Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Japanese random acts of kindness

Sometimes it's so nice when someone unexpectedly does something for you that's kind isn't it?

Well in Japan it really is becoming a common occurrence for me. Since I arrived I have experiences so many wonderful acts of kindness from the Japanese. They really do go out of their way to help you out. There will be moments when you're really struggling to adapt to the Japanese culture and a random act of kindness can suddenly make me feel instantly positive and upbeat again. I must remember to pay them all back!

There's my coordinator (Kyomu) at school who buys me little gifts from her excursions and sneaks choccies into my hand when no-one is looking.
Then there's the old little bus driver in Oyabe who takes me (I'm usually the only passenger) up to the education centre every Monday and asks me the same question every Monday "How do you find Japanese food?". Knowing I usually miss my 4.03pm train he always puts his foot on the peddle, skipping red lights and screeching round corners to make sure I can catch it.
There's also Etsuko, who works for Interac, has also gone out of her way to take me pick me up from home, take me to the doctors and wait with me when I was ill. Oh and the porter at the Cerulean Tower hotel who walked up 3 blocks to help me and mum find a restaurant we wanted to go to.

It was one lady recently though who really brought a smile to my (sometimes) grumpy post school face and compelled me to write.

Her name is Fumiko (文子) and she is a lady I met at my gym when I was trying to master the art of pool jogging the other night. She had struck up conversation with me (using her impeccable English amazingly self-taught) and gave me a few tips on how to actually pool jog. (yep there's a technique) Anyway I had been telling her how hard it was to find traditional Japanese gifts to give as Christmas presents and that all the gifts in Japan are covered in English (since it's cooler to use English than Kanji)

Anyway on my next visit to the gym a few days later I was just checking out of reception and to my surprise the receptionist handed over a cotton bag tied with red ribbon telling me it was a "presento" from "Fumi-San". I opened it at home and inside were these beautiful kimono silks and a letter from Fumi, see below.

Such a nice kind gesture isn't it? Unfortunately I left my textiles skills back in the GCSE classroom but I might see what I can do with them when I go home, any suggestions please write below!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Happy Christmas Everyone!

Hello lovely people, well its countdown to Christmas time. I'm pleasantly surprised that the Japanese, despite not being Christian, have adopted so many Christmas customs. It's made these last few weeks really feel Christmasy as well as the plummeting temperatures and hail that nearly knocked me out on my bike last night helped ; )

Every shop is belting out Christmas tunes, selling santa hats/costumes and the streets are all lit up with Christmas lights. They haven't quite caught onto the mince pies and mulled wine thing though.

This is me and my 1st graders today after a fun filled Christmas lesson, singing We Wish you a Merry Christmas (a simplified version) and playing Secret Santa which they squealed with excitement about.

Anyway, I'm off home very very soon so just wanted to wish everyone a very very Happy Christmas and New Year. I'm like an excitable child especially since this year we're having a big family get together.

Love to you all xx

Decorating chopsticks with Kanazawa gold leaf (kinpaku)

I've had a right old cultural spurt over the past few weeks. From zazen meditation to silk painting and now today......gold leaf (kinpaku) chopsticks decoration! As part of my mission to buy/make Japanese only related Christmas presents I headed to the famous gold leaf shop Sakuda in the Higashi Chaya area of Kanazawa. Kanazawa is the largest gold leaf production area in Japan, boasting a 98% share of the market so thats a good reason to make something with gold for Christmas!

So todays mission was to decorate chopsticks with gold as a Christmas pressie for my sisters boyfriend Andrew. He's a big burly Ozzie tree surgeon so I'm doubting he uses chopsticks a lot but its the thought that counts right?

I arrived at Sakuda (reservation required to do this) and in true Japanese style I was greeted by two Japanese ladies who knew immediately I was Jessica San and ushered me to the workshop at the back of the shop. I paid and then was asked to choose what I wanted to decorate. There were laquerware boxes, plates and different coloured chopsticks. I opted for the black laquered chopsticks at ¥600. If I'm honest I don't love laquerware (it's heavy looking and dare I say it looks a bit plastic) however its traditional in this area so I should respect traditional craft.

