Gion Matsuri

I'm just about to leave for a week in Hokkaido (and 6 days on the train going and coming, phew!) so I wanted to write an entry on Gion Matsuri before I left. Matsuri means "festival" in Japanese. This festival protects the citizens of Kyoto from evil spirits for the year. It was started over 1200 years ago. I'm not sure if the festival has been held 1200 times since the first, but that is still a colossal tradition that I am still trying to fathom. The oldest city in America, St. Augustine, Florida, is just 450 years old. So the efforts to produce a living festival every year for so long speaks volumes for the value of traditions in modern-day Japan. It pales in comparison, but the Rose Parade would be the closest equivalent to the Gion Matsuri that I can think of. Americans think, "Wow! 118th Rose Parade, who can beat that?" Well, Kyoto has one ten times as old!

Merchants and wealthy families sponsor floats that are draped in expensive tapestries and are topped with an evergreen tree branch. I think it symbolizes long life, but don't quote me on that! I'm still learning Japanese and that's how I translated it. One of the women from church was involved with advertising for the Iwato Yama float, shown in the picture here, so we got a special tour of it. The neighborhoods around the Shijo area of Kyoto host the floats, which families opening their homes to display heirlooms of calligraphy, tapestries, and second floor access to enter the floats. Here is an example of the special furnishings on display. On the ground, merchants set up stalls to sell food, candy, toys, and souvenirs of the event. With our special host, we were allowed access to some of these homes. It was very special for me to see traditional urban homes because I live in foreigner housing in Nishinomiya. The thin, sliding doors between rooms were open wide to allow the slightest of breezes to cool off visitors.

I was so enamored with the atmosphere of the festival that I returned for a second day, just to see the floats after dark. I waited all day for the sun to go down and the lanterns to light up. With each passing hour, the streets became more crowded. Karasuma and Shijo streets were blocked off to vehicular traffic and the pedestrians took over. There must have been at least a million people walking the streets. Since Japan has no outdoor air conditioning (come on! what's with this country?;) all the big companies were handing out fans to keep people cool. I must have collected 8 of them that day. So as I wander around the area, I'm snapping photos. With all my excitement to take pictures of events leading up to the dark, my camera ran out of batteries! Aargh! I managed to get two pictures of the lanterns. Here's the best one.

There's a special kind of music that is only played during the festival. It consists of flute, drum, and cymbals playing rising and falling tones in an eerie tune. I'm sorry I can't put into better words. I don't write for Guitar World magazine! I took some video of it with sound, but it's going to take too much time to load that up before I go. Here's a parting shot: some of the young chanters playing "rock, paper, scissors (Jan Ken in Japanese) on the Iwato Yama float.

Next post: the trip to Hokkaido!


Baseball: Japanese Style

The final day of Chuck's stay, we went to a Hanshin Tigers' baseball game. The Tigers could be seen as the Chicago Cubs of Japanese Baseball: affable, long-suffering, and play in a vintage stadium. Almost all Japanese baseball teams are named after the companies that own them, instead of the city that hosts them. You can either see that as a corporate sell-out or transparency of the nature of professional sports. The Tigers' stadium is actually in my town, Nishinomiya. Koshien Stadium was built in 1924. Babe Ruth played there in a 1934 exhibition game. I had been meaning to get tickets for some time, but the task of ordering over the phone in Japanese was very difficult. A few weeks before I bicycled down to the ivy-covered stadium to buy tickets in person, only to find out that the ticket office was closed at that hour.

So it got down to 3 days before the game. We went out for coffee with a fellow teacher of mine at school. He offered to help us get the tickets. I had heard that one could buy tickets at a convenience store, but never saw any signs to that effect. It turns out that there is an all-in-one ATM-type machine for buying tickets for any event. But it was too soon to the day to buy tickets for the game. Chuck and I would have to stake out the stadium ticket booth to get tickets. It opened at 9am we thought.

To widen their fan base, Hanshin Tigers play a few games every year in the Osaka Dome (now the Kyocera Dome). On the night of the game we attended, that's where the Tigers were playing. So we had to find our way to the spaceship to get tickets to go inside. We didn't have any trouble finding the stadium, it was the wait for the tickets that took all afternoon. The box office wouldn't open until 4, the game starts at 6:30. What did we do in the meantime?

My girlfriend kept telling me that we couldn't go to a baseball game without cheer goods. What are those? The officially-licensed merchandise of every imaginable kind to show your team support. One could easily get carried away with the hats, jerseys, bats, fans, cup holders, and noise makers sold in the store. Chuck and I decided to buy one plastic bat each so we could take turns knocking both of them together to make noise for our favorite player. And "lucky seven" balloons for the 7th inning stretch. A fan with the picture of my favorite player, Akihiro Yano #39, on it. And I caved in and got a sun visor (even thought the Osaka Dome is, well, a dome) because I need a new one for jogging in the summer, too.

