Saturday, July 25, 2009

Not so long ago....

August 6, 1945, 8:15 am was not so long ago.

And yet I sometimes forget. Today was one of those days. I was talking to one of my students who is in her 50s about my trip to Hiroshima last month and when I said we spent the day in the atomic bomb museum, I asked her if she had ever been there.

"I was born in Hiroshima. Eight years after the bomb."

The blood stopped in my veins. How could I have forgotten that this was a very real event that was only a few heartbeats ago? This is the country that still carries the burden of the memory heavily and silently. And we treat it almost as fantasy from history books, something we must memorize and feel a momentary twinge of something-we-don't-know-what, then go on about our lives.

Hiroshima is now a beautiful city, bursting with liveliness, a testament to the spirit of the people here, but it remains a bold statement against nuclear weapons with a large section of the city still devoted to the evidences of the bomb.

She told me her family's story. Her father worked for the military in Hiroshima and was sent out on an assignment that day at 6 am, coming back later that night. His wife was killed and never found. He remarried and she was born. Her voice was gentle, calm and factual. I was frozen.

We talked a bit about what the experience was like for me, a Chinese American. My people were collectively the saved, the savior, the destroyer, the guilty, the merciful.... my brain couldn't stop jumping back and forth, but my heart just hurt. All I know for certain is that it should never happen again. Ever. We can't create peace with explosions and burning and cancer.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Yamaguchi Gion Festival!!

A couple hundred men dressed in white boxers, red stamps and hachimaki (stylized bandanas) were already standing in front of Yasakajinja shrine when we arrived at 6 in the afternoon on Monday. The heat of the day was persisting still and a friend graciously gave us an extra hachimaki to wipe the sweat off our faces.

Some wore white tabi boots, some wore sneakers and one was gaijin!

Three girls dresses as Heian beauties with "shaved" eyebrows and red painted dots

We were in good spirits though because one of the largest festivals in Yamaguchi was about to begin: Gion Matsuri. It's apparently modeled after the very large festival in Kyoto around the same time. Our version entails the carrying of three portable shrines about 1 or 2 km to another shrine where they stay for one week. The most notable feature is the sagimai or heron dance.

Sagimai, in action

Truthfully, the dance was a bit anticlimatic. Two men dressed as herons walked in a circle slowly flapping their wings interspaced by two more men wearing straw wigs, twirling what looked like black batons (maybe flutes, maybe kendo sticks? not sure). Three live instrumentalists accompanied them (a flute and a couple percussionists), and two adorable eight year old boys in the middle of the whole spectacle hopped twice and hit little double-headed drums strapped to their chests at various intervals.

The best part of the festival for us was watching the multitude of men in white gearing up for their trek around the neighborhood with the portable shrines on their shoulders. Even with twenty or so men carrying the shrine at any given time, and plenty of replacements on hand, they still looked exhausted when we saw them a few hours later depositing the shrines in their resting place for the week.

Tossing the portable shrine in the middle of the street

After the traditional activities, we wandered over to the main shopping area where the street was filled with young people wearing yukatas (summer kimonos), games (ring tosses, catching goldfish) and food vendors (takoyaki, french fries, shaved ice, cotton candy, and hot dogs). We managed to find a vegetarian option for me: osakayaki. It's a grilled dough/egg/spring onion package, covered in sweet okonomiyaki sauce and eaten hot. Yum.

Osakayaki: my new favorite festival food

Tomorrow, the 24th, there's supposed to be the second day of the festival where all the people join in a big dance, but it's cancelled because of the major flooding on Tuesday (don't worry, we live on high ground, but we did cancel classes that day because the roads were flooded). Keep those families in your thoughts and prayers.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Glass Beads and Misty Mountains

Monday, our "Sunday", a friend treated us to a glass bead making class for my birthday. We followed her cute yellow car along an extremely narrow path in the woods to a large house with a small homemade studio. The teacher, Ida Sensei, and her husband are professional glass artists.

The path to their house/studio

Some handmade pieces sitting outside

Each of us made 3 glass beads and 2 little glass leaves for chopstick holders. In theory it's really simple to make a bead. I apologize in advance for no technical terms.... instruction was in Japanese and semi-translated into English! We mostly just watched and had our hands guided when the ideally round beads turned lumpy and wonky.