The instructor, Ill call him chopstick sensei, then hand gestured me through the process. First he showed me some examples with varying patterns of gold, one had gold and black stripes across, another some little hearts.

I was then told to draw my own pattern onto a thin piece of masking tape and then cut it with one of those teeny scalpels. Well typical of me to try and be clever. I didn't just want some conventional gold pattern around my chopsticks, I wanted to personalise them with Andrew's initials. Well if anyones ever tried to draw and scalpel out a letter the size of their little fingernail then you will sympathise with me!

My terrible effort at cutting out initials

My chopsticks just rolled with gold leaf

Once I had managed to stick the butchered letters onto my chopsticks the chopstick sensei then covered them with a potent smelling glue substance. Now for the fun part. He picked up a pounded sheet of gold leaf with his tweezers that was sooo thin, 1/10,000 mm to be precise and laid it out on the mat. Just to put this gold leaf into perspective, if you stacked up 300,000 units of gold leaf it would only make a stack 1 inch high. Anyway, you then have to roll your chopsticks, one at a time over the gold leaf without touching it with your fingers (as it'll just disintergrate into your hand if you do)

Me brushing down the excecss gold leaf from the chopsticks.

At this point it looks a bit of a mess and the surface is all uneven but after a quick brushing down you have a perfectly smooth surface.

The last step is the trickiest which involves picking off the tape to reveal the original colour underneath. Chopstick sensei helped me do this, he was a real sweetie.

My finished chopsticks! Done in 45 mins

Ok so mine don't look too pro but at least they're personal......I'd definately recommend this as a fun activity on a wet afternoon in Kanazawa (there's plenty of those) I reserved but I'm sure if you just turn up they will slot you in a time.

Outside of Sakuda (in case anyone gets lost)

Map below

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

ALT Lesson Plans with Eigo Note. Grade 5. Lesson 2- How are you?

Eigo Note suggest 4 lessons to teach the question "How are you?" and only 4 feelings (I'm happy, I'm sleepy, I'm fine and I'm hungry) which would actually drive me insane teaching nevermind learning!

I have to say that some of the Genki English "how are you" games really saved me for this topic. I also ended up adding "I'm cold, sad, great, good, ok, hot, angry and wet" to save the pupils from sheer boredom of learning and the fact that some of the games require a bit more vocab. Gestures are an obvious activity for teaching feelings so I had a laugh watching the pupils come up with their very creative gestures. Warning though. I'm angry was the most popular and in fact I still have pupils stop me in the corridor saying "I'm angry" with full facial expressions and a fist in the air. I'd suggest skipping that one.

Here are my lesson plans:

Grade 5 Lesson Eigo Note Lesson 2- (5.4) How are you part 1

Grade 5 Lesson Eigo Note Lesson 7- (5.5) How are you part 2

Grade 5 Lesson Eigo Note Lesson 7- (5.6) How are you part 3 *

Grade 5 Lesson Eigo Note Lesson 4- (5.7) How are you part 4

* Worksheet for the how are you drawing game

The opposites game in part X was fun. Basically if someone had the hungry card they had to walk around and find their opposite solution card, a hot dog. When they find each other they were to come to me and repeat the question and answer. The only issue is that I did have two pupils with these cards and the boy asks the girl "How are you?". She responds "I'm hungry" and he says back "I'm a hot dog". bless! I tried to explain that he wasn't a hot dog and that he needed to say "Here's a hot dog". It's so terrible of me having a giggle at the expense of the poor kids but sometimes it just can't be helped...

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Silk painting (katazome) at Kaga Yuzen Shop, Kanazawa

Sometimes I just can't believe that I'm living in Japan and I'm struggling to find traditional Japanese gifts for Christmas presents! Yes I'm Christmas shopping and with a shopping list as long as a double decker bus and a family of all ages and varying tastes I've found it hard.

