Tuesday, April 27, 2010


When you think of traditional sports of Japan most likely things like sumo wrestling or karate will come to mind. But anybody who has ever seen Mr. Baseball knows that actually baseball 野球 is one of Japan's most popular sports. I'm not entirely sure why baseball has captured Japan's hearts so thoroughly- though I suspect it has to do with the sense of community and team spirit the game cultivates. Baseball was introduced to Japan in 1878 and the first Pro League started in 1920, only 19 years after the American League got going in the states.

Given this long history and great popularity, I wanted to see what a baseball game in Japan would be like. So last weekend Ian, Alexis and I traveled to Hiroshima for my first professional baseball game (I've never seen one in America either). Hiroshima's "Mazda ZOOM ZOOM Stadium" is home to the Hiroshima Carps, whose mascot is named Slyly and is inexplicably some weird bird kind of thing. He looks like the Philadelphia Philly's evil yellow twin. I digress.

Japanese baseball games are pretty fun. First of all, you have to stand the entire time your team is up to bat. Even though we were in the home of the Carps, I found out we would be sitting in the visitor's seats as Ian is a Chunichi Dragons fan. This turn of events didn't really phase me, as I am willing to cheer for whoever. But it's a good thing Alexis and I didn't buy any of the Carps souveneirs we were eyeing while waiting for Ian, as the opposing team's merchandise is strictly forbidden in the seating. Fans buys these plastic bats and beats the hell out of them while cheering for their team. In fact, each player has his own specific cheer that you have to memorize and chant while they are up to bat. This is aided by a small band that sits in the stands and leads the commotion. In front of us sat a really cute couple- they got so excited when we scored a point that they would turn around and high five us (although the woman's genkiness definitely wore down in the eigth inning after three large beers).
Another interesting note: Japanese baseball games can end in a tie. This result would never fly in America.

The food was also an adventure. Ian and Lexi especially were looking forward to some good old-fashioned concession nosh, and as always Japan gave them its own weird take on it. Ian had Japan's version of a Philly Cheese Steak, which turned out to be a piece of beef jerky with nacho cheese in a breadstick. Lexi had some nachos, which were more like nacho chips with cold nacho cheese and ketchup. I stuck to some traditional Oden, and was not dissappointed. However Japanese Churros were a big success- apparently fried dough tastes good the world over.

Oh, and the score? Although the Dragons had it in the bag with a 7-2 lead in the fourth inning, the Carps pulled out the stops and stomped us by scoring a game winning point in the ninth inning.

Next time, you sly Carps!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Sakura is perhaps the most prominent symbol of Japan. Simplistic in its natural elegance, and prized for its fleeting beauty, sakura really represent the Japanese aesthetic and spirit.

I'd heard so much about the Cherry Blossoms before coming to Japan, but I've never been here in the spring before so I never got to really experience them. People here take their sakura seriously. There's even a Cherry Blossom Forecast or 桜前線 you can check to see when the blossoms will be blooming in various parts of Japan and where they will be most beautiful. People participate in 花見 or literally Flower Viewing all across the country for the short two weeks of sakura season. Although I looked at a lot of blossoms, I was informed that I did not actually do any "花見" as more than just viewing, people will go have picnics under the blossoms, drink, and talk for hours.

The most surprising thing to me was that I had actually been looking at these trees all year. It's just that the tree itself is not that beautiful; being all so gnarled, grey, and weathered looking makes them easy to overlook when they are naked as skeletons in the winter. It was only in the spring, when they are in full bloom and completely breathtaking, that I noticed them. It was as if they had been hidden in plain sight the whole time.
Just another layer . . .

Saturday, April 10, 2010


After a sad goodbye with Risa, I boarded the train to Kyoto. Actually, when I applied for the JET Programme, Kyoto was my first choice. Its gorgeous temples and alluring history drew me in from the beginning. Luckily Kobe, Kyoto, and Osaka are all just a stone's throw from one another so you can visit them all pretty conveniently.

