Zazen

•2009.06.29 • 2 Comments
In front of the temple

In front of the temple

I rubbed my eyes blearily and looked at my watch.

9am.

I sighed disgustedly and then turned back onto my side to get a little more sleep. After studying until around 3, it seemed like the best answer on a Wednesday morning where all I had to do was go to class at 1pm.

After a little tossing and turning, and finally turning my AC down a little, I went back to sleep and didn’t wake up into 11 when I heard a knock at my door. I jolted up and ran to my door after throwing on my shirt and some pants, and upon opening it found Maryann waiting.

“What’s up?” I said, wiping my eyes.

“Where’s that Zazen thing today?” she asked. “Because I think I’m going to take the bus if its very far.”

Zazen? My mind woke up a little and then I remembered:

“Oh, it’s at Myoshinji. It’s literally right south of school. It should be easy to find, don’t worry.”

“Uh-huh. Well, I’ll look it up on the map. I’ll knock on your door if I have any questions or I want to take the bus, okay?”

“No problem.”

After that, I proceeded to grab my towel and take a shower to wake myself up a little before going to Myoshinji temple and doing Zazen, which I’ve just realized that I’ve rudely neglected to explain to you.

Zazen is Zen meditation. Zazen, like most meditation, involves focusing and controlling one’s consciousness. However, unlike a many types of meditation, Zazen involves open eyes, because it promotes Alpha-wave functions in meditation which are intentionally suppressed in other forms of meditation.

Back to the story, though, this was part of our Japanese culture class, which had split us up into three groups: one going to OMRON, an electronics company, another going to Sado, the tradition Japanese Tea Ceremony, and, finally, another going to Zazen.

After a quick shower and gathering up my camera and other necessities, I embarked to my destination, which was only a couple of bus stops away. After a couple of minutes, everyone began to gather and then finally the teacher came and rounded us up into a group and led us into the temple itself.

Us, lost

Us, lost

If you have a view of Buddhist temples as being one building, you’re sadly mistaken. Most temples, at least in Japan, are rather large complexes of buildings in which people live out their everyday lives in addition to buildings in which the specifics of Buddhism are performed. Myoshinji is no different, and, after walking around for about 20 minutes in the hot Japanese sun, our teacher announced to us that we were lost and she’d be finding someone to lead us to our destination.

Our teacher off in search of help

Our teacher off in search of help

After waiting another five minutes, she returned with an elderly man who kindly pointed us in the right direction. At this point, we were drenched in sweat and thankful for the house we were apparently being led to.

After taking off our shoes and laying our bags down, we entered a large room with mats and pillows to sit on, and we were instructed how to sit for meditation. The monk in charge assured us that if we were uncomfortable, they would be happy to let us use chairs if we needed them.

Partly because of pride, no one accepted this kind offer, although when I questioned my friends later, they all complained about how hard it was to sit during the meditation and not how hard the meditation itself was.

Settled in, the monk gave us a brief description of how we were to take natural breaths and let our stomach rise and fall with our breathing as we focused our consciousness behind our navels and tried to push thoughts from our minds.

A pretty pool outside our place of meditation

A pretty pool outside our place of meditation

At this point I was doing well. I looked out towards the center of the straw mats in the room and started to meditate as best I could until I realized, to my chagrin, that my leg was killing me. The monk had already warned us against moving, as it would disrupt our own meditation as well as others, so I bade my time excruciatingly and waited until the loud claps and bell chimes announcing the end of the session sounded.

I relaxed and let my legs regain their bloodflow for a little while until the monk started explaining that we were going to have a second session, this time with our eyes half-open in the style of Zazen, and it was at this point that he explained to us what I earlier explained to you: about the point of Zen meditation and the reason for its style.

This took a little longer than it should have, because although I could understand the gist of what the monk was saying most others couldn’t, and our student translator, as nice as she was, couldn’t for the life of her do a quick translation fo what the monk had said. So after about 2 minutes of consultation with our teacher after every senetence or two that he said, she explained it to us.