As I pass through Kanazawa station every day I had seen some beautiful Japanese silk hankercheifs and scarves for sale which I thought would be perfect for my Nanna as a present. I had heard as well that you can try silk painting for yourself somewhere in Kanazawa so I thought I'd give it a go.

So I decided to go along to the Kaga Yuzen Products Display Hall a short walk from the Kenrokuen to see if I could practice the art of 'katazome' (stencil cutting and and painting) on a silk handkerchief.

Admittedly I find turning up at these places with my limited Japanese always a bit daunting but I had practiced my "hankachi o tsukritai onegai shimasu" (I'd like to make a handkerchief please) and it worked a treat!

I was ushered to the basement floor and a lovely little old lady showed me to my paints and explained everything in Japanese. I politely kept saying "wakarimashita" (I understand)but only actually understood about a quarter of what she was saying.

The lovely lady at Kaga Yuzen Products Display Hall

Basically they have the outline of the patterns already set up on the hankys. You choose whether you have 3 basic colours ( ¥1050) or 6 colours that you can mix ( ¥1890) I went for the latter.
Note to anyone thinking of going- give yourself at least an hour to do the painting and if you're super pedantic (like me) and want to mix the exact shade of green for one of your leaves then give yourself 2 hours. The basic patterns are nice but if I'd had more time I would have made my own sakura (cherry blosson) stencil.

Anyway I set to work mixing my colours which is sooooo hard but the classical music playing in the background calmed me down and made me feel like one of those boho arty types. Didn't last long though. I then realised (after it was too late) that there's an actual knack to painting onto the silk and you have to mix it with this white paste BEFORE applying to the silk to stop it running....as a consequence one of my leaves was a bit messed up.

Painting the leaves!

Next the flowers....

Anyway, heres the end result! I found it a relaxing way to spend a Saturday afternoon instead of my usual running about.

My finished silk hanky

By the way, I should really mention that the ground floor of the Kaga Yuzen Products Display Hall has yuzen kimonos on display. Yuzen is a type of dyed textile unique to Japan and used for kimonos. In the 18th century, Miyazaki Yuzensai, an excellent dye craftsman developed a technique to draw ordinary flowers and trees on textiles. It was revolutionary at the time and yuzen was named after him.

Also worth a mention and something I really want to see is that in the winter season in Kanazawa, you can apparently watch the locals washing out the starch and dye from silk directly in the river, one of the last steps of the whole hand dyeing process.

The Kaga Yuzen Products Display Hall website is http://www.kagayuzen.or.jp/english.html

The kanji sign outside Kaga Yuzen Products Display Hall

The entrance of Kaga Yuzen Products Display Hall

Map below

View Kaga Yuzen Products Display Hall in a larger map

Bowing in Japan, STILL getting used to it!

Every morning on my train journey to school I still watch with fascination the train conductors walking down the train (normal in my book) and before reaching the door to the next carriage turning around and taking one long bow (not normal in my book!)

I have got used to the custom of bowing (o-jigi or お辞儀) when meeting someone for the first time but still haven't quite got used to Japanese people bowing before they go out of a door. The swimmers all do it before they leave the pool at my local leisure, the gym instructors do it before walking out of the door of the gym and the supermarket checkout assistants also do it after handing over your change.

One lady, Fumi who I chatted to whilst I was doing my pool jogging, (new sport for me since I can no longer run) told me that they do it to express gratitude, like a "thank-you for the opportunity to share this pleasure with you" type humility.

So I have now started doing a bit of bowing, probably looking totally amateur but it makes me feel as though I can show some respect in a body language that is native to the Japanese.

Fun shinkansen sushi train at Mori Mori restaurant, Kanazawa

Saturday night I was invited to join the lovely Kimura sensei and family for dinner (along with Nori, my assistant aka the assistant's assistant) in Kanazawa. It's so nice to mingle with teachers out of the school staffroom. They always seem so stressed at school, well its no wonder really. They don't have a single break the entire day and just run about like headless chickens. I'm so glad just an ALT.

