Daniel in Japaniel

My lover, I’ve been donating time to review…

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Before I begin, of course a huge apology is necessary (not at all unnecessary) for falling out of contact the past week. So here’s the deal, I have been working on this entry for a couple days. You read it, and I will make you smile looking at the words and pictures. Sound good?

There are many possible things I could point to and deflect owning up to disappointing my handful of readers. But, as I write this, it is pretty difficult to say what happened. One thing I can say, and we can decide if this somehow relates, is that I have been awfully homesick.

Now what have I been up to? Many things. This past weekend was one of the last “field trips” of the program. The destination was Mt. Koya- the birthplace of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, where some odd incomprehensible amount of time ago a guy threw this diamond staff as hard as he could- then went out to find it. Sure enough (after two dogs and a incognito mountain deity showed him around the mountain) his stuff landed on the tip of a cypress tree. When he got to the tip of this tree, Kukai (his name) looked around and saw the eight peaked mountain range surrounding him as the eight petaled lotus. “A fine place to build a monastery!” he said, and then I trounced about it this past Saturday.

The path to get there found the ABS students at a traditional Japanese inn in the Omine mountains.

Japan does mountains well, so when I say mountains, imagine the best. We talked it up about Crosby Stills Nash and Young while we hit endless one laners with the sharpest BMW-commercial-esque turns you’ve ever Tivo’d past, while cypress trees led the push up the mountain side.

There is a single road that goes through this valley town, and all along side are inns that run right up to the road. The area is known for Mountain Acestics (the Yamabushi) who make pilgrimages up the mountainside, live in caves, have near death experiences off cliffs, etc. From the balcony of the inn, you can see them with their giant bags walking up the road, as the skin underneath your fall yukata cools after an hour spent in the natural hot springs.

Sure there were river walks during the day. For awhile we followed downstream the cleanest river of my life. We are talking clear clear clear water you can feel the coolness of off your cheeks- and when it hits and tumbles down into tucked away ponds, all you see is this mysterious blue that has a translucent aura where the water shallows. We also visited the matronly saint of pilgrimages’ temple. We chanted unintelligibly under freezing waterfalls as a yamabushi blew into a Conch shell horn-ette.

But the main thing- was the food.

Shojin-Ryori (actually part of my research project on Japanese food), it was a traditional way the aristocracy ate, which eventually evolved (was simplified) into a vegetarian feast for Buddhist monks. We sat in two rows facing each other, and mini-bowl after mini-bowl of fried-tofu with grated radish, tempura, a soft angel-hair-esque noodle, various pickled vegetables, sauteed baby-rainbow trout (okay, so maybe not completely veggie here) and elegantly crafted tofu ensembles of different textures and after tastes.

I love the variation of senses you encounter with Japanese food. Eating is never mindless- a cynic could say the exoticism of Japan makes me enjoy every morsel of my meals, but after over a month here (a month now-) still these seconds are reveled in with each bite.

Real quick- Of Montreal album?

The other day, for instance, Julian and I hit up KyoMoMa (the Modern Museum of Art in Kyoto- I don’t think it is actually called that). After enjoying their permanent collection, we made our way downstairs. Me, with only an hour or so to make it, and Julian with an empty stomach (myself as well, naturally), we decided to plop down on the outdoor patio of the museum’s cafe. I ordered the seasonal set meal while Julian ordered the rice pilaf and pickle set. He remarked it was delicious, I don’t doubt him, since I didn’t get a bite. Mine was fantastic of course. Again, here it is, the tiny tasting plates make it. My dish included a “potato” salad made with kidney and chickpeas, barely could taste anything but the fiber of the beans themselves, sesame dressed salad with button mushrooms and slice of daikon, a slow cooked salmon fillet that somehow kept a refreshing fishy after taste, and there was a coffee mug filled with a very creamy pumpkin soup with a hint of almond. There was also a little croissant and bagel (odd combo, yes) to be used as sauce sponges. A fan of dipping, the meal was enjoyed slowly with the Heian Jingu’s jade moat, reddening Japanese maples, rotating chrome sculptures over great conversation.

It made up for the fifty minute bike ride to Fukakusa campus. Actually that day (two days ago, wednesday) I biked a total of two hours. It has been beautiful weather, so it is well appreciated. After TAing, I grabbed some lunch (really just some ice cream) with friends and then biked back north to the Shijo-dori area for my work at the English Cafe. Work go out early, and I spent the night hanging out with my 30 year old staff mate from Osaka, Sacchi, at a 333 yen beer and Japanese-style-tapas bar.

