Horses and Monkeys and Bears (oh my!). 13.01.2014

I began 2014 having been awake until wholly inappropriate hours on New Year’s Eve. I woke up early(ish) to meet Chisato and her family at the Kamigamo Shrine. Praying may not seem like the best hangover cure to you but it seemed to do the trick, or maybe it was the scrumptious treats that Chisato had prepared us for lunch. At the Kamigamo shrine we fed a horse (being the year of the horse), wrote prayers on wooden boards to be burned, and Chisato got her fortune – she’s very lucky this year and almost got the best one. The fortunes come in different levels from great luck to awful and they set a forecast for the whole year – I wasn’t brave enough to get one – what if I got told I was going to have an awful year?? I was entrusted to tie the fortune up with other peoples as you can see below. They look a bit like Christmas trees don’t they.

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At the shrine you can also purchase mini bows and arrows which are symbolic of the new year, and you can also buy charms and get some calligraphy done. Next stop was a temple which is important to Chisato and Hiro’s ancestors, we spoke with the head monk for a time and drank matcha tea. He asked if I was one of those crazy people he’s seen on tv who are obsessed with Japan, funny guy. Anyway I guess I convinced him I was ok because I was invited to return whenever I like. This particular temple isn’t open to tourists which is a shame in one way because it’s such a treasure but I understand and respect their reasons for doing so – it’s not Disneyland it’s a spiritual place where people reflect and pray and pay respects to their deceased.

On that note; one of the stereotypes re Japan is the uniformity and ceremonial traditions, everyone following the same line. Yes it does happen, there are traditions and ways of doing things that people follow unquestioningly but I believe it’s a misunderstood concept. Personally when faced with some public situations I can feel awkward and I don’t know the right things to say etc, many people feel uneasy with death for example. Think then how reassuring it is to be told that there’s a way of dealing with it, one way that is acceptable and solves awkwardness. You deal with x by doing y – everyone does it that way. Of course it might not leave room for individuality in a historic sense but I’ve seen little evidence of people being unwilling to accept individuality in today’s Japan. I’ve seen tonnes of personality and creativity here, and I’ve also seen any ways that people rely on a ‘way of doing things’ that follows rules. It’s ok not to follow the traditional way, and it’s ok to do so.

A huge thank you goes out to Chisato and Hiro for showing me a beautifully traditional New Year’s Day.

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Couchsurfing.com has given me lots of opportunities for me to see new things in Kyoto with other travellers, I like showing people this city that I love and it gives me time to be a proper tourist. Last week I went to Arashiyama with an Australian and adopted a Belgian who we’d happened upon up in the monkey park. At the beginning I found the monkey park quite scary, I’d heard personal accounts of the intimidation and violence of the monkeys that live in the mountains around us. It’s a shortish fifteen minute hike up a mountain, and in the last stretch I heard screeches and braced myself. As soon as I saw the first monkey my excitement (and “awwww” factor) took over, they are pretty adorable wee things. From there we were steps away from the park where lots of monkeys were hanging around for treats (don’t take food up there, duh). There’s a warm hut with plenty of seating and large windows of wire mesh that prevent accidents but maintain a friendly contact between sapiens and simia, we fed the fuzzy cute things for a while and admired the view.

Next was a walk through Arashiyama’s bamboo cove. With a sure breeze the bamboo tap against one another creating this sort of rain like sound. With no pandas around to gobble it up the bamboo grows thick and ever so tall. There are apparently bears that live in Kyoto and Tom tells me they’ve been spotted in Arashiyama! I do plan to adventure into the mountains at some point but maybe not before finding someone with a map and bear wrestling qualities.

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Phew, this is a long one isn’t it!! Finally two more things, yesterday we went to Sanjusangen-do temple to watch the annual Toh-Shiya which is an archery competition. This is a tradition which goes waaaay back to the 12th century during the Edo period. Part of the tradition is a coming of age right of passage for girls, and they are absolutely astoundingly beautiful to watch – all in their best kimonos demonstrating impressive strength. It’s not just girls though, we watched older men and women plus some very impressive young lads who I’d say provoked the most reaction from us – in the crowds watching from an unsafe distance. I took some snaps but they’re not so good, my camera broke and my ipad lacks a good zoom.

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Today I made the expensive decision to buy a violin. I couldn’t bring mine with me to Japan in fear of it getting smashed up on the journey so apart from the short time when someone very kindly lent me one I’ve been without a violin. It may not seem like a pain to you, but playing music with people transcends all kinds of language barriers and lets me communicate on a whole different level. I don’t mean to sound so profound about the whole thing, it just comes down to wanting to have fun playing music with people. So I found a great violin shop near Demachiyanagi station and managed to tell the shop keeper that all the violins I’d seen were too expensive and I needed a cheap one – in Japanese no less. Of course he replied in wonderful English clearly recognising my struggle, and guided me to my final choice: a second hand Suzuki violin made in Nagoya. Great shop, wonderful guy, happy Rachel. I was also given a free case, quids in!