Anyway we went to もりもり (Mori Mori sushi) restaurant for dinner. Embarassingly I have to admit this is the first conveyer type sushi restaurant I have been to in Japan, yes and I've lived here 9 months! My friends here are just not that into sushi so we never end up going (although I do buy mountains from Omi Cho market and my local supa)

So I had been doubly excited when I found out we were going to MoriMori as this is restaurant renowned in Kanazawa (probably amongst kids in playgrounds) as the restaurant with a mini shinkansen (bullet train) that delivers sushi to your table. Wicked!

I could hardly contain my excitement when I saw it chug along the track for the first time that evening and I actually screamed with delight. In fact I was more excited than the kids who probably thought it was so old hat.

The girls were adorable though and the elder one Mizuki (10 yrs old) had been learning English and bodly chatted away to me in English. The younger sister Haruka (5) just wanted to practice her ninja dance she'd learnt at nursery school, shes soooo cute!

The sushi was fab. One dish that Nori ordered was called "Hotaruika" (ホタルイカ) which literally means "firefly squid". In my defence I thought I was just eating regular squid sushi at the time but no this is a special squid.

About 4 cm in length and the smallest in the squid pack, these little blighters illuminate the sea just like their firefly pals do on land. They're common both in the Noto Penninsula area as well as Toyama Bay but are apparently expensive in Tokyo. I just read that apparently in Toyama you can go on a tour where the local fisherman will throw them in the air to light up the pre-dawn sky. Yes they went down the hatch. Don't worry my mouth didn't light up like Blackpool illuminations, they were dead!

I can't say they were that tasty, a bit salty but apparently we're eating them out of season. I guess I'd better try again in March....

Mori Mori Sushi on the 6th floor of Forus Shopping Mall, right next to Kanazawa station.

Map below

View Mori Mori Sushi Restaurant, Kanazawa in a larger map

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

My little niece Tegan's show class. I study.....

Today I had to teach a "show class" at my elementary school. The show class itself is a 45 min class where teachers from around the prefecture come and "observe" your class to get ideas as well as give you constructive feedback. (although the feedback is in Japanese so I rarely get to hear it) Show classes tend to involve a string of gratuitous meetings beforehand, a lot of stress (from the homeroom teacher) and last minute panic!

Note: Only one not wearing those awful masks

This lesson was a 5th grade lesson and was team teaching with my favourite teacher Kimura Sensei. The topic was subjects (I study maths, I study English etc), part of the Eigo Note curriculum, so I suggested I talk for 10 minutes at the beginning of the lesson about my niece Tegan's school in England, their timetable, what they study, what they have for lunch etc and they agreed.

I sent my documents to Nori for translation and to put into Powerpoint and then it dawned on me that most teachers (I guess this is global!) are computer illiterate! Nori had spent half a day trying to lay out a slide so I showed him a few shortcuts. Word went around in the office and the next minute I had been hailed as the computer super whizz kid in the staff room! Hilarious, lots of "segoi's" (amazing) Even kyoto sensei (deputy head) came over for the scoop.

Back to the lesson. All went pretty well. The kids in this class are usually so loud and genki but because it was a show lesson they were sat in some kind of petrified silence, shame! They enjoyed hearing about Tegan's day at school although they couldn't believe that Tegan (unlike most Japanese pupils) doesn't have to clean the school after lunch and that in England kids start primary school as young as 4 1/2 years old.

My "Tegan theme" English board at school

Thanks Benji and Tegan for sending all of the information over!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It's now time to cut the....tuna?!

Is this ACTUALLY for real? Can someone who speaks better Japanese than me please confirm?

From what my eyes are telling me (well this is what I filmed from my TV) these recent newlyweds decided to do away with the customary wedding cake and replace it with, yes believe it, a huge 100kg, 2 metre slab of wet slimy tuna fish (maguro in Japanese). Priceless!

Only in Japan could something as crazy as this ever happen. All respect to the couple for daring to break away from the norm though.....