So far I have jumping around in time. To make things clear: Omine mountain was last friday, Koyasan was the following saturday, KyoMoMa was wednesday.

Oh, and Franzia in bottles?

Though KyoMoMa is in the elegant complex that is the Shinto shrine Heian Jingu’s, it is not the same as the Heian Jingu dance contest I caught a glimpse of on sunday.

Now friends of mine who go to the local tech school here, have been practicing every night at the fields of a park by Kyoto-eki. It wasn’t just them either, lined up all along the park were various college groups practicing their routines. The thursday before heading out to Omine-san, Julian and I witnessed 700 of them choreograph the epic routine that was the opening ceremony for this festival.

As for the festival itself, I can’t really say what it was for, aside from that it is a tradition that happens every year there, always coinciding with another festival (the Festival of the Ages, October 22nd). Both of these festivals, I believe, are suppose to honor the philosophies of the Meiji restoration- dipping into the traditional roots of Japan. So the dance contest consists of completely different styles of dance. For the most part, however, kid’s our age performed beyond what I could have even expected. The coordination of these 20-30 odd people dances were remarkable. The groups were graded on style, rhythm, creativity, narration (there are 1 or 2 members interpreting through singing or yelling through a mic), costume design (most of which are hand made) and overall aesthetic quality of their performance.

While there were outliers of hip-hop, cheerleading, flamenco, and Para-para dance present at the festival, what seemed to dominate were college-student-dance circles’ genre. Neo-traditional in many ways, usually their performance started slowly with stark contrasting poses, fingers extending back on themselves and their Japanese style castanets keeping the building beat. In an instant, the remix starts to blast of their song, the narrator has picked up intensity, and dancers arms roll into the air as they yell “sore! sore! sore!” “yeah! yeah! yeah!”, from here your eyes kind of relax on just all the movements. Our friend’s group in particular reenacted a famous battle for the Old Capital, another played Hiyao Miyazaki’s theme from the movie “Pom Poko” as they showed how the various agriculture groups and the men and women of their ancestors banded together to build a great culture.

I took videos of all of this on my digital camera, and promise (I make too many) to edit them all into a few minute clip for you all to see. This really is something to be seen. That said, check out the, and by the by- HUGE UPDATE of photos on my Picasa. They include these and many other photos.

As for KyoMoMa (same area, different day, wednesday), although I have been busy keeping up with Fukasusa and Omiya campus, life at the temple (reminds me, lemme catch you up on my new morning routine), nights at Shijo (work or otherwise), and the “politics as usual” back home (jk rowling), I was able to spend a good few hours out with Julian in this beautiful culture district.

Flanked by Heian Jingu, the Geisha/Maiko historic road, and Kyoto University, KyoMoMa shares a couple block area with the Kyoto Institute of Design, Kyoto Zoo, and some other fascinating buildings. Though the first three floors are the special exhibits at KyoMoMa, Julian and, not feeling like footing a 1200 entrance fee, went for the 130 price of seeing their permanent collection. In retrospect, probably the best choice.

Whereas we could have seen collections of various European and American artists’ modern art, we had the honor of seeing pre and post-war collections of Japanese Modern art. For a bit of history, late 19th century Japan into the 20th was a time where the country rapidly surrounded it with the western world. The government sponsored academics to travel Germany, France, Italy, Great Britain to research industrialization and western philosophy at large. This carried on throughout and continues today as well with America now on the table as a line leader in “culture” (post-war culture).

So, as far as modern art is concerned, in short, we were looking at art that had obvious influence on the big dogs of their time. They had slight difference that maybe the back and front of a Highlights magazine has, eerie- if you stare enough. From things as simple as roman-lettering signatures versus the traditional family name Hanko- or even calligraphy Kanji, to the uneven circles of Gentaro, Komaki’s “Espiritismo No. 8” versus Charles Demuth’s “The Figure 5 in Gold”, the subtle differences allowed for an alien perspective of the modernists’ “dilemma”. What was once seen as universal, now seemed so Anglo-centric in the halls of KyoMoMa, it was still effectual- but, the soul lacked, and what filled it was the struggle of country finding it’s footing among world powers of it’s time.