I really couldn’t compain, however, as my legs were finally starting to feel normal by the end of her series of explanations. Finally, we began our second session, which proved to be much harder than the first. For some reason, my legs hurt more this time than the first time, and as much as I’dve liked to focus on Mu, the void, I was focusing far more on the void of oxygen in my leg which was turning completely numb over a period of 30 minutes.

During this time, though, the monk moved about us and used a large stick to hit our shoulders if we wanted in order to help us focus more. Despite his saying beforehand that it woudn’t hurt, the first person to recieve a sound thwacking startled us all because of the volume of the said thwacking (seriously, it was loud). So, in addition to focusing on my poor leg, I was losing focus every minute or so because of an explosive sounding smack of a long stick against some person or another’s shoulders.

Finally, it came my turn to be smacked, so I bowed to the monk and then bowed deeply and held my breath as the stick came down on my shoulders.

You’d be surprised at how effective that was at refocusing my attention, but there was a problem: time was up.

We shared tea with the monk, and our translator struggled yet again with the finer points of Zen philosophy. However, I couldn’t help feeling I had had a rather good time despite my troubles and inwardly resolved to try it again except this time without the whole leg pain.

Afterwards, a canal I found interesting

Afterwards, a canal I found interesting

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10 Things Japan Does Wrong

•2009.06.29 • 1 Comment

1. Pizza

If you want an easy meal in the US, pizza is usually the answer. With beautiful, doughy crust, hot mozzarella cheese, and a light taste of tomato sauce, it’s hard to mess up. Japan, however, has decided that if you want a real pizza, you’re going to have to pay about 30 dollars for a large, and if you want an oven pizza, it’s going to be sprinkled with corn and bellpeppers (yum!).

2. Driving

If you don’t believe me, read my first post ever. It’s absolutely true. Maybe they’re skilled, but I get the feeling that in addition to being skilled, they really don’t care about anyone else’s life on the road.

IMG_15613. English

Okay, arguably they do it hilariously, but invariably, they have problems with English grammar and (sometimes) propriety.

4. Sunrise

Sunrise should never happen at 4:30 am. Never.

5. Single-speed bikes

Seriously, why? Why are they so popular that I can’t find anything else?

6. Super-markets

Because sometimes I want to buy limes for less than a dollar-fifty apeice.

7. Beer prices

P1000005I think this is rather self-explanatory though unaccountable considering that all other types of alcohol are exceedingly cheap. The picture illustrates the lower end of the price scale.

8. Wifi at school

At OU, its wonderfully easy to get on wifi. All you need is a computer. At Ritsumeikan, all you need is an ID, Password, PPOE config, and a Proxy. Yeah, I think that covers it.

9. Centipedes

Read the rest of the blog to get the story, but centipedes are creepy and Japan has them. Thus, it’s wrong.

10. Analog tv

You’d be surprised how much TV around here really stinks unless you have real cable and a tv that can decode BS/CS programming.

Ninjas

•2009.06.14 • 1 Comment
Yeah, that's a ninja. Cutting stuff.

Yeah, that's a ninja. Cutting stuff, no less.

You know, sometimes going on a random car trip with one of your Japanese buddies without any real plans or even a map can be a good thing, as long as you have a gps (whether you actually use its direction function or not) and a hazy idea.

It’s Thursday night and as I’m watching one of my weekly shows on the computer, my phone says “You’ve got mail” three times, and then goes silent. After being kind of freaked out because I forgot to put it on silent, I walk over to it and read the message, which happens to be from Kazu, one of my Japanese friends.

It read something to the tune of “Hey, I’m renting a car. Let’s go see ninjas and Nara on Sunday. Invite some friends.” So I immediately replied in the affirmative and went scouting the house for prospective adventurers.

It might be selling out, but truth be told, it's fun.

It might be selling out, but, truth be told, it's fun.

Turns out, Thursday’s the day when people have already decided what they’re doing for the weekend.

I couldn’t find a soul who didn’t already have plans. So, two nights later, while I was at karaoke with some friends, I got another text from Kazu asking if I had found anyone yet. I had almost forgotten about my earlier plans, since the night had been rather full, so I immediately asked my singing compadres whether they’d like to go on a trip. One, Drew, said, “Yeah, sure.”