Glass rods

You start by heating up a metal rod coated in pink powder that turns white when ready. Then you heat the colored glass rod of your choice until the end forms a bubble of melted glass. Coat the metal rod in a circular motion, taking several turns to do so, until you get a round shape. It was really difficult to do this! You can then take smaller glass rods in different colors to add dots, swirls, hearts, etc. to your beads by using the same slow turning motion of the metal rod. Swirls were the most fun.

Brian applying melted glass to the metal rod (sorry for the bad picture!)

Me applying green glass to a very misshapen bead

Making the chopstick holders was my favorite part though because we got to squish the glass and there was no spinning involved.

The final products! Brian's are on the right. Gotta love a man who uses pink.

Thank you Akiko for taking us!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Getting Lost

A month or so ago we went to the beach for the first time and found, to our surprise, especially Brian's, hundreds of dead jellyfish washed up on the sand and floating in a strangely beautiful way in the shallow water. Brian had a nasty encounter with a live one in Jamaica, and didn't really want to chance another meeting, so we stuck to combing the beach for shells.

Outer wall of Hagiyaki studio

Last weekend however, we intentionally got lost in Hagi, a coastal town famous for its pottery, on the Japan Sea side (as opposed to the jelly-infested Inland Sea side) and discovered a lovely little beach with no people, lots of hydrangeas, and the most breathtaking view ever. We poked at little anemones in shallow pools of water on the rocks, threw seaweed around and splashed in the water which was warm and lovely. Nature decided we had had enough fun after about 20 minutes though and drenched us to the bone.

Anemones! And Snails! And pink hues!!

wind-blown before the storm

Apparently we did a really good job of getting lost because we've shown people pictures and no one knows where this beach is! It's all ours (except for that guy who has a farm right next to it). We found it by driving across the bridge at one of the little docks, taking a road up into the mountains, and then walking down a hydrangea lined path to to the water. Very counter intuitive!

Follow the ajisai to the water...

We dubbed it "Hog-Nose Beach"

This weekend was uneventful, but we did walk around Rurikoji at night, which was really beautiful.

An unidentified animal kept mooing at us from the woods

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Paper Anniversary

So we're back... we celebrated our 1 year wedding anniversary, the paper anniversary on Itsukushima Island (aka: Miyajima or Shrine Island). That's the island famous for the sprawling Itsukushima Shrine, which most of my students are very quick to point out is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mia at the Torii gate during low tide.

After a comfortable, if a bit expensive train trip from Yamaguchi to Miyajima station (note: most Japanese local, regional and high-speed trains, airplane flights, toll/express-ways are quite expensive by American standards), we hopped right off and headed to get some famous Hiroshima Okonomiyaki. Having satisfied our grumbling bellies, we boarded the ferry to Miyajima immediately and called up our inn to let them know that we were arriving a bit early... and they offered to pick us up from the ferry port! Sweet!

Because we found very little in the way of English reviews of our inn, we are happy to strongly recommend that English-speaking travelers consider a stay at Kinsuikan, one particularly wonderful traditional Japanese inn (Ryokan - 旅館). It's not cheap (but also certainly not the most expensive) and your nightly rate depends on what room you choose (garden view, ocean view), but the price is well worth the expense for the experience. Included in the price: a several-course fancy Japanese dinner served in our room, a Japanese breakfast, free access to their hot spring (onsen), and traditional yukata (comfortable robes that you can wear when strolling around the island).

In our yukata

To our genuine relief, the staff spoke excellent English and were uber-polite in the quintessentially Japanese way. They even offered to pick us up from the dock and drive us straight to the inn even though we were several hours early and wouldn't be able to check in until much later. We headed out for sightseeing soon after arriving at the inn, and we were immediately thrilled by Miyajima's charms:
  • friendly (if a bit too hungry) deer wandering literally everywhere
  • beautiful shrines and temples, including the famous red "floating" torii
  • loads of surprisingly affordable shopping
  • oysters, oysters everywhere (which it turns out we don't like)
  • stone lanterns lining the sidewalks, lit shortly after sunset
Mia having a bit of fun with the local fauna.

Apparently there are many more yearly anniversary names, but don't ask me, check wikipedia!

I also posted some of my favorite shots on my flickr site.