There's not much of a residential neighborhood around the Dome, so Chuck and I walked around the food courts and browsed the shops. It was a hot day and the box office was the in open sun, so we held out from waiting in line for as long as we could. I wanted to include some sightseeing in our day, but Chuck didn't want to take any chances on not getting tickets for the game, so we stayed close to the Dome. A wise decision. However, the line for the tickets wasn't too long. On this day, the Tigers were playing the Yokohama Bay Stars. Chuck and I wanted to get good seats, so we thought the left field tickets, which were 400 yen more than the right field tickets, would be better. We were quickly corrected by our comrades in line that the left field tickets are for the visiting team's fans. Evidently there's a profit markup on the visitors! Unlike MLB in the USA, a team's fans stick together so they can sing the songs and chant the cheers in unison instead of being spread throughout the stadium. Finally we got the tickets. Now we had 2.5 more hours to kill before the first pitch! Chuck and I decided to go to our seats, watch batting practice, and see the stadium fill up. My girlfriend, who'd been to several Hiroshima Carp games, told me that we wouldn't sit down the entire game because of the peer pressure to cheer for the home team. Chuck was actually looking forward to that feature because the seats were so close together with such small leg room, that his 6'3" frame was cramped without anyone sitting next to him!

Gradually the stadium began to fill. No national anthem was sung. Just the Hanshin Tigers' song: Rokko Oroshi (The Wind of Mount Rokko). We got to our feet, only to be surprised after a few minutes when most everyone sat down. What's this? Lazy fans? No, first off, the Bay Stars were up and no Tigers-loving fan would cheer for the visiting batters. When the Tigers were up, still no standing ovation. We were in the cheap seats where no TV cameras dare to go, so we weren't in jeopardy of being publicly exposed as unenthusiastic fans. As I would later learn from Gilda, maybe Hiroshima Carp fans feel obligated to stand and cheer the entire game because their team is so bad, they need all the help they can get. Tigers are first in the standings, so we can take it easy!

Still, in the 4th inning we were down by a few runs, so the fans got all genki (Japanese for powerful, energetic) and did some non-stop cheering until we rallied and took the lead. We'd hold it for the rest of the night.

All that cheering made us hungry, so this is a good time to tell what there is to eat at Japanese baseball games. Yes, you can have hot dogs and beer and popcorn. But the menu similarities with USA end there. Out in the stands, they have they chatty vendors coming up and down the aisle. Adkins Diet has taken off over here because the hot dogs are served on a stick instead of a bun;) Vendors carry a keg on their back to give beer refills instead of dispensing another cup. Nifty, eh? Everybody seems to share in the stands. Our seat neighbors gave us some sushi, grilled chicken, and edamame green beans to nibble on. Chuck and I shared some good ole American popcorn. I like dried squid, so I shared some of that, too. Always the adventurous one, Chuck tried it too. What a trooper.

Instead of singing "take me out to the ballgame" during the 7th inning stretch, Hanshin Tigers fans let off 50,000 balloons simultaneously! This is known as "lucky seven". Evidently there's some sexual overtones to this phrase in English, but I am not familiar with it. The sight of all those balloons in the air accompanied by the screeching noise like fireworks is really exciting. If you haven't already done so, check out the video at the top of the blog to watch Lucky Seven for yourself. As a side note, I've found some other Nishinomiya bloggers online. One of them, Shiona, just went to her first Tigers' game, too.

By 9pm, the Tigers had the game in hand. Chuck was leaving the next day, so we decided to go home at the bottom of the eighth inning to beat the crowds. We proudly wore our cheer goods through the subway station and in the streets as we made our way home. Experiencing a familiar event through a different culture's lens adds another level of insight to it. Chuck and I understood a little bit more about Japan after our exciting foray into the world of Japanese baseball. Thanks for reading this far. Stay tuned for postcards from my trip to Hokkaido, which begins July 23rd and continues to August 2nd. Genki de!


Himeji: soaked

Day three of Chuck and my trips around the Kansai area. Today we took the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Himeji, the site of the best preserved feudal castle in Japan. The city (sister city with Phoenix, AZ, complete with an amusement park, zoo, stadium, and about 450,00 people) shows up in the Lonely Planet guide as a small entry only featuring Himeji Castle. But I'm sure to its citizens, Himeji has a lot to offer. Chuck recently completed his assistant pastorship at St. John Vianney Catholic Church located outside of Phoenix, so I thought he'd be interested in the connection.