And thus, our group was formed.

I awoke the next morning at 1045am and within 20 minutes was in a nice, new Honda Insight on the way to Iga city.

Biwa

Biwa

On the way there, though, we decided that it would be cool to check out Japan’s largest lake, Lake Biwa, and take a few pictures. A short cruise around the lakefront, and we found a parking spot at a hardware store (shh… don’t tell them), and we went to the lake for a couple of minutes.

Truth be told, this happened to be one of the nicest days since I’ve arrived in Japan, since most of the time, you can’t see the blue sky, and if you can, more often than not it’s a pretty humid day whether the camera can capture it or not.

That said, I took a nice panoramic shot of the lake, and a couple of random shots before Drew called to our collective attention that we had nothing in our stomach and were therefore ravenously hungry. That in mind, a McDonalds was revealed to us by the GPS which Kazu refused to let actually lead us and rather point us in general directions.

Finding the McDonalds took a minute or two longer than it should have, but, after being properly sated, we turned the car in the general direction of Iga, and continued our journey.

Once we reached Iga, Kazu began a search for free parking which set us about a mile and a half from our destination, which happened to be on top of a small mountain (few things in Japan aren’t on top of a hill or a mountain, truth be told). So we trekked a while and arrived at the Iga ninja museum.

Arriving, Drew seemed surprised that the museum wasn’t free, but after a quick review of what we would be seeing, we all fished in our pockets for 700 yen in change and another 200 yen for the ninja show (“why not?” he said, counting out another 200 yen).

They're everywhere

They're everywhere

About the Ninja Show, three words alone: “totally worth it.” It was a return to fun childhood memories, the suspension of disbelief, and the indulgence of simpler wishes from my entertainment. As two other college students and I walked away from the finished show, we only talked about how fun it was and how it was such a great investment.

Now that we were done with the demonstration, we moved on to the actual museum, which was just as fun in a much more informative way.

We learned all about ninja implements and ninja life, how colored rice could be arranged for messages, and how ninjas actually couldn’t walk on water (only on thicker, muddy water, and with special shoes that spread their weight over a large area).

Iga Ueno Castle

Iga Ueno Castle

After that, our short attention spans directed us to a castle nearby. Fifteen minutes of enjoying the view of the castle and the surrounding town later, we departed for the car and ended up stopping in a bookstore on the way, where I bought a couple of cheap manga (Japanese comics) and we left for Nara.

On the car ride to Nara, we talked about what to expect there (deer), and how, because of the mountains, Japanese highways let you get nowhere near the speed of their American counterparts, which was interesting to me, and probably the reason why most Japanese people just use trains to get from one place to another.

Upon arriving, we hurried to our destination, a park, and, since it was about nighttime already, we couldn’t park, so we just did a drive-by of the herds of deer roaming a green field to the side of town. That task completed, we searched for a place to eat and then went home.

All in all, I’d say that was a good day, wouldn’t you?

Deer!

Deer!

Break a Leg

•2009.05.23 • 2 Comments
Dawn happens at 4:30 in Japan. Why, I wonder?

Dawn happens at 4:30 in Japan. Why, I wonder?

Sometimes, you just have to roll with suggestions, no matter how random they are, and experience life to the fullest.

I’ve been negligent in my posting recently, but if you consider that the two (supposedly) largest breaks of my career at Ritsumeikan have happened since my last post, I’m sure you’ll be all-forgiving.

First, there was Golden Week, punctuated by parties and parties and a couple of trips to temples and shrines. And you know what? That was good, in its own way. It was a well-deserved break from the usual studies and tension lying therein.

However, Mukade Wars/swine flu break will be different!

What’s that, you ask? Swine flu break? Mukade Wars? HUH?!

A party at I-House II

A party at I-House II

Well, let’s go with the last first, since it requires a bit more description to do its grisly reality justice. You see, in Japan, starting in late spring and ending in fall, the mukade come out to prey on, well, everything. What are the mukade? Centipedes. I can imagine your skin starts to crawl just thinking of centipedes everywhere. Don’t worry. It’s not *quite* that bad. They’re not everywhere. Just almost everywhere. For your consideration: a couple of days ago, when getting out of the shower, one of the guys found one in his pants (that he was about to put on) as he was getting out of the shower.