I got in that evening and checked into my youth hostel, Sandalwood. It turns out the owner is a super cool guy- he is in a band that tours the area and was more than happy to explain to me how to get all the places I wanted to go. As luck would have it, that evening my very favorite temple, 清水寺Kiyomizudera, was having a special event that night where it was all lit up for cherry blossom viewing. So I headed off to see for myself. At the bus stop I met two girls from my hostel who were visiting from Australia and we decided to venture together. They were very cool and VERY genki, which was fun for me, and I spoke Japanese, which was fun for them.

Why is Kiyomizudera my favorite temple? Well. First of all the grounds are expansive and beautiful. Second, it has a lot of different things to see and do. Many temples all you can really do is pray and buy a good luck charm. This temple has a wishing rock you have to travel through a dark tunnel to find, many beautiful waterfalls with magic water, and a shrine you can use to find your true love. The fact that I got to experience its special spring festival was pretty much awesome. (I recall it being my fearless Sensei's favorite temple as well, which could have influenced my opinion slightly). After the temple we toured Kyoto, wandering through historic Gion in our search for food. We ended up at a soba restaraunt and I got to boast that my area, Izumo, has the best soba. Although Kyoto's wasn't bad.

The next day I headed out to have my own adventure. It was a drizzly day, but I had to make hay with or without the sun. My first stop was Kinkaku-ji 金閣寺 or the Golden Pavilion. The last time I visited Kyoto (High School) I think for some reason we weren't able to see Kinkakuji, so it was a top priority for me. The temple itself was beautiful, and the reflecting pool was gorgeous as well. All around the temple vendors were selling trinkets and gifts relating to gold. I sampled some green tea that had little gold flakes in it, nibbled on some chocolate with gold leafing, and admired fabric woven with golden threads. Japan knows how to advertise.
It took a lot less time to see than I had planned, so I had to find something else to do that afternoon. In college I wrote a series of papers on the traditional crafts of Kyoto; naturally, kimono and the silk weaving industry was at the forefront of my studies. So I wanted to visit Nishijin, the traditional weaving area of Kyoto where a lot of the magic happened.

Unfortunately, I was clueless about how to get there. As I stood, squinting at my map that was quickly getting disintegrated in the rain, a girl tapped me on the shoulder. "Are you ok?" she asked me. She and her friend, both beautiful Japanese girls dressed to the nines (heels, makeup, the works) were peering concernedly at me. "I'm a little lost" I responded. "I want to go to the Nishijin center but I don't know what bus to take." They looked at my map, my wet hair and shoes, and took pity on me for sure. Before I knew it I was in the car of one girl's grandfather, who kindly picked us up an drove me straight to Nishijin. He must have been about a hundred years old and he talked to me very politely in old man speak, which I understood about 0% of, while the girls talked to me in normal Japanese about their lives. Before I knew it I was at my destination and the girls went on about their way. It was more than I could have hoped for. Life is full of unexpected surprises and extremely kind people.

Nishijin was, well . . . I have mixed emotions. I was so happy to get there and so thankful for the help I had received. But rather than a museum or a historical monument as I had expected, it turned out to be a little more like a tourist trap. They had "kimono runway shows" every couple of hours and sold many fabric things with traditional Japanese designs.

However, if you looked closely the affordable things were not actually Nishijin; that's right, they were made in China. I was dissappointed by the quality of a lot the goods there. HOWEVER there were people on looms making traditional woven textiles, complete with the hundreds and hundreds of tiny skeins of silk thread and vast, complicated designs. I got to to try out some weaving too. That was really enjoyable, although it as well was just a simple shuttle loom and wool thread.

Maybe there is a better Nishijin museum around Kyoto somewhere, and I just somehow got sucked in to this one. However we just have to make the best of things, and I had to enjoy my time there for what it was.
Plus, I mad a pretty sweet table runner. That has to count for something, right?

My next stop was Ginkaku-ji 銀閣寺. Now, here's a quiz for all you guys. "KIN" means gold, and kaku-ji means temple/pavilion, and therefore Kinkaku-ji is a golden pavilion. So if "GIN" means silver then what color do you think Ginkaku-ji is?