Anyway, I'm digressing about the bullet train ride. The high-speed train is one of icons of Japan, so naturally Chuck wanted to experience it to get a well-rounded view of Japanese life. I've been on it a few times before: Osaka-Tokyo and Kobe-Hiroshima. The most important thing I learned is that you need to line up well before the train arrives and be prepared to board and egress quickly. You can literally set your watch by the arrival of the Shinkansen. Recently, it's on-time performance has improved to within a 1/10th of a minute. That's right folks: 6 seconds. No airline in the USA can touch that with a 10-mile pole. Yet we're pouring miles of concrete and billions of dollars for airport expansion while California's high-speed train initiative gets postponed yet again. And the trains stop at the exact place where you are supposed to board for your assigned car. Nevermind that it requires rigid operating procedures and mind-numbing repetition for train operators to achieve this predictablity, it makes for great customer satisfaction.

As Chuck and I blazed the 55 km in 16 minutes, we watched the whizzing megalopolis of Kansai, with its high-rise apartments next to bucolic rice fields, through the large windows. Once we were in Himeji, we took advantage of a little-known service for tourists: free bicycle rental! We found the underground bike parking lot and checked out our bikes. Most people ride fixed-gear, front basket, granny-style bikes in Japan. When I first got here, I was baffled by the fact that no one rode with a helmet. A friend explained to me that they don't ride as fast and as crazily as I do to merit wearing one. Well said. And most bike riders stick to the sidewalks, avoiding a losing battle with a car. So we did the same. With Chuck at 6'3" and me at 6'0", the seats wouldn't go up as high as we needed them to. But we weren't out for a performance ride, just a leisurely coast around the gardens of the castle. We followed the moat road around the castle, finding some refreshing breeze and shade from the hot sun. Just before we came back to our starting point, we ran into one of my old students from school. He lives in Himeji. I knew that he made the 150 km round trip commute to school everyday, but never in a city of 450,000 people would I imagine to run into him on the one day I was visiting! Silly me I didn't take a photograph:(

The self-guided tour of the castle is quite extensive, speckled with English here and there. Unfortunately for us, there was no English guide available that day. We would around the castle's outer walls before going inside the Keep. It has six floors before you reach the top, where there is an interesting little Shinto shrine. The castle replaced the shrine when it was built on a hill. When the townspeople started experiencing some bad harvests, they essentially said, "it's payback for removing the shrine!" So they put the shrine at the top of the castle. To my knowledge, there are few examples of this kind of cooperating between military and religious institutions in Japan. Please correct me if I am wrong.

The view allows you to see far and wide from the town. It also allows you to see the approaching storm! Minutes after I took this photo, the heavens opened, pouring rain down on us for the next 2 hours. We'd evaded the weather for the past two days, but now it was time for us to pay up. We played a game of "wait and see" with the skies, hoping that it would stop long enough for us to make it back to the train station without getting soaked. No such luck. Riding our bikes back to the garage, our pants and shoes were drenched. It sure was nice to cool off, but I think this was overdoing it! You could hear the "squish-squash" of the water being pressed from our shoes as we made our way back to the station.

We decided to take the rapid regular train back to Nishinomiya, thereby saving 2000 yen or so. The air conditioning of the train helped to dry us out a bit, but we sure were relieved to make it home and change our clothes for good. Although the later part of it wasn't high on the feel-good scale, our day certainly was a memorable one!
Tomorrow, the grand finale of Chuck's visit: a Hanshin Tigers game!


Kyoto: East Side

Every other week I go to Kyoto to attend the Christian Science Society, which is located a kilometer up the road from the Imperial Palace. From the train station, it is a 6 km walk that takes about 45 minutes (maybe it's longer, but I've never measured). I often take it so I can walk through the Palace gardens before the church service. After church, sometimes I visit the sites of West Kyoto, such as Nijo Castle. But I have yet to visit the temples in the East side of Kyoto, which I hear are the most spectacular.

So when Chuck was in town, I decided that this area would be the best to take him to. We took the walking tour recommended by Lonely Planet, which was about 5 km long. As you can tell, I do a lot of walking in Kyoto! The rain was falling pretty hard when we left in the morning, but the skies cleared by the afternoon to give us a clear view of the city below the hills. Our first stop was to Shoren-in, the residence of the chief abbot of the Tendai school of Buddhism. The grand main building contains gold and black statues which have an impressive, yet calming impression on visitors. The cool breeze flowing through the building was a reprieve from the heat outside, so Chuck and I sat down to relax. As we sat, a Buddhist priest chanted sutras for a family worshipping at the front of the temple. His voice was creating almost a double resonance like the overtone singers from Tuva and Mongolia. As we reflected in the peaceful atmosphere of the Temple, I thought about what my world view would be like if I grew up with only the artifacts, typography, and beliefs available in Japan. How would the American views and behaviors that I express come across to someone who'd never had any exposure to them?