Why is this bad, though? These poisonous centipedes are a really scary bunch. They live in the bamboo grove right next to where I live, and the first time I saw one was three nights ago…

…it was a dark and stormy night (I kid you not), and I had just put my bike away in the bike area next to my dorm. As I was walking to the door (in sandals, no less), I saw something skitter/squirm (centipedes deserve their own creepy verb for their movements) across my path. Lo and behold, a centipede had crossed the rain-wet asphalt and had stopped in my path. if it weren’t for my sandals, I would have started the war then and there. However, my squeamish nature towards highly poisonous bugs and my bared feet seemed like a bad combination for a fatal blow to the 15-or-so centimeter animal, thus it was left alive to terrorize another day.

See?

A couple of days later, though, yesterday to be entirely exact, I was up late at night, contemplating whether to do homework or just save it for the next morning when I looked on facebook. Boredly perusing statuses, I noticed a strange thing: “SCHOOL’S OUT TIL NEXT WEDNESDAY BECAUSE OF SWINE FLU!” was littered everywhere across statuses and walls among my friends here. Thus, I decided to go downstairs to see whether any of these people were up, because I was almost sure there’d be a party to celebrate this momentous and highly auspicious occasion.

Arriving downstairs (at 2 am), I was surprised to see not just a couple of people drinking (bad) beer and playing video games, but a whole throng of card-players, and (bad) beer drinkers.

I decided, in the best of judgment, to join their party and ward off sleep for a while longer with a couple of drinks and a game of cards or two.

Bob.

Bob.

At one point, a couple of the people decided to go out and have a smoke, and the rest of us decided to continue our card game. After a few minutes of the game, the window through which the people who were smoking had gone from opened, and Bob poked his head out.

“Hey, we just killed a centipede. It tried to fight back, but Elie fought it and we killed it!”

And with that, he closed the window, and we were all left thinking about the centipedes and being much more scared by them than the swine flu itself, which had been pushed far back in our minds by partying and generally knowing that if we caught it, we caught it but if we washed our hands as we came in and tried not to cough on anyone if we needed to cough, everything would be fine, and the worst that we faced was a case of the flu.

Centipedes, however, were a different sort of business altogether.

After a while, Bob, Elie, Julien, Aoife, and Frank proceeded to jump in through the window and sit next to the table, each of them talking about the Mukade Wars amongst themselves, until one of us who were inside asked, “What are you guys talking about? I thought there was only one centipede.”

Aoife, the Irish girl among them, turned to us and said, “Yeah, but that was before another came, and Frank killed it. Legend, man. He’s the centipede killer!” (Legend, for use in this blog, is a British isles word that means ‘amazing’, ‘incredible’ or ‘the stuff of legend’.)

That said, Frank smiled widely and then walked upstairs, coming back with a couple of pairs of scissors from his room that he said we could fight the centipedes with. I felt slightly dubious, but at the same time, I was comforted knowing at least some sort of tools existed to fight their growing threat. We continued our game with our renewed numbers for a while, and then the room started to clear out, since 4:15 am seemed a rather late time for people to be up about about.

It was then that Elie, a French guy, had an idea. Bob and I were gathering up things and cleaning up after our party when Elie said, “Let’s go see the sunrise at the lake.”

“Yeah, why not?” I said, barely thinking and relatively tired.

“Sure. Let’s,” Bob agreed. And with that it was decided.

Elie and Bob on this fine morning.

Elie and Bob on this fine morning.

15 minutes later, after the three of us had gotten our cameras and our things (I was actually in pajama pants) and gotten on our bikes, we proceeded to the lake, which, as pictured above, was wonderful. Leaving out bikes at the entrance, Elie and Bob produced cans of beer and drank them slowly as we watched the strangely bright 4:45 am landscape.

A while of talking and marveling later, Bob suggested that we go to Arashiyama, a local sight more famous among the Japanese than the Gaijin (outsider) tourists, and the two of us agreed. At the time, I wondered why I agreed, but after having taken so many wonderful pictures at such an early hour, I figured that sleep could wait for me, and I climbed onto my bike as we all went to Arashiyama.