Yukitsuri- "Snow Suspension"

Yukitsuri at the school I work at, Isurugi Elementary

"Yukitsuri", the pyramid shape structure that the locals here use to protect the tree branches from the heavy snow, is instantly recognisable from the many Kanazawa tourist brochures advertising the towering 30ft ones in the Kenrokuen (gardens). In fact I had seen pictures of yukitsuri before I had a clue what they really were let alone they had an important purpose.

About 2 weeks ago on my walk to school I noticed these contraptions suddenly popping up everywhere, in peoples gardens and then at school. Bless the school gardener! He spent an entire week prepping the trees on the school grounds with the yukitsuri structures. I think its admirable that they go to such lengths to protect their prized trees and shrubs. It's no surprise that bosai trees originated in Japan having seen this sort of display.

Apparently the art of "yukitsuri" isn't Japan wide, its only common here in Ishikawa Prefecture and Toyama Prefectures. Apparently we get a lot of "heavy wet snow" in these prefectures and these structures are essential to support the tree branches. I can't comment yet as it hasn't started snowing YET although its getting VERY cold!

Yukitsuri at the Kenrokuen, Kanazawa

Yukitsuri at the Kenrokuen; see my other post for pictures but I have to mention this. I read in the Japan Times that it takes the gardeners at the Kenrokuen around 2 hours on average to put up one yukitsuri frame and for the largest trees in the Kenrokuen, the Karasaki pines, it takes a full day.

Amazing. I look forward to seeing the yukitsuri doing its job in January!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Kenrokuen Garden Autumn Light Up, Kanazawa

Moments like this make me just so happy I decided to come to Japan for a year. Seeing something with your own eyes that is just so spectacular that it defies description.

Every year the Kenrokuen (one of the most famous gardens in Japan) host a 2 week long "Autumn Light Up" event where the richly coloured autumnal trees, waterfalls, yukitsuri and fountains within the Kenrokuen are lit up to create some seriously breathtaking scenery. I met Kari & gang and we set off.

I'll let the pictures speak for themselves and stop yapping for a bit!

Amazing! Just as I thought I couldn't be any more astounded we walked around the corner and were greeted by a towering almost outerspace looking landscape of Karasaki pine trees all covered in these wooden teepee looking structures called yukitsuri (literally meaning "snow suspension"). This teepee framework actually has an important purpose in protecting the precious branches from the weight of the forthcoming heavy snow.

The sight of yukitsuri at the Kenrokuen is famous across Japan (I've heard!) since we apparently have "heavy wet snow" in Ishikawa and Toyama Prefectures. Here you'll see the structures everywhere (as well as Toyama where I work, see other post.)

We reached the lake and it just got better. The beautiful sound of a string quartet was playing in the distance. it turned out that the music was coming from a traditional Chaya (tea) house right next to the lake. Had I been with a guy it would have been SO wonderfully romantic, unfortunately I was with Kari and friends so my feet were kept firmly on the ground!

I did my best to take piccies but without a tripod it was near impossible so I actually ended up going back to the Kenrokuen armed with tripod a few days later. Typical my luck it was peeing down with rain, I lost a glove en route, my waterproof trousers split and it was sooooo freezing!

Soaked, cold and looking bedraggled I took a few last pictures of Kanazawa castle and the beautiful lights they put up in Katamatchi. By then my fingers (especially on one hand) had frozen around the camera so I decided to call it a day!

Ps I got details about the Kenrokuen Autumn Light Up from the following website in the "What's New" section. It took some hunting to find out finer details of the event I must admit (but worth it)


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Japanese morning commute: is anyone alive?

I'm sure I've covered this before somewhere but after 8 months of living in Japan I STILL can't get over the fact that everyone passes out on the train in the morning. I mean yes I'm a bit tired and yawny but these lot just completely pass out for dead. How the heck do they know when it's their stop?! I'd worry far too much...

(PS it's not that dark in the morning, the train was going through a tunnel at the time!)

On the subject of zazen....some crazy Japanese TV for you!

Since I'm on the subject of zazen, lotus poses and numb limbs I thought I just have to share this one with you.