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If you’ve made it this far well done. I think that’ll be it for today.

Thanks for reading, all the best.

Rach xoxox

Ps I lied, there’s MORE. I ate a sweet pancake type treat called Taiyaki which is shaped like a fish, squid balls called Takoyaki, and drank a slightly alcoholic rice drink called Amazake which is also sweet, yum yum in my tum.

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Aitaiyo Santa-san!! 22.12.2013

So we are on the very cusp of Christmas, woohoo! Who’s feeling festive? I was shopping for 3 hours today and managed to buy nothing except a couple of cards and a hot chocolate. I spent a lot of that time trying to find wrapping paper, I didn’t find any. Lots of people have asked me whether Christmas is a big thing in Japan. Below you can see one of the snaps I took of a main shopping street.

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It’s prrreetty busy down there. There are Christmas decorations, Christmas adverts, and even the persistent drone of elevator music played in most shops is now Christmas themed. One shopping centre I went into wishes you ‘white’ as you go in with no mention of Christmas, another shop’s window wishes you a ‘happy Navy holidays’ and loft which changes according to the season wishes you a ‘happy home’.

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At first we might think… Hey they’ve super commercialised Christmas, a sacred time for family and binging… But don’t forget that without dear old Coke our Santa would be wearing green instead of this new red getup.

There is no public holiday for Christmas Day, and most people have to work. Schools are out but that’s due to terms and more for New Years Eve. Many of my students have got Christmas trees up at home and I’ve even seen a couple of houses with lights on, but it’s safe to say that Christmas is much less of a big deal here, much less. The bigger holiday is New Years Eve, and 2014 will be the year of the horse. People give each other cards and spend a few days with their families, they visit temples/shrines and eat a lot. Presents are bought, and often small gifts for colleagues (omiyage) need to be purchased. One of my students has crafted 150 handmade cards this year and most are for colleagues! I took a snap of some New Years Eve bits alongside Christmas bits below.

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So yes the shops were super busy and everyone is feeling the season but I think it’s more for NYE than for Christmas.

The last couple of weeks have been musically abundant. Someone kindly lent me a violin so I was able to play ‘Silent Night’ with a couple of my students at the Browns English Christmas
Kids Party (they had teeny tiny violins and it was adorable). I took this opportunity to join the folk players at ‘Wood Note’ who play every Monday evening. Wow, how lucky I was, because the week I joined them was the week that a couple of extra people decided to turn up. Harmonica Creams who are a band currently touring Japan after finishing a tour in Spain, had heard about Wood Note and wanted to join us for a session. Such talent! I was very much in awe of their fiddle player, she absolutely convinced me that there are dimensions to playing the violin that a classical education doesn’t touch. Though I enjoyed playing the violin with them and managed to get a few harmonies in there it was obvious that she was in a different league. I want to learn fiddle!!! I want to play more with other people! I want to learn blue grass and blues and jazz and and and… Yes well you can see. I have Mitsumi and Tom to thank for sourcing me with a fiddle for that time.

Another musical treat was watching ‘Nicky Fingers’ DJ at a free party at Honto Records. I met a lot of interesting people that night and enjoyed diverse sets. I met someone I might be performing with at some point and I found out about a few gigs coming up so that’s widened my Japanese music horizon a great deal. (It always feels a bit awkward talking about my social life on here actually, but it’s my experiences isn’t it). I’ll be off to a reggae night on Christmas Eve, so hopefully I’ll be distracted from all the potential home sickness Christmas threatens to bring.

Quick change of subject, I also went to Kurama the other day after feeling like I needed to see somewhere new. It was a very cloudy day so it made for some eerie pictures, it’s a beautiful place so I’ll be going back in the spring for sure, it’s also famous for natural hot springs so maybe I’ll even return if it snows soon.

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Don’t worry about me too much on Christmas Day because my friends here and I will be spending it together (thanks Yasmin and Chris for hosting us!), we will be doing all the traditional Christmassy things. But I will miss my England peeps a great deal.

Love you all loads, Merry Christmas.

Rach xoxox

Street Parties, Parades, and Life Drawing. 29.10.2013

If you’re reading this and you’re from old blighty then that means you’ve survived the storm – so well done. The images that the bbc were putting in the net were quite scary. We’ve had 28 typhoons this year so it seems like the end of the world is nigh.

Before that though here’s some snippets to read over dinner…

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My colleague Yasmin teaches an art class in English, it is held in Osaka. It means that anyone can pop along and learn some English and art skills at the same time, after the class the students also show their portfolios. I tagged along and learned how to do ‘sgraffito’ as demonstrated above. It was my first life drawing class being a student and I absolutely loved it. I came out of the class feeling really proud – like when you’ve tidied up, or handed in a piece of work, or…. Eaten fruit. Anyway, it felt wholesome.

