Saturday, July 5, 2014

Jackie in Japan

Hello again to all the readers of Asia on E Street!

This is Jackie Lareau, recipient of the Estelle Sigur Grant for Japanese Language Study in Japan. It's been a while since my last update and I've done quite a bit of adventuring now that we've settled into the summer, so I'll give you a peek at all the highlights.

One of the most exciting events of the last few months was the weekend trip to Kyoto and Nara organized by CIEE, the exchange program handling my semester abroad, for all of the exchange students. We spent two days in Kyoto, which was the former imperial capital for over one thousand years before the capital was moved to Tokyo. As a result, the city is extremely rich with historic, traditional, and cultural treasures, especially with its 2,000+ Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.

With a couple friends of mine, we were able to have an action-packed day full of sightseeing around the city to see as much as possible. First we visited the Arashiyama bamboo forest, where we took plenty of pictures perfect for computer desktops.

Then after getting lost for a couple of hours in one of the rural rice paddy towns surrounding the city, we eventually found our way back to the action and visited Kinkaku-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple that is gilded with gold leaf and is one of the most popular attractions in all of Kyoto.

Following that, we visited the equally famous location of Fushimi Inari, a rather lengthy complex of Shinto shrines leading up a mountain. The shrine worships the Shinto god Inari, the god of business and commerce, and thus all of the iconic orange torii gates are each donated by various Japanese businesses and labeled as such. Aside from this, most of the shrines along the way are decorated with fox imagery and statues, which are seen to be the messengers of the gods. 

Pictured below are small wooden plaques called ema, on which worshippers write down their wishes and prayers with hopes that the shinto gods will answer them. As you can see, the ones at this particular shrine are fox-shaped and many people decorate them accordingly.

Finally, after exploring Kyoto, we traveled to the city of Nara which is about an hour away by bus, and also a former imperial capital during the 8th century's appropriately named Nara Period. There we were able to visit Todai-ji, a World Heritage Site and the home of Japan's biggest Daibutsu (bronze Buddha statue), even bigger than the one I previously visited in Kamakura. Not only were the grounds beautiful, but the sheer size of the temple and the masterpieces inside of it made all of us feel absolutely dwarfed and astounded considering they were constructed over one thousand years ago. 

However, the coolest thing about Todai-ji is probably the countless deer that roam the grounds and call it their home, thanks to their sacred status and generous tourists who feed them special "deer crackers" that you can buy from any vendor in the area. You're perfectly free to approach and pet the deer, although with caution because there's a good chance they'll go nosing into your bag and try to take the crackers by themselves. They're friendly enough to pose for photos, though.

The trip wouldn't be complete without a deer selfie.

After returning to Tokyo, my daily life has mostly consisted of going to classes and keeping up with classwork, attending circle and club events, hanging out with both Japanese and international friends, and spending time with my homestay parents. Altogether these activities keep me very busy, I have also had the time to partake in some traditional cultural activities as well. For example, I was able to attend my first sumo wrestling match and it was much more thrilling than I expected! The final match of the tournament featured a mid-ranking wrestler with a record of 5 wins and 5 losses versus a top-ranking wrester with not a single loss. It seemed like the results would be obvious but the underdog actually won, leading all of the audience members sitting in the front to throw their cushions into the ring, a gesture of respect shown when a wrestler beats a rival of a higher rank. I unfortunately wasn't able to catch this on camera, but I did take a picture of the precession of wrestlers lining up at the beginning of the tournament.

I was also able to try my hand at making traditional Japanese sweets, wagashi, which are made of sweet bean paste and molded into various shapes like flowers. The one I made can be seen below, and is supposed to replicate the appearance of a chrysanthemum, the Japanese imperial flower. It's definitely more challenging than it looks, so it's understandable why the craft and its stores are passed down within families for generations.

This ties up most of the cultural events I've been taking part in here in Tokyo, and with only about a month left before I return to the States, I'll be trying to fit in plenty more!

Wish me luck, and until next time, またね!

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