A few weeks ago my overused cheapy DVD player broke so I reluctantly resorted to watching Japanese TV. It's not that I don't like it, it's more that my Japanese just isn't good enough to know what's going on!

Sometimes though TV can transcend all language barriers as it did in this TV clip that I saw the other night. It was some sort of show where contestants had to take it in turns to see how long it'd take them to reach the finishing line of a running track EXCEPT they had to first sit on their knees for a few hours beforehand.......it just tickled my sense of humour.....just like me after zazen, hahaha

My Buddhist Zazen (Seated Meditation) Experience at Daijoji Temple, Kanazawa

Anyone who knows me is aware that I can't sit still for one minute so going to practice zazen (seated meditation) for the day was always going to be a challenge...

The Kanazawa Ryokan (hotel) Association had been looking for eager volunteers to trial out a day excursion to one of the main temples of the Zen Soto sect, called Daijoji, to practice meditation. The day would include return travel, lunch, the zazen session followed by a talk with hot tea & cake, all for free. I jumped at the chance to take part (and no not because of the free cake)

I had recently read "Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan's Most Rigorous Zen Temple" by Kaoru Nonomura about a 30 yr old Tokyo salary man who decides to leave the comfort of his contemporary lifestyle and put himself through the toughest physical and emotional limits in training to be monk at the head temple of the Zen Buddhist sect, Eiheiji. It was such a compelling read and great insight into the world of Zen Buddhism; their beliefs, their way of life and practices. This was a unique opportunity to see it with my own eyes.

Daijoji is actually just on the outskirts of Kanazawa. The temple was founded by zen master Tettsu Gikai about 700 years ago. What's interesting to note is that Tettsu practice under the guidance of Dogen, THE founder of Japanese Soto Zen Buddhism and was the 3rd Abbott of Eiheiji. Daijoji is also the third oldest temple in Japan after the two main temples of Eiheiji and Sojiji.

It was a cold, rainy and blustery mid November afternoon. After a 10 min walk through modern suburbia from our bus stop we walked up a long driveway to the temple. Soon we hit the two huge wooden temple gates of Daijoji, the primary gate (So-mon) and a further main gate guarded by the guardian Niōdeva kings who act as protectors against evil spirits.)

You would certainly not stumble upon Daijoji. Although on the fringes of the city, the temple is hidden away by a forest, grave stones and beautiful autumn foliage, it felt totally isolated.

We piled into a toasty warm tatami mat guest room (it was so cold outside and it was so kind for the monks to put the gas heater on- NB I’m discovering the Japanese are very hardy people rarely putting the heating on despite plummeting temperatures)

Hadyn, the Aussie training monk

Two monks had been waiting for our arrival, a native Japanese and to my utter shock a big bald Aussie called Hadyn (well obviously bald as all monks shave their heads but he definitely stood out more than the others)

We sat down to a quick sushi pack lunch and were given some leaflets as well as a freebie cotton bag.

Lunch was followed by a talk (in Japanese but was translated) by an older monk who covered elements of meditation including breathing technique and practice. We were shown the one hand position called GASSHO which is basically putting together so they make a V shape (exactly like the houses in Shirakawago are shaped- see my post about Shirakawago). This is an expression of respect, faith and devotion. See picture of Gassho hands below.

He told us not to try and control our thoughts during zazen, just to let them come up and go away freely. Concentrate on breathing and when this settles the mind will become tranquil. Easier said than done I guarantee, my mind is like Tokyo on pro plus at the best of times.

He also covered the Kanki-Issoku. This is a breathing technique, with your mouth slightly open make a deep exhalation expelling all the air out of your lungs and exhale from your abdomen. Then close your mouth and inhale through your nose.

He told us the eyes should remain slightly open, cast downward at a 45 degree angle and the hands should be in the cosmic mudra (hokkai-join) pose. See below.

So much to remember! I was getting nervous that I’d do it all wrong. After his talk, we all headed down the long dark wooden corridors of Daijoji to the zendo (the zen meditation hall) in anticipated silence. We had been allocated a spot just outside of the main hall. This was basically a waist high wooden elevated ledge with small velvet cushions lined up about a metre apart.