Check it:

As for my schedule these days, we have been studying Shingon buddhism (was was was, we moved on now, monday is the first day of our Pure Land services). For the past three weeks, we have been alternating from going to services at Toji (home of the world’s tallest Pagoda, also it protects Japan, also it becomes the sword of a MegaZord whenever PETA activists team up with aquaman retributing for the whaling industry). Shingon is interesting in it’s similarity to Catholicism. Here we got saint worship, a desire to seek unity of mind, body and speech. Moreover, our morning service consisted of sing-song chanting the history of Kukai (dog man, threw a spear etc. etc. read above), the Heart Sutra, and various mantras. Somewhere during the last story chant on Koba-daishi, a monk wearing a face mask takes the reliquary of the Historic Buddha (Shakyamuni) and bless each of the lay practitioners. Each of them bring their own things, pictures of their family, letters, sutras, beads, praying for Koba-daishi’s grace. In this way, it appears like a sort of communion, and the lay people accepting the body of Buddha, yes, but of course the whole atmosphere has the smell of exotic Buddhism around it. By the end of the service, we prostrate before the alter and pray for the distribution of the good merit we’ve gained to the world. Toji is known as the protector, or healer of Japan, and these old men and women are there every morning at 6 in the morning praying for just that.

Now something I have to look into some more while I am here is the artist Kiyoshi, Hasegau. She/he started off as Japanese Matisse, then after the war, only seemed to keep the contrasting black and white of their silhouetting days and moved into a pencil-still lifes of mexican folk art. So bizzare.

One last story before I tell you my plans for this weekend.

My mid-term exam and a paper were due the other day, so last night deemed necessary for some relaxation. After watching McCain creep away my soul, one blink of a thousand at a time, Julian and I shared a bottle of wine, and geared up our bikes for a trip to a sento, a Japanese public bath.

The one we sought, unfortunately, is on a year long sabbatical. I learned this from a lady-bartender (mid-50s) who was keeping a man named Oeno company in her simple Karaoke bar. Oeno spoke to me, I am pretty sure. He had the thickest accent I’ve encountered so far in Japan. All I could understand was when he paused and asked, “ハフ?外国人?”, (Half asian, or Foreigner?). “Foreigner, foreigner” the bartender told him, he stopped making a map, and he said that he’d take us to his favorite bath.

We hopped on our bikes after him, it was already 10:45 (which is late considering when we wake). Alleys turn to alleys, and we arrive at the familiar fish-curtain-drapped doors that all sento dawn. He ran in ahead of us to check something for us, and then appeared again and gestured us in. After thanking him, Julian and I found ourselves in a smaller house than we are use to, but by no doubt- a popular local spot. Immediately we saw the naked backs of Yakuza, their emerald green and purple dragon tatoos stretching from weenis to weenis, under legs, every where imaginable. The lady at the front desk, situated between the mens and women’s section in order to see everything, didn’t ask for money, instead waited for it. After handing her a 500 yen coin, we found out it cost 410 (pretty standard).

The bath house was phenomenal. Again, it was very small- but efficient with it’s use of space. In about a half classroom sized room there was a hot spring style, cold water, jacuzzi, electric, tea, bathing showers, a shower tower (cj would approve) and a sauna that kept at a terrifying 110 degrees Celcius.

What makes bathing so relaxing here, like eating meals, is the journey your body goes through experiencing the juxtapositions of sensations. The electric bath, for instance, is painful. Your body convulses uncontrollably, you curse while the old men chuckle at you. Should you choose a cold water bath after you’ll feel every muscle in your body, or you could enter the hot bath and dissolve away those same muscles. My favorite combination is a simple but beautiful one: cold water until it feels like nothing, and then sauna until you feel like nothing. The tea bath was interesting that night, though not my favorite. It was a Lavendar and Camomille bath. Usually bath houses have a green tea or barley tea you soak in.

We barely were able to bike back. At around midnight, with our bodies’ numb from comfort, minds’ drunk from fatigue, we swerved our way back to Koshoji.

Anyway, that’s been more or less how it has been. This weekend should be great. Tonight will be spent at Kyoto University (perhaps) listening in on a DJ-circle, followed by a few drinks in the Shijo area. Saturday is a trip out to Osaka where we’ll meet up with some friends, have some amazing curry (hopefully). And Sunday is a brunch of Vietnamese-food (finally) and participating in Osaka’s Gay Pride Parade. The last one will be undoubtedly an interesting experience. Given the amount of repression this culture deals out, the state of sexuality in general (rights or otherwise) should all come out during this march.


Thank you everyone who has been keeping up with this. Thank you people who have been checking this even though I haven’t updated in awhile. Today I learned that I have had over 1,000 reads of this site since starting it.


Written by Daniel

October 17, 2008 at 2:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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