastic. Gujo is 2 hours from Nagoya, north and in the mountains. We got to see a demonstration for making ‘moshi’, where they cook rice in bamboo type baskets over a fire burning stove, then after adding water and some other stuff and they pound the heck out of the rice with a bit sledge hammer. It’s scary though because there’s a guy who does the slow rhythmic pounding and in between the beats, a little lady reaches under the hammer and folds the rice over itself every time. I was sure she was going to get clocked a couple of times, especially when they let people from our group give the pounding a go. The rice becomes like a big gelatinous mass sort of, and they break it off into balls and then cover them with a powder that tastes a bit nutty on the first bite, then a bit ‘fermented’ on the second, and after that I felt I was coaching myself through the next couple of bites. It was alright, but I’m not crazy over moshi like some people in my group were or like I am over the sweet red bean paste here. Here’s a guy pounding the heck out of some moshi:
After the demonstration we ate lunch at this gorgeous restaurant with huge windows on all sides and surrounded by colourful red, yellow and orange leaves, it was like lunching in a forest but we were warm and cozy inside. The lunch was surprisingly high quality considering we didn’t pay a cent for this trip–it was all covered by our sponsors! We had ‘aka u-o’, which looks like a red fish. Conveniently when I asked around to find out what aka u-o is, my teachers and Japanese wait staff all helpfully explained to me it was ‘fish…red fish’. Classic. It came with curried potatoes, a edamame salsa, broth mushroom soup, rice and salad. After lunch we lounged in a ‘foot-spa’, just a little room that had a hot spring bath deep enough for your feet and up to your knee. It was such a cold miserable day, soaking our feet in it after lunch was pure heaven. These little awesome natural hot springs are all over the place and often the foot bath ones are free to use. It makes cold, rainy weather oh so much more bearable. Although Andrew is paranoid about getting foot fungus and after much coaching I finally got him into one one (in the middle of a train station!), with trains racing past us on either side we soaked our feet after walking around Kyoto all day. I think he’s pretty much hooked now. The next step though is that the full body onsens (natural hot springs) you have to go in completely naked after thoroughly visibly cleaning yourself in front of everyone. We’ll see how that goes…
Icing on the cake would have been a nice nap after that big lunch and hot soak, but we headed to a museum in Gujo Hachiman where we learned a traditional dance. Gujo hachiman is famous for a festival it has every summer where people literally dance all night for the festival. For a bunch of days they dance until the sun comes up! Crazy party animals. We walked around gujo hachiman for a bit as the streets are lined with traditional shops and houses, and it’s really picturesque in the mountains, the castle sitting on top of one looking over the town. Conveniently the battery of my camera died. Hilariously though when the trip was over our guide reminded us to “please forget nothing. Do not forget bag, or camera, maybe forget only memories”. I think she was going for ‘take only memories’ or ‘leave only footprints’ or something, but hey who am I to say.
Teaching English has been such a great experience. I try to organize exercises and homework and activities but people just want to talk. They just want the practice of having a conversation. And it’s not hard because so far all my students have been so keen to learn about me that I don’t even have to be a very good conversationalist! I am taking an ikebana (flower arranging) class and in return for the class instead of a fee I am giving my teacher an english lesson at her request. She is definitely a teacher and not a student. She is the type of Japanese person who really doesn’t know very much English but speaks so quickly and with such confidence in this weird miss mash of borderline random english words. This is what happens when I try to correct her
Sensei: Yes yes but that is not must
Kelsey: Ok, so what you mean is ‘I don’t have to’
Sensei: Yes yes yes, that is not must
So we aren’t making much headway but she doesn’t seem to mind. Also sometimes I ask her questions to try to get her to use different vocabulary and she often just says ‘oh I don’t think so, much too difficult’ and changes the topic. I’m not complaining though she’s so entertaining. The only downside is Andrew and I both feel like our own English skills are deteriorating after talking to so many people in simplified slow english, where we tend to remove the articles. We joke around and use this ‘not must’ phrasing because many japanese people do, but our favourite is ‘maybe’. Many Japanese people use ‘maybe’ ALL the time and in really inappropriate ways. A typical sentance almost always includes ‘maybe’. For example:
“hm, maybe it is not so far to the bus station”
“maybe it was not so long until the bus came”
“maybe I am getting a little hungry”
Each sentence meaning exactly what it would be without the ‘maybe’ ie it is not far to the bus station and it wasn’t long until the bus came. People use maybe when talking about facts, not things you are unsure or wondering about. People use ‘maybe’ for even things that are definite. I kid you not, one of my students that I meet on campus said to me when I asked her how her day was
“oh, very good, but maybe evacuation today”
Kelsey: oh! what for?