If you guess silver then you are sadly mistaken, but if you guessed a dirty white then you would be correct. Apparently the guy who started building it died before he could front the cash to cover it in silver foil as he had wanted, and his successors didn't feel the need to pick up where he left off. This temple is supposed to be a good example of the wabi sabi aesthetic, "meaning art and beauty that pervades all things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete". In other words: a rough beauty that imitates nature.
I usually like wabi sabi but I think I would have liked a temple made of silver better. But the temple grounds definitely made the trip worth it for me Ginkakuji is famous for its beautiful sand gardens. Many Zen gardens are actually just made of little rocks that can be swept into interesting patterns. On the left you can see the temple's interpretation of Mt. Fuji. How did they make the pebbles stay like that????? Cool.
After Ginkakuji all I wanted to do was get warm and dry. So I went back to the train station, ordered a big bowl of nabe (Japanese stew) and a glass of plum wine, and waited for my bus home in style.

My stay in Kyoto was wet, cold, and grey.
But, rather than saying the rain detracted from my trip, I'd like to think it just made the whole atmosphere especially wabi-sabi.
Next time, bring an umbrella!

Friday, April 2, 2010


It's time for spring vacation in Japan, and in lieu of a proper holiday I'm making several small weekend trips. (Even though the students have no school, I would have to use up some of my precious paid vacation to get time off. Boo!)

One three-day weekend I boarded yet another highway bus to Kobe to visit Risa, my host sister from Kobe.

What do you think of when I mention Kobe? Most Americans know Kobe beef- a very fatty, marbled delicacy I was content not to partake of. Actually in Japan, Kobe is equally famous for its bread. Japanese bread is like eating a cloud- so light and fluffy! Wheat bread or any carbohydrate that requires much chewing is hard to find. In addition to beef and bakeries, Kobe hosts one of two Chinatowns in Japan (The other is in Yokoyama I believe). Kobe's Chinatown is quite small- only about one street long. I had forgotten that I'd been in Kobe before- actually the first time I came to Japan- but this scene brought back some strong memories.

Although Risa is fluent in English, she's actually majoring in Chinese at her university. What a talented lady! Not only that, but in high school Risa and I were both kind of nerdy: just your average spectacled teenager. While I am still definitely nerdy, Risa has turned out to be a beautiful woman. It's amazing how people grow up! We walked around the campus of her university. She said it's one of the smallest public universities in the country. All prospective college graduates in Japan have to write a 卒業論文 or graduation thesis. Risa, being from Hiroshima and having a great interest in Peace Studies, will write hers about foreign countries' thoughts on the atom bomb. This is an especially tricky subject in Japan. Most Japanese are eager to put all of World War Two behind them and embrace the idea of peace.

While being in Japan I have never felt a grudge towards Americans for our own act in the war, whether it is to be considered a terrible tragedy or a defensive maneuver. However, Risa says although many Japanese, especially in Hiroshima, learn a great deal about the atom bomb, most don't know about Pearl Harbor or Nankin. Like many governments, the Japanese government is quick to turn a blind eye to its own faults. I think in this time, while our own government and governments around the world are making difficult and terrible decisions, it is important to remember that governments and their people are not synonymous. Peace cannot be attained from the government down. It has to come from the opposite direction, from people making peace with people through travel, through education and understanding, and from an open mind. Apart from pleasure, I truly desire to travel more to make more of these connections, more bridges to make the world a more united and closer place.

We also visited Kobe Tower- not quite as well known as Tokyo Tower but still cool. It's shaped like a drum, supposedly. Here is a view of the view from the top of the tower. Kobe is also famous for its sea ports, and the tower is situated in an area known as Harborland. Harborland has shopping, an amusement park, and several lovely restaurants. It also has a park called Merikan Park (although I suspect they mean American Park).

Kobe was a fun visit, and it was really great to catch up with Risa. Our visit was short, but I felt really lucky to be able to keep this connection with my friend from so many years ago.

Unfortunately on Monday Risa had to go to Tokyo for a job interview, but luckily for me Kobe just a quick train ride away from Kyoto, my very favorite city in Japan. Look forward to reading about it in my next blog!