Last Tuesday I watched some of the ‘Jidai Matsuri’ which is the festival of ages, it is a parade which runs from the Imperial Palace to Heian Shrine. I wasn’t in a great spot, it was very busy, and I was taking time out of work – so I didn’t stay long. However I’d recommend it to tourists who fancy going next year. I’d say get there early and watch it either from the palace or Heian Shrine. You can see one of my snaps below, there were some very impressive traditional clothes and it was a treat to see the horses. There’s also a fire festival in the evening in Kurama which is north of Kyoto I’ve heard it is something really worth attempting to see.

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Musically this past couple of weeks has been pretty varied and exciting. I went to a club night hosted by ‘Night Time High’ at a place called Metro, NTH are the people who did the art event at the skate park I wrote about last time (or the time before??). There were several very diverse dj sets and a live segment, the art continued all night along with the music. I’m enjoying learning more about Japanese hiphop and dance music. This weekend I went to Osaka for a Ska gig. We went to watch a band called ‘Los Tailors’ who were pretty good, we certainly enjoyed their music and I don’t mind admitting that the singer was pretty dishy. However, my highlight of the evening had to be the ‘Osaka Guiness Boys’ who performed folk classics such as ‘Oh Danny Boy’, ‘Loch Lomond’ and my personal fave ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’. Our group consisted of a good Scottish/English mix so we had a good wee dance. My boss is Irish, but he wasn’t there so he doesn’t count. We bumped into a street party on our way home and eventually made it onto a train home at about 5am. It was cold.

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Halloween celebrations have come and gone it here it seems. Browns English held their own party on Saturday which we all thoroughly enjoyed – there were classic games such as the ring toss, and we took the kids trick or treating on a planned trip down the local shopping mart. The shop keepers were given candy to hand the children once they’d managed to say “trick or treat, trick or treat, give us something good to eat” which is quite a mouthful. No pun intended. Ok bad joke. Yasmin and I almost successfully pulled off doing the ‘Thriller’ dance and would have got away with my missing sections of choreography if it wasn’t for Yasmin getting caught up in the spider web of the plant next to her. It was me who put that web there, so to be honest all the flaws were down to me. We still got a generous applause and we only made two children cry. Now to practice a performance for the Christmas party…..

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In other news: I’ve started decorating gourds.

Until next time, love rach xoxox

Getting into the swing. 17.10.2013

If you haven’t already; have a listen to ‘I’d rather dance with you’ by Kings of Convenience, it’s been in my head for about two weeks so it might as well be in yours too. There’s a whole section where they sing “getting into the swing ” just under a million times, it can really grind itself into your brain.

I’ve been a little more adventurous recently, I’ve taken myself out of my cycling distance comfort zone and into the realms of Japanese train travel. My first destination was the huge and spectacular Fushimi Inari shrine with its many orange gates. I believe this shrine is one of the shrines one might visit if you wanted your business to do well. You can walk up the mountain through its hundreds of gates to smaller shrines, there are fox statues and dog statues everywhere. At one point an old man was waving at me from the top of a smaller shrine, I thought he was telling me to go away but he was actually beckoning me. Once we’d got past this misunderstanding he showed me a collection of statues which included a family of dogs with puppies, aw. It’s a very, very long walk and if anyone is thinking about doing it I’d strongly recommend taking your own water because at the very top of course they charge over the odds for the stuff.

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I’ll be writing a whole blog about transport at some point but not today, so hold your horses – the photos of trains are on their way.

Last week I met an artist called Taphy in a cafe, Taphy used to paint in clubs in Tokyo but now lives and works in Kyoto. She invited me to an event at Hiuchigata skate park which is in south Kyoto. I went to the event on Monday, and wow, Taphy and her fellow artists – so much talent. I had a great time, and met some people who have invited me to some future events at clubs involving art and music so I’m completely stoked. Also, I was told that the crew had recently been in East London! Small world. I’d love to tell you more about them but I want to get the details right first, maybe next time. Here’s Taphy painting….

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At the moment Browns English is preparing for our halloween party. Yasmin and I have been trying to put together a dance to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Tom is finalising the Halloween craft task, and most students I’ve spoken to are making their own costumes from scratch. I’ve got a pretty tight budget this year so who knows what I’ll end up dressing up as. Halloween is a fairly new phenomena in Japan, until the last couple of years nobody here really celebrated it, but now the Japanese have adopted it with a passion – there seem to be a lot of decorations around town already. Christmas isn’t such a big deal, and Christmas Eve is more of a romantic event for couples rather than families. Valentines day involves chocolate for everyone, and I’ve got no idea about Easter but I’ll let you know of it happens.

I’ve popped a photo up of all the current Browns English teachers looking suitably genki, Tom and Mitsumi kindly laid on a BBQ for us and it was a huge success. You may have seen the crocodile…..

See you laters, alligators.

Rach x

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