Student: ah, maybe bomb explosion
After much anxiety and questioning on my end I could tell she didn’t want to talk about it anymore, I don’t know if there was a bomb threat or something and luckily nothing happened, but seriously!? MAYBE bomb explosion. So now andrew and I always use maybe for stuff like that, like hmm maybe it’s okay but maybe house burn down, maybe fall and die a horrible death. This same student also said
“maybe criminal” one day when I asked her what was wrong. It took a while to figure that one out.
My friend Ryoko was telling me about how teaching english isnt’ always safe because “maybe some person get killed” (I guess someone was murdered a while back because they went into some strangers house for a lesson and…you know the rest). This same student is pregnant and I was asking her how the pregnancy was going and she said she visited a nurse on the weekend who told her “maybe you are too fat, please, exercise very much everyday.” So you understand now why Andrew and I are often throwing ‘maybe’ around, because everyone here uses it for every second word practically.
This month we also had to get our health insurance from the ward office, a place where we need Kazue to come translate for us. She is Andrews lab secretary and although her English okay,I can’t explain to you how much we relate to this skit. Ignore the subtitles and just watch the first 4 minutes or so. It’s stops being quite so funny after that.
In terms of Japanese Andrews learning is speeding a long at rapid pace, mine is a bit slower since my class is way more relaxed. We never have homework or tests or anything, but I’m still making progress. In a way Andrew is learning just enough to get himself into trouble. The more of Japanese we learn the more ambiguous and confusing it gets. He’s learned ‘kirei’ the word for beautiful is horrifyingly similar to ‘kirai’ which means ‘I hate’.
We also did a trip to Ise-shi, where twice in one day andrew was forced to wear a bib to eat, we aren’t entirely sure way, but all I know is the wait staff didn’t press me to wear one, just him. Ise is one of Japan’s most revered shrine, which means it was so packed with people we couldn’t actually get near the part where the ‘kami’ or god is allegedly enshrined where you go and make a prayer. Despite all the people though the shrine is set in a big forest full of cypress trees. The shrine is set to date back to 4 BC, and the deity is supposedly from where the royal family has descended from and is a ‘guardian deity’. Upon entering the shrine you walk over a big bridge which symbolizes leaving the regular world and entering a sacred place. Then you ceremonially cleanse yourself with these bamboo cups by washing your hands and then you are supposed to wash your mouth. Despite being a way to cleanse yourself I think it’s a pretty good way to rinse your mouth with all the bacteria you picked up along the way on public transit and the bathrooms that rarely have soap here. So I faked the mouth rinse part.
After the rinsing you can make a prayer at the shrine, or buy these little things that from what I understand are sort of like good luck charms. I don’t want to write too much about the shrines and religion since I honestly don’t understand it all very much. Whenever I ask people about it I get very vague non committal answers about religion in limited vocabulary that doesn’t really clear things up.
After the shrine we headed to Toba, where the first pearls on earth were artificially cultured. They remain one of the main pearl producers in the world. It was actually really interesting to see the operation they perform on the oysters in order to implant the right material to make a perfect round pearl. Before this system was developed it was up to these women of Toba who were thought to be a special breed with high lung capacity to dive for pearls.