I didn't get too far along that thought track, but waypost by waypost I am beginning to make progress in understanding the Japanese world view. Chuck and I moved on to see some other temples along the well-worn walking path. One dedicated to the unknown soldier of WWII. A serenely faced statue looms over a reflecting pool. For the price of admission, we received an incense stick to place before the statue. History is written by the victors, it is said. Here we experienced a chapter written by those who lost. And the story is no less important, I think. Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine can be seen as an effort to write a different perspective on that history. Gilda and I read the book, Embracing Defeat, by John Dower. It sheds light on an era of Japanese history that we don't hear a lot about in the USA: the 7 years of Allied (US) occupation of Japan. I remember hearing that the US Military was planting positive stories about Iraq in the press; during the Occupation of Japan, it was illegal to criticize the occupying forces or even to admit that there was censorship!

Anyway, I'm digressing. But these were my thoughts as I stood by the reflecting pool of this monument. Any further thoughts I had on the matter were scared off by this statute at the exit: Don't worry! I'm leaving! And I didn't pinch any yen out of the collection box!

Our last stop was Kiyomizu-dera Temple. It commands a stunning view of Kyoto and features a verandah that juts out over the hillside. After the morning rain, the view from here was quite clear. Most students are very shy to speak English with foreigners they meet in Japan, but every once in a while I meet an exception. Usually it is in famous tourists locations with students on school trips. Chuck and I chatted for a bit with these students, who begged us to take a picture with them. How could we turn down such genki students? By this time, we're both getting pretty tired from walking in the sun, so we head for home.

Just as the clouds open up with a strong downpour of rain, we reach the train station. It's a different line that I usually take, but what's a vacation without adventure? We hop on and head into Osaka. There, we debate seeing a castle with the skies clearing up and the afternoon light soft for stunning pictures. But we were already tired and it was time to get some rest because tomorrow we have to catch a west-bound train: to Himeji.


Nara: Revisited

The first stop that Chuck and I made on our sightseeing tour was Nara, the old capital of Japan. Back in the days of yore, capitals moved with every new emperor. Starting around the 700 CE, Japanese emperors basically said, "I'm tired of all this moving around! Let's just pick a new spot and stay there!" So they did. For at least 100 years. Then they moved to Kyoto. For almost a thousand years.

What really made the day for Chuck and I was the volunteer tour guide who led us around the city. She was a university student who wanted an opportunity to speak English with native speakers.
Being a tour guide is a great way to do that: you rehearse some set phrases for each city landmark and you also speak spontaneously about predictable and unpredictable topics in English. As a language teacher, I can see how it reinforces old vocabulary, introduces new vocabulary and accents, and broadens one's knowledge about their own and their guests' cultures.

I came to Nara last November and saw the same sites. Without a guide, they're just impressive structures. With a guide, they come alive and grow richer with the historical and anecdotal context. It is a luxury to have instant access to a cultural informant who can explain everyday things that baffle the visitor to Japan. I don't get this opportunity often, so you can imagine how many questions I had for our guide!

We ended up strolling around Nara for about 4 hours. June is the rainiest month in Japan. My Japanese co-workers and expat neighbors would have me believe that it rains for the entire month and nothing ever gets dry. So when we've had sunny days, I've been confused. The truth is, it is statistically the wettest month, it doesn't mean that someone turns the "rain" switch on June 1st and off June 30th. So on this day, Chuck and I escaped most of the rain. We had a strong downpour when we were inside the largest wooden building in the world: Todaiji Temple (2/3 of its original size. Tall wood things don't last long without lightning rods!).

Chuck was fascinated with all the deer roaming freely through the center of town. According to Shinto beliefs, they are spiritual messengers and therefore cannot be hunted. Apparently one of them had a message for Chuck. He was really surprised to hear it! Many vendors sell deer biscuits to feed them. The deer catch on to this and smell you up to see if your "packing" any. Could that be the message they are trying to send? We may never know.

On our way back from Nara, we stopped in a little restaurant for some tasty Okonomiyaki. I call it a "savory pancake" because it looks like a pancake but consists of egg-flour batter with seafood and/or vegetables mixed with strong sauces. This picture is of Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki, with the ingredients layered on. Kansai-style has the ingredients mixed together. Obviously Kansai-style is better;) Chuck wanted "see-food" that night, reminiscent of the popular Benihana's restaurants in the USA where the chef does a lot of fanfare with the food preparation to entertain the guests sitting around the table. I haven't seen one of those here. They probably exist, but I just haven't had the large group of people to go with or the money burning a hole in my pocket to patronize the establishment. So at this restaurant, the cooks prepare the food in front of you, but you have to slip them a 10,000 yen note to get any hoopla out of them! Anyway, we crammed into the tiny restaurant and waited a good 20 minutes, but it was worth it. Chuck gobbled his dish up before me, and with chopsticks at that!

Nara was the first of 3 straight day trips to the cultural treasures of Kansai. Next entry: Eastern Temples of Kyoto!

Countries I have visited

Where I've been in the USA