Motorway to Roswell

3 05 2009

Nara Path, Nara, 4/27/2009

Or at least, the path back to Albuquerque. Classes at KCJS ended several weeks ago, and after a brief graduation ceremony we were set free to do as we please until we leave or are deported. As I’d like to come back to Japan one day, I’m leaving the day after tomorrow from Narita. I’m currently in Tokyo after a surprisingly strenuous journey through wide swaths of the Kanto and Kansai area, typing from inside a box (a hostel “single” doesn’t mean what you think it does, guys).  As I had to be out of my apartment by the 27th, I decided to make the trip a sight-seeing one and hit a number of different attractions along the way. First up was Nara.

Nara pond 1, Nara, 4/27/2009

I was rather effervescent in my praise of Miyajima, but a few short moments wandering through the temple grounds of Nara was all it took for the old memories from my first trip after my high school graduation to come rushing back. Nara is simply a gorgeous place, a pristine oasis of postcard ready-scenery bubbling out of its urban surroundings.

Nara Pond 2, Nara, 4/27/2009Pagoda, Nara, 4/27/2009Red Tree, Nara, 4/27/2009Todaiji front, Nara, 4/27/2009Nara Path 3, Nara, 4/27/2009

Nara, like Miyajima (or Miyajima, like Nara) is crawling with surprisingly aggressive deer.

Nara, like Miyajima (or Miyajima, like Nara) is crawling with surprisingly aggressive deer.

Sunset, Nara, 4/27/2009

My one regret was not spending more time in Nara, exacerbated by my need to drop off my baggage before going sightseeing. I unfortunately dramatically underestimated just how much weight all the books I’ve purchased in Kyoto would add to my luggage… Hauling around seventy or so pounds of luggage across the Japan has been an exhausting experience, especially since this damn place always seems to put it’s elevators in the most out of way places if it has them at all. The worst of it was at my next stop, Osaka, where the hotel I stayed at had no elevator… and I was on the fourth floor. Fun times. Of course, it was 1400 yen a night.

Taito game station, Osaka, 4/28/2009Tower, Osaka, 4/28/2009Tower 2, Osaka, 4/28/2009Plaza, Osaka, 4/28/2009

The next day I set out for Nagoya, making a pit stop at Ise along the way. Unfortunately, my luggage once again proved to be my anchor, and I only managed to see Geku, the outer shrine of Ise, and completely missed the supposedly amazing ocean-side cliffs.

Geku, Ise, 4/29/2009

The waters were teeming with fish.

The waters were teeming with fish.

There was a wide variety of wildlife at the shrine, including a chicken for a little kid to chase around...

There was a wide variety of wildlife at the shrine, including a chicken for a little kid to chase around...

...and around. This went on for aboout five minutes straight.

...and around. This went on for about five minutes straight.

I passed by a pretty amazing display of flowers on my way back to the station.

I passed by a pretty amazing display of flowers on my way back to the station.

Flowers 2, Ise, 4/29/2009Flowers 3, Ise, 4/29/2009

The train to Nagoya.

The train to Nagoya.

The view from the train...

The view from the train...

...and a passing train.

...and a passing train.

I got to Nagoya late and in an rather amazing coincidence ran into a fellow KCJS student who was leaving the next day, so I didn’t get many pictures. However, when I got to my hotel room, I looked inside the desk and was surprised to see a book exactly in the location where a bible is usually found in American hotels. Surprised that a Japanese hotel would bother to keep such a thing, I flipped the book over and saw this…

Buddha book, Nagoya, 4/29/2009

I again got to my next destination, Kawaguchiko in front of Mt. Fuji, rather late, and after nine hours of trains, I wasn’t in a photographing mood. I also didn’t try to climb Mt. Fuji; apparently, outside the official climbing season from July to August, the mountain’s weather is highly unpredictable and dangerous. As I’ve made it this far in my stay in Japan without being seriously injured, I decided to pass this time, and I was pretty exhausted after hauling my bags around for a few miles on the way to the hostel.