Arashiyama as you've never seen it before and will probably never see it again.

Arashiyama as you've never seen it before and will probably never see it again.

Arashiyama, which basically means “Storm Mountain” in Japanese, is a beautiful place during the day, at which time at least 1,000 to 2,000 tourists come on any given day, swelling to even more on weekends or holidays.

At 5 am, though, it was stunning…

…..and completely deserted except for a couple of elderly walkers.

As we walked down the path along the river, it occurred to me exactly how amazing a moment this was. Something that few Japanese people ever saw, I was seeing in its full splendor.

Biking over hills and speeding back down them, we finally reached an alcove or rocks where we sat for a while and talked. The sun, obscured (sadly) by clouds, rose slowly, and as we left, I saw a bird which, in my opinion, made the whole trip a complete success.

…Also, Elie found a centipede on the way home. What a wonderful way to tie up a story, eh?

Said bird.

Said bird.

Why am I not surprised, though?

•2009.05.10 • 2 Comments
IMG_1186

Wait, why is it under construction?

You’d be surprised at what Japan does to you.

At first, you go through a phase where everything’s interesting, everything’s new, everything’s fun, then it turns a little and you’re left in a place that’s overwhelming.

Not to say that that’s a bad thing. Oh, no. If you like to be overwhelmed in every sense, seeing new things every day, wondering about a new nuance every moment, then come here and please have a wonderful time, because I know you will.

I know I have.

Now let’s get to what I’m talking about:

Supposedly modern space-needles totally help your concentration during Zen meditiation.

Supposedly modern space-needles totally help your concentration during Zen meditiation.

As I was walking with a friend through the oh-so-scenic Arashiyama, a district right next to where I live in Kyoto, I was struch with both the beauty and the odd juxtaposition of such natural beauty with something so concrete, so artificial in every sense.

You’d have to be in Kyoto to see it for yourself. I know I’d never’ve believed exactly how striking seeing a temple gate right next to a four-story apartment complex would be if I’d told my former self what I knew today to be true.

No, you’ll find Liquor Mountains (what do you think it is, really?) literally 100 meters away from a scenic hillside here. Anything goes.

In the middle of any residential neighborhood ~choose one on a map, throw a dart for godssake~ I can show you a shrine to the local Shinto kami (spirit) who guards that smallish congregation of people. The same goes for shops. If you see a block of shops without a temple or a miniature shrine connected to it, call someone and take pictures, because I’m sure it will be the only one in Japan.

While you laugh at what is surely an exaggeration, realize that I’m not actually kidding, just stating the facts. At least it holds true here, in the heart of what is truly the fusion of neoJapan.

むねむねきゅ〜ん

むねむねきゅ〜ん

But if you don’t believe me and take a tour of even a place as huge and metropolitan as Osaka (by the way, this is one of the top ten largest metropolitan areas in the world -Osaka/Kobe/Kyoto- with 17 million inhabitants, so don’t think I’m in some tourist trap), you’ll find evidence of this sensory overload and amazing juxtaposition of odd architcture and shops that really should have no place in any “regular” first-world country.

Take for instance the picture most recently attached to this: outside of a cosplay (girls dressing up as maids, Victorian ducchesses, or cats among other things) cafe, these two girls were singing Anime songs and trying to attract business while a throng of onlookers tried to edge just a little closer to them.

I’ve only got one phrase for this: “only in Japan.” And while I could go on, I’ll let you guys take a breather with my shortest post yet, and get ready for another.

‘Cuz you know you like it.

Adventures in Fushimi ward, Story 1: “Kamikakushi”

•2009.04.23 • 1 Comment
img_0742

Stairway

If you truly love something, it’s easy to lose yourself in it.

Or so I told myself as I biked back to the dormitories at 10 at night, after a long day of getting lost purposefully to great avail. As to why I had done it, that was the simplest part: to learn a little more about this city I love and see places I hadn’t yet seen.

The story behind this desire, though, is a much longer one than that seemingly simple answer.