These women learn to dive to deep depths, holding their breath for over a minute to collect oysters and do so their whole life, hoping to pick up shells with a perfect pearl by luck of the draw. Although this is a dying breed, having no longer a use for this job that looks freezing cold and sounds incredibly dangerous, some women still dive and they do so every hour at the pearl museum for all to see. Their little white outfits are supposed to keep the sun off their skin while not attracting sharks. Even with the current efficient methods of culturing pearls, only about 50% of pearls end up being marketable. Others aren’t a perfect sphere or a perfect colour or have deformities or other imperfections. These imperfect ones are ground up into vitamins and cosmetics. They served some crushed pearl in powder form with my lunch at the museum where we ate the meat part of the oysters that is also harvested when the pearls are collected. Andrew is eating Ise-udon, a local specialty of udon with a thick dark black broth. Hence, the bib.
Speaking of different food, here is just a shot of tea time, which looks a bit different for us than in Canada. The pancake type things are filled with sweet bean, or adzuki bean paste although in terms of sweetness, they are pretty mild. The squares next to them are sort of like mochi, the pounded jelly rice, but made with wheat and are a Nagoya ‘souvenir’. Each city has it’s own specialty souvenir snack and it is very kosher to always buy a souvenir from where you visit to bring back to your co workers or friends and family.
Also, I want to do a blog to showcase my Ikebana developments, although it’s a surprise I’m able to arrange any flowers with my teacher whose English I’ve already told you about. Her instructions to me regularly include “please, feel the colour”, and “this is better”, when I ask her why she changed something that I did. It’s difficult to learn an art with such subjective rules, but I am really enjoying it despite the fact I feel like I would be learning more if we spoke the same language. But she serves me tea in her tea ceremony room which I LOVE and I learn tons of things from her completely unrelated to Ikebana but about Japanese tradition and culture. Also learning by sheer observation is a different experience in it’s own way. I like getting absorbed in trying to see where the flowers fit and what small adjustments do to the piece as a whole. I must be feeling the colour a bit, because she told me a have ‘a nice eye’. I’ll go ahead and take that as a compliment.
Despite that, capturing the arrangements have proved tricky. Here’s a nice shot of one the cherry blossoms I used in one of my arrangements that I brought home. I have to credit Andrew on this one, the cherry blossoms had so much potential and were so beautiful and had all these awesome branches reaching out in different dimensions but I took about 100 shots and couldn’t capture what I wanted. Andrew literally woke up one morning and immediately got out of bed and took this picture. Show off :)
Kyoto was our last adventure of the month, and we will now be hibernating until Christmas. Despite horribly cold and rainy weather the first day we were in Kyoto, things cleared up that evening in time for us to see some lovely momiji. During that rainy saturday we went to one of the most notorious temples in Kyoto, Kiyomizudera.
This is what it is supposed to look like:
But after we left, we saw a picture on a poster similar to this and Andrew said “I can’t believe we were just there”, and I was thinking to myself “What are you talking about I’ve never been to that place or anywhere remotely like it in my life”. The weather and visibility was so miserable we didn’t really get to appreciate it for all it’s glory. Based on this experience we assumed viewing other shrines would be similar, and instead went for tea and cake and waited for the rain to stop. Luckily when it did although it was dark, some temples light up their trees during this season. So we headed to a small temple that did that and took a billion photos. Here are some.
The train station at Kyoto is really impressive architecturally.
The second day in Kyoto, we went to Arashiyama, an area near Kyoto famous for viewing fall colours. We took a scenic train called the ‘Torrokko’ or ‘Romantic train’ that lead us along a river and a deep valley that was full of colours and really beautiful. We just hung out in this area all day, took a walk through a bamboo forest, milled around some temples, and walked along the river. It was lovely.
Despite all the great things I’ve been experiencing in Japan and how happy we are we have moved here, this week the first feelings of homesickness have set in as my grandpa has passed away at the legendary age of 99. It’s a time I really wish I could be with my family and a time I wish I could be back home. I know that this is part of living in a foreign country, there will always be things you miss back home, that you can’t be part of. So this week I’m missing my family and thinking nice thoughts about my grandparents and remembering my grandpa often. My dad told me that my grandpa had once said it’s important to travel, and that you should do so when you can. I’m holding on to that and trying to make the most of it. Still, love to all my family back home, I hope you all know how much I wish I could be in Milk River on Tuesday.
In December we hope to go to Nagano for Christmas, an area with a plethora of onsens, and maybe do some skiing or snowshoeing. Until then, take care!