This was as close as I got.

This was as close as I got.

Mt. Fuji 2, Kawaguchiko, 4/30/2009

Kawaguchiko itself. ("-ko" is a suffix for lakes, so it would be Lake Kawaguchi.)

Kawaguchiko itself. ("-ko" is a suffix for lakes, so it would be Lake Kawaguchi.)

And that’s how I finally arrived in Tokyo and started living in a box (made of wood and everything). My time in Japan is quickly dwindling away to nothing, but I end each day so exhausted and my feet hurt enough each time that I mind a little less everyday. Maybe it’s time to come home.

Why is my hostel is Asakusa so easy to find? Landmarks.

Why is my hostel in Asakusa so easy to find? Landmarks.

Music I’m Listening to Now: Bruce Springsteen, “Dream Baby Dream”.





Believe E.S.P.

13 04 2009

Statue, Ishikiri, 4/11/2009

On Saturday after a night misspent at an all you can drink/eat ramen restaurant, I got up extra early, took the train to Kyoto Station, and accompanied a portion of my Japanese religion class to Ishikiri, the fortune telling capital of Japan. Ishikiri is an excellent example of the fluid nature of religion in Japan. A famous study conducted in Japan found that more people claimed that they were followers of a religion, such as Shintoism or Buddhism, than there were people in the country by almost a factor of two. Religion in Japan is simply not a fixed entity as it is in the West; it’s entirely normal, for example, to have a Shinto birth ceremony, a Western, Christian wedding, and a Buddhist death ceremony. Also prevalent are folk religions, communal belief systems based on local values and superstitions. Fortune telling in Ishikiri is similar to it’s mysticism derived relatives in other parts of the world, but it is perhaps lent an air of authenticity by it’s propinquity to the common tradition at temples and shrines of the omikuji, a sort of fortune that comes on a piece of paper and has a wide variety of outcomes, from very good to very bad luck.

Fortune Teller, Ishikiri, 4/11/2009

Much like Japanese religious life, fortune telling can be a hodgepodge of various traditions, such as the above store, which is based equally in native Japanese nature worship, Buddhism, mysticism, and even Jewish Kabbalah. The character 占 is the character for fortune telling. There was a panoply of methods available in Ishikiri, from the obvious, such as readings by palm and crystal ball, to the more esoteric, such as tongue reading to determine your health (complete with a chart of forty different tongues to compare).

The seers of Ishikiri also do not express the slightest reservation about the commercial aspect of their services, as evinced by this chart relating price to the accuracy of their predictions. They range from 3,000 yen for a sure thing to 1,000 yen for a decent guess. Other services, such a Feng Shui techniques to adjust the directions of your home (I didn't entirely understand this) and lucky names for your future children can run into the tens of thousands of yen, or hundreds of dollars.

The seers of Ishikiri also do not express the slightest reservation about the commercial aspect of their services, as evinced by this chart relating price to the accuracy of their predictions. They range from 3,000 yen for a sure thing to 1,000 yen for a decent guess. Other services, such a Feng Shui techniques to adjust the directions of your home (I didn't entirely understand this) and lucky names for your future children can run into the tens of thousands of yen, or hundreds of dollars.

A similarly synthetic religious tradition can be found at Ishikiri Shrine, the major tourist attraction in the area. As our professor explained, the original Ishikiri Shrine burned down hundreds of years ago and all records of it’s traditions were lost. Now, all of the shrines ceremonies are of the pinchbeck variety, without the least velleity of truth to them. Ishikiri’s “tradition” is essentially a folk religion in and of itself, based on invented ceremonies that have been lent legitimacy after the fact.

Legitimate or not, Ishikiri Shrine is a popular place.

Legitimate or not, Ishikiri Shrine is a popular place.