My day, last Sunday, started out well enough. The night before, I had asked a friend whether he wanted to go to one of the nearby temples, to which he had responded that he had made other plans. In fact, he said, he really wanted to go to Fushimi Inari with me, but it would have to wait.

The funny part was: I hadn’t even asked him about Fushimi Inari, which made me think: I should go to Fushimi Inari. Seeing as it was past midnight, though, a search through the house to find someone else to go with seemed futile, so I put off my search until morning….

Well, afternoon, technically. I woke up at noon and, after taking a shower and grabbing something to eat, I started my search for a travel companion.I went upstairs first, and found one of the students cooking her lunch. However, she needed to study and she didn’t know anyone who was still there. I frowned at this and went downstairs, asking another friend whether she wanted to go.

Pictured: Shifra (left), and pedestal (right)

Pictured: Shifra (left), and pedestal (right)

However, she was feeling sick, and I was feeling the emptiness of the house when another friend passed by and I asked her. Her name was Shifra, and the main reason I knew her was because I had agreed to teach her go and shougi. She agreed, and after I told her we could go in 15 minutes, she immediately left for her room and got ready.

Since Fushimi Inari, unlike the temples I wanted to go to, is a Shinto shrine complex in the far southern ward of town, not to mention the fact that I had left my bike somewhere the night before, I had to devise a special mode of transportation to get to our destination.

And so it was that after a shortcut, a short wait for a train, a change of trains, a subway ride, a change of subways, and a short train ride, we arrived at Fushimi Inari shrine.

For those who don’t know, in the Japanese pantheon of Shinto, Inari is the kami (spirit) or rice, fertility, and prosperity. Seeing as those have been important to Japan since its inception centuries ago, it only follows that Inari is one of the foremost kami in Shinto.

Torii

A corridor of arches near the entrance

That said, Fushimi Inari is probably the largest and most famous of Inari’s shrines scattered here and there throughout Japan. If you’ve seen Memoirs of a Geisha, you might remember the red torii (arches) the main character runs through at one point in the movie. That was actually shot at Fushimi Inari in Kyoto (picture to left).

When we arrived at our destination, as soon as we stepped out at the station, we were greeted by a huge, looming, red monstrosity of an arch.

“This is kind of tacky,” Shifra noted, regarding the arch skeptically.

I laughed and replied, “Yeah, but it’s not one of the real arches, this thing is made of concrete, it’s for tourists.”

“You’re right. Let’s continue to our true destination!” she replied, and with that, we began our trek to the shrine itself.

We walked up to the main gate, where shopkeepers were lined up in true Japanese fashion, selling everything from small red arches to write dedications on and place at the shrine to fox masks for children.

After a quick peek inside, we continued on our way to the shrine.

A shinto priest

A shinto priest at the shrine

In the outer complex, we passed by one of the daily rituals of the Shinto priests and watched for a few minutes as a businessman in the seats was offered a bamboo shoot to place on the altar, presumably as an offer to Inari for his venture.

Because we were watching from afar, and because we couldn’t take pictures, we turned to face the facade of the first arches to the inner shrine.

A mid-sized path greeted us, and we started towards what I thought at the time was our final destination.

Shifra and her place to sit

Shifra and her place to sit

We reached the inner sanctuary without incident and stayed there for about 15 minutes while I strolled around the sanctuary and took pictures and Shifra found a place to sit (picture left).

Now, in all truth, Fushimi Inari isn’t just one shrine to Inari, it’s literally hundreds of shrines to Inari and other kami. That said, I had no idea about this fact until we departed on one of the side-roads from the sanctuary.

Through another red torii to the left of where we were, a path twisted away from the “main attraction” and towards the other side of the mountain.

To say that the rows of arches at Fushimi Inari was the main attraction is like saying a single ride at Disneyworld is its main attraction. Thus, especially because we were already awed, what followed next was surreal.

The intersection

The intersection

We moved on, slowly but surely, until reaching a very small shrine to our left after an intersection of arches (right). At this point, Shifra asked whether we should continue down the beaten path or take a smaller path to the right. After only a second’s hesitation, I decided on the road less traveled, and she agreed.

A flight of steps and ten minutes later, we saw a house on the ridge. Obviously, some old priest lived there who took care of the smaller shrine next to his house, but it seemed dream-like that people actually lived here in regular houses and devoted their lived to this pristine place.

The grove

The grove

The couple of minutes spent here passed quickly, but what met our eyes next was a bamboo grove growing to the right of our path, down the mountain. Although it was spring, a glance upward revealed that whenever the wind blew, bamboo leaves fell from high above our heads. Try as I did to actually get a picture that caught this, I couldn’t, and after a couple of tries we walked farther down the path.

Then came my first decision to get lost that day.

In the green grove, the path again split in two, this time one leading to a cluster of shrines. We took this path, but when leaving, we decided to go up a much smaller path leading to the side.

After walking a while, we stumbled upon what looked like farm houses and cleared land. Keep in mind, this is Kyoto, so it was surprising in that there were farm houses within Kyoto at all, which doesn’t even have lawns in the city proper because everything is packed so tightly.

So we met up with what seemed like a regular farm road; small, narrow, and twisting. We followed it the right, up past more small farms. I, infatuated with my new camera, took picture after picture until Shifra stopped me and pointed to a small red torii between two farms we had passed. We puzzled at how to reach it for a moment before back-tracking and entering through another archway next to what looked like an old lady’s house.

The old lady in question

The old lady in question

We passed by laundry hung out to dry and I slipped and cut my foot on some moss, but we reached the backwater shrine. Fittingly enough, it was probably the prettiest shrine we had seen so far, at least as far as its simplicity and placement. Some blue flowers grew around the arches leading to the sanctuary, and the old lady whose house we passed planted flowers right next to the arches (right).

Our hike continued as we weaved through the countryside, far-removed from any civilization that I had met so far, before reaching what seemed to be a regular high school tennis court and a road leading the direction we needed to go to get back to the international house before dark.

After some serious deliberation over whether it would be best to continue our exploration (the paths had lights strung together above them), we decided that we had seen the bulk of what we could see that day, and, partially because I had literally worn holes in the sides of my feet with my sandals, we continued down the larger road back into civilization.

It took another hour or so to get back to the entrance, at which time, we were chatting about exactly how wonderful an experience it was, and how we’d go back again and take the paths we hadn’t yet traveled.

Then we realized how hungry we were.

A quick glance at the surrounding of the station we would take back home revealed no restaurants, and both of us were starving. We met our stomachs halfway by buying a snack at the local convenience store and then getting on the train to go back to the western ward of town we knew and getting something to eat around there. So we bought our snacks and returned the way we came.

At this time, I could say we got lost again, but truth be told, it wasn’t really getting lost. It was more honing in and circling a place I knew was there before actually finding it.

And, thus, we found my favorite okonomiyaki restaurant in Kyoto so far.

Okonomiyaki is a pancake-looking dish made of eggs, cabbage, meat, and various other ingredients, cooked in front of the customer on a hot table-top, much like what Americans are used to with the fancy Japanese steak restaurants. This, however, is much more affordable and much more filling, in my opinion.

We ended our trip with that, but as we walked home, I remembered a problem that I hadn’t solved earlier: my bike was still left at school, and my friend’s bike, which I had borrowed because of that, was still at the karaoke place I had taken it a couple of nights before. After getting home and pondering this problem for a couple of minutes, I put on some Ratatat on my iPod, turned it up on my new earphones, and decided to take a late-night hike to retrieve my friend’s bike before she would use it for school the next day.

This time, I actually put on shoes because my feet couldn’t take any more sandals.

Walking past Ninna-ji, a famous temple about 15 or 20 minutes away on foot, I decided to turn right. I knew the basic direction of the karaoke place, and truthfully, if there were anywhere I trusted to walk at night in the world, it would be Kyoto, especially the richer districts like these.

With that in mind, I took one of the longest solitary walks of my life to the karaoke place. I got lost, learned a lot about the way the streets in Kyoto are laid out, and finally found my way again before finding the bicycle and going the regular way back home.

However, it didn’t seem right to go straight back home, at least not the regular way. So after seeing my university to my right and the possibility of an interesting experience to my left, I followed my instinct and turned left, down a hill.