One such tradition is based on two stones in the middle of the grounds of the shrine. “Legend” says that if you walk around the outside of the two stones one hundred times your wish will be granted. I passed on that.

Ishikiri stone, Ishikiri, 4/11/2009

Wandering around the grounds, I saw what at first I thought were some colored ropes…

Cranes, , Ishikiri, 4/11/2009

Until I realized they were thousands and thousands of paper cranes. Thinking about how long they must have all taken makes my head hurt.

Cranes 2, Ishikiri, 4/11/2009

On my way back to Kyoto, I stopped in Osaka and paid a visit to a few stores in order to find the actual comic my project for my translation class was based on. After a bit of foot work, I managed to track down and buy most of the author’s work for a pittance (Americans get killed on the price increases in importing this stuff). I have to admit it was odd to hold something I had grown so use to seeing online in my hands. I also finally saw the damn kanji I couldn’t read in the scans due to blurring and the author’s handwriting. Goddamn 普通 and 誘う.

I got back to Kyoto around nine and completely exhausted, but remembered to snap a picture of Kyoto Tower before wandering zombie-like back to my apartment.

Kyoto Tower, Kyoto, 4/11/2009

Music I’m Listening to Now: Peter, Bjorn, and John: “Last Night”.

Bonus! Sort-of Engrish:

Bag 1, Ishikiri, 4/11/2009Bag 2, Ishikiri, 4/11/2009





Not For The Season

19 03 2009

Sakura, Kyoto, 3/17/2009

Spring has finally begun in Kyoto, and unlike the weekend of warm weather that served as an all-to-short break from the constant rain and chill of the last few months, it seems here to stay. I’ve honestly been a little bored at night, so I’ve been doing a lot of translation and taking late night bike rides. Late night bicycle rides are a pleasure in Kyoto, as in contrast to my native land, my chances of being run over or stabbed actually go down, instead of skyrocketing. One thing I noticed is that there’s cats everywhere. The alley I use to get out from my apartment complex is apparently full of them, as I discovered when I looked up and noticed there were at least three or four in a small niche formed between a wall and a overhanging roof. I opted not to photograph them- I wouldn’t be entirely enthusiastic about having a flash in my face that late at night either.

While Kyoto and Japan in general has as much crime in a year as the average American Denny’s does in a month, the city is not entirely law-abiding. I had the rare opportunity to see the results of some actual political activism on the side of a building located near our special gaijin class/leper colony located on the Kyoto University campus.

Kyodai graffiti, Kyoto, 3/12/09The graffiti is demanding an end to "5-year firing". I'm not particularly well versed in Kyoto University's personnel practices, so I'm not entirely sure what this means.

The graffiti is demanding an end to “5-year firing”. I’m not particularly well versed in Kyoto University’s personnel practices, so I’m not entirely sure what this means.

We’ve hardly gotten back to class from Spring Break and we’re already going on a number of excursions. Next week is our class trip to Hiroshima (and once again [for me, at least] to Miyajima) and this week we went to a Museum of Ethnology in Osaka. It’s mascot: apparently a giant, angry stone face.

Stone Face, Osaka, 3/16/09

This is about half my Japanese class.

This is about half my Japanese class.

I think this sign speaks for itself.

I think this sign speaks for itself.

The museum was slightly disappointing, primarily because it seemed our main objective in going there was to have a box recite a story to us in several Japanese dialects that only further reinforced that I have a long way to go before I understand even standard Japanese. Dialects in Japan are unlike American dialects in that it’s possible for two people to be speaking “Japanese” and still not understand each other. The dialects associated with different regions, such as Kansai and Hokkaido, resemble foreign languages more than, say, an American Southern accent. The museum did have some nice displays, however.

Ethnology Museum Display 1, Osaka, 3/16/2009Ethnology Museum, Osaka, 3/16/2009

On our way back we saw a now closed amusement park whose name, Expo Land, rather clearly highlights it’s place on the timeline.

Expo Land, Osaka, 3/16/2009

I’ll post next week on my class trip to Hiroshima, and possibly Miyajima again. Everybody loves seeing the same pictures of someones vacation, right?

Music I’m Listening to Now: Grizzly Bear, “Cheerleader”.





Radio City

9 02 2009

Osaka City View 1, Osaka, 2/4/2009

Last week I went to Osaka, one of the most populous cities in Japan. Osaka shares an interesting characteristic with Tokyo in that the population is drastically reduced after night falls and commuting workers return home, which in Osaka’s case 40% of them do. During the day, however, Osaka is a bustling metropolis and has a attitude surprisingly disparate from Kyoto. While Kyoto is also one of Japan’s larger metropolises, it took going to Osaka to make me realize how relatively subdued Kyoto with it’s numerous temples and shrines is in comparison. Osaka is often compared with New York for it’s slightly more relaxed and carefree approach to city living, helped by it’s location in the Kansai area, residents of which are said to be more feckless and prone to humor than their more stoic Kanto counterparts. Residents of the Kansai also often speak a dialect of Japanese, Kansai-ben, that’s said to be faster and more slangy than Tokyo Japanese, as well as including such a number of distinct phrases and vocabulary that it is almost a separate language (such as “ooki ni” for “argitou” and “yan” instead of “san”).

Obviously Osaka is the New York of the East- it even has its own Statue of Liberty.

Obviously Osaka is the New York of the East- it even has its own Statue of Liberty.

I also scoped out Osaka Castle while I was out. One of the larger and more visually impressive castles in Japan, if a slightly odd combination of the historic and the modern; behind the castle is a very anachronistic glass and steel elevator.

Osaka-jou, Osaka, 2/4/2009

A view of Osaka Castle's moat.

A view of Osaka Castle's moat.

Osaka really does seem like a more modern city than Kyoto, especially some of it’s striking skyscrapers, like the humongous police headquarters and equally large NHK building across the street from it.

Too big to be captured in one photograph.

Too big to be captured in one photograph.

Random city views.

Random city views.

Osaka City View 4, Osaka, 2/4/2009

Later I wandered into Den-Den Town, the sobriquet for the area of Kyoto renowned for it’s electronics and now otaku goods, especially manga and anime. All of the competition means prices are quite reasonable, but that’s not always the case.

I don't think this is what they meant.

I don't think this is what they meant.

Sadly (or weirdly, or frighteningly, or other such adjectives), where otaku gather is where certain specialty stores also congregate. I had the pleasure of seeing not one but two different maid cafes while I was looking for okonomiyaki for dinner in the area. Maid cafes, for those who don’t know, are cafes that cater to clientele who enjoy having women in maid costumes serving them overpriced tea and calling them “master” in wheedling voices. Bizarrely, they seemed to have flourished in areas such as Den-Den Town and Japan’s other otaku mecca, Akihabara.

Sorry for the bad picture, but this was as close as I could get. Once I passed by the cafe, glimpsed in the window, and saw women in maid uniforms manning the counter, I was laughing to badly to try for a better shot.

Sorry for the bad picture, but this was as close as I could get. Once I passed by the cafe, glimpsed in the window, and saw women in maid uniforms manning the counter, I was laughing too badly to try for a better shot.

Osaka was nice, and I’m looking forward to going again, especially after I got an awesome Disgaea artbook that goes for quite a bit more in the States. Perhaps I’ll even go to a maid cafe next time (though not alone- I can’t imagine anything sadder).

A view of Den-Den town at night.

A view of Den-Den town at night.

Music I’m Listening to Now: Deerhoof, “Vox Celeste”.





Spiders (Kidsmoke)

6 02 2009

Night falls on the Setsubun festival at Yoshida Shrine.

Night falls on the Setsubun festival at Yoshida Shrine.