Five minutes of exhilarating ride later, I found myself at the place where I had originally turned right on my walk earlier ot get lost in the first place. I laughed, realizing that I had found a shortcut back home rather than done myself in with my own curiousity.

Finally, about 7 minutes later, I reached the I-house, parked my bike in the back, told my friend her bike was back (to her amazement), and began to read my new book.

And life was good.

Sakura saku pt.2

•2009.04.15 • 1 Comment
My Shoebox

My Shoebox

“Hi, I’m Morita-san, the dorm manager,” Morita said and motioned towards the entrance area, where he told me to take off my shoes and put on some slippers before actually stepping up.

I did, and he asked me to put my luggage down and come to the kitchen and take a seat. He then explained all about the dorm rules and what was expected of me as a resident. All the while, one or two students were entering and exiting the kitchen. One introduced herself as Morgan, a Canadian, and another as Jun, from Malaysia.

After explanations were done, he led me to my room, which was down the hall and the last one to the right. On my way there, another three people introduced themselves, Bob from Britain, Aoife from Ireland, and Eli from France. Aoife told me they were all going out that night and asked if I wanted to come, but I declined citing my lack of rest. I put my stuff in the room and immediately began unpacking (computer first).

Most of my packing was done when another two people knocked at the door. Slightly bewildered, I answered, and two people stood there.

The Entrance

The Entrance

“Hi, I’m Ivan. I’m American. Nice to meet you.”

“No you aren’t, you’re from Taiwan,” the other chimed in. She looked at me and said, “I’m Jenny, from New Mexico.”

“No, I’m from Canada,” Ivan said.

“Oh, not this again. He’s from Taiwan.”

Guessing it was my turn, I said, “So I’m going to assume that neither of you are telling the truth. I’m Zach, from Texas.”

“I’m not lying,” Jennie said.

“Yes, she is.”

I started laughing, and Ivan asked me if there was anything I needed help with.

“Yeah, actually. Could you help me find the grocery store? I kind of need some food for the next couple of days.”

“You want to just do it now? I’m guessing you need something in the morning.”

“Uh, yeah. I guess that will work,” I said.

“You get a bike yet?” he asked.

“Not yet…”

“Oh, that’s no problem. I’ll just ask someone if you can use theirs.”

Unrelated Kitchen Picture

Unrelated Kitchen Picture

So, after this quick exchange, I found myself outside and unlocking a bike to go to the convenience store, all on my first day in Japan with absolutely no rest in the last day or so. We ended up biking down the hill to a grocery store where I immediately bought soba noodles and the sauce to go with them, and then to a convini (they call convinience stores that in Japan). After three onigiri and some melon pan (taken from the portuguese for “bread”), we returned to the International House and I retired to my room.

Surprisingly, though, I wasn’t quite tired yet, and my mind was tied up thinking about whether to take a shower that night or the next morning. So I ended up neither sleeping nor taking a shower, not quite yet.

As it was only 8 in the evening, I decided to watch an episode of House and then call it a night.

When it was done, however, I felt very, very cold. A quick glance up at my thermostat/AC unit revealed that it was about 16 degrees celsius in my room. After some quick conversions, the fact that it was about 60.8 fahrenheit made a lot of sense.

For the life of me, though, I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. I pressed the blue button on the remote, and moved the temp to about 21 celsius, a much more endurable temperature… to no avail. It seemed like it wasn’t working. I sighed and pulled the covers over my head and fell asleep…

…Only to be woken up about 6 hours later by the temperature in my room, which had fallen to around 13 or 14 celsius because of the similar temperature outside. Groggily, I fumbled with the remote, and after some slow thinking, dug my Casio EX-word out of my drawer… and that explained everything. It turned out I had been pressing the cold ac button on the left whereas I should have been pressing the pinkish heat button on the right and setting it to the temp I wanted. What happened to automatic temperature adjustment?! There’s no such setting on my overly complicated remote, although there is a nice, little humidity setting so I can stop my room from turning into a swamp.

Once I figured that out and pulled up my covers again, not quite so tightly, my overly long day ended, and I fell asleep.