Hola amigos, I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya’, but I’ve been pretty busy this week. I’ll try and chronicle my adventures of the next few posts, but in short I’ve gone to Ohara (a small village outside of Kyoto) to participate in Setsubun with a Japanese elementary class, learned RSS and created a blog for the KCJS program (and, because WordPress doesn’t support certain types of video embedding, recreating it on Blogger), hung out at the Setsubun festivities at Yoshida shrine in front of my apartment, had my first bike crash, gone to Osaka, discussed 70’s and 80’s era New York punk music in Japanese (under duress, unfortunately) eaten the biggest friggin’ nan I’ve ever seen, and gone to all-you-can-eat Korean barbeque and consumed enough to want to explode. Unfortunately, the last two were both today, so before I go into a coma I’ll try and recap as much as possible.

The view of Ohara from a moving van.

The view of Ohara from a moving van.

On Tuesday my Japanese class went on a field trip to Ohara, a small town about twenty minutes outside of Kyoto. We met up with several teachers at a Japanese elementary school, and later the pupils under their care. Eventually our slightly odd looking group proceeded to the local shrine to participate in the Setsubun festivities.

A view of the shrine grounds.

A view of the shrine grounds.

The explanation was entirely in Japanese, so I unfortunately didn’t understand as much of it as I wanted to, but I believe the occasion is centered upon the changing of the seasons as a time to bid farewell to the misfortunes of the previous season and wish for luck in the one to come. Once all four seasonal transitions were separated, but now only the first day of Spring on the lunar calendar is celebrated, which has come to be the main form of Setsubun. One of the more entertaining aspects that has emerged is the numerous customs associated with beans. There’s a belief that eating a number of beans equal to your age will grant you health and good fortune for the coming year. Additionally, a sort of bean-tossing game is played, supposedly to symbolize casting bad luck out toward the “demons” on the outside. To that end, I and my fellow KCJS students joined the elementary school children in throwing beans out over the second group of students for them to catch and eat later.

Can you spot the foreigner in this picture?

A Challenge: Can you spot the foreigner in this picture?

Out of things to throw, one little girl perhaps takes the game too far.

Out of things to throw, one little girl perhaps takes the game too far.

Later we ate mochi (a sort of rice cake) and some very salty tea that supposedly had flakes of gold taken from the nearby mines. Ohara was an interesting change from Kyoto in that it is much closer to typical rural life in Japan, while still being relatively developed. It was rather beautiful, and I think I’ll miss it.

An above view of Ohara- I wish I had gotten some better pictures now.

An above view of Ohara- I wish I had gotten some better pictures now.

The job I have with KCJS has been going smoothly, though I find that combined with the homework I have for my Japanese and translation classes I have increasingly less and less free time (relatively; I still have for more than I had back at Penn). I’ve had to learn a few more computer tricks, like creating an RSS feed and how to embed music into WordPress (I’ll try and remember to do that sometime). The money from that job will hopefully pay for what I spent on the Setsubun festival and my new bike, which I crashed recently. For whatever reason I have the devil’s own luck when it comes to bike crashes, so I emerged from my relatively high velocity meeting with the sidewalk without even a cut or much soreness. I’m a little warier now, but you can’t really say you’ve broken in a bike until you’ve crashed it at least once.

My sweet bike. Also, my lunch in the basket. This type of bike with its distinctive basket is called a Mamachari, as it's commonly associated with housewives, though in areas like around Kyoto University it's more common to see students on them.

My sweet bike. Also, my lunch in the basket. This type of bike with its distinctive basket is called a Mamachari, as it's commonly associated with housewives, though in areas like around Kyoto University it's more common to see students on them.

The sweet embrace of a meat-sleep awaits me, so I’ll end the post here. Next time: Osaka. All-you-can-eat. Nihilism. Giant bread. Maid cafes. Not necessarily in that order. Be there.

Music I’m Listening to Now: M. Ward, “Epistemology” (From M. Ward’s new album Hold Time, the entirety of which is currently streaming here.)