I chose a spot on the end (which I’m now thankful for since at least I’d only be seen wobbling about by one person to my right instead of being in between two people) We then stood in front of the elevated ledge in front of a cushion, we bowed once with hands in gassho form and then again facing outwards. The monk then demonstrated the really awkward looking backwards technique of sliding onto the ledge; right leg first goes up onto the ledge (whilst you’re facing away from the ledge) and then the other leg comes up. It’s not the easiest of moves especially since the ledge is pretty high, I’m certainly not the most flexible of people.

I sat in a half half lotus (I’ll call it) Not a full lotus but I had my legs crossed with one foot resting on my thigh but the other one was free. Typical that a seasoned professional sat next to me, legs in perfect lotus, back perfectly straight and no wobbling whatsoever (he was from India so I'll let him off). The session was split into two 30 minute meditation sessions with a 5 min break in the middle. The bell was struck 3 times to indicate the start of the first session. It was time to meditate!

So they did say to let the thoughts come and go and wow mine did in their hoards. Here is (in brief) what went through my mind in the first 5 minutes of meditation:

1) Wow there’s such a strong wind blowing out there its making the wooden partitions in this temple rattle so hard…
2) …that reminds me of the double lounge doors at home that rattle so badly and where a mini gale force wind blows through the gap in between them…
3) Oooh that fire at home, it’s so cold here I can feel my nose getting numb…to be in front of that lovely warm fire…
4) ..thinking of fire, if there was a fire place the temple would be burnt down in minutes…
5) CONCENTRATE ON BREATHING JESS, in, out, in out….and try a Kanki-Issoku?
6) Wow, I’m struggling to keep my eyes open, it’s so difficult focusing on one spot, I’ll think I’ll close them for a bit..
7) Ooh I think I’m wobbling, I’ve definitely started slouching, the Indian is still sat totally upright, I can see him out of the corner of my eye!
8) Aggggh the monk’s coming, I can see the shadow behind me, he’s probably seeing if anyone’s slouching, I’d better straighten up a bit..
9) I can hear what sounds like a mower or strimmer in the distance, someone cutting grass? Reminds me of the old days when I used to play at the village hall…
10) Oooh I’m so cold, nose is going numb…
11) Ouch my feet are starting to get sore and my coccyx is burning
12) I wonder how much time left?

As you can see, I really don’t have a mind apt for the practice of Buddhist zazen! It’d obviously take quite a few more sessions to reach inner calm. I wonder how many other volunteers had so many thoughts running through their heads?

After 30 minutes the bell was struck again indicating break time. Phew. During break we had a quick peak in the zendo hall which they explained was their eating and sleeping quarters. Each tatami mat (85.5cm wide and 179cm in length) had a wooden kanji name tag hanging above and represented a single living space. That towering Aussie monk MUST struggle! I suddenly really appreciated the luxury of my 23m sq pad back in Nishi Izumi.

Next 30 min zazen session. Less ridiculously distracting thoughts running through my mind this time so my mind must have calmed down a bit although I still struggled to keep my eyes open.

I did get distracted however for a second when I heard a loud smack of a what sounded like a ruler. I later found out that this was the “Kyosaku” or in English “the encouragement stick”, a stick that the monks use to give monks a blow on the shoulder during meditation to keep them alert. If you need to be struck by the kyosaku you must signal by putting the palms together in gassho. Thank god (or the Supreme Buddha?!) that wasn't me.

The bell is struck again and our zazen is over. We were instructed to sway our bodies forward and backwards and then unfold our dead legs gently and get up. I nearly fell over!

After plumping up the cushion and placing it in a certain way we had to put our hands in sanshu position and took half steps (kinhin) with each breath until we left the zendo.

We headed back to the toasty guest room for some serious thawing out and お茶 (O-cha) and cake. We discussed our experiences and I was so thankful that other volunteers also struggled to keep their eyes open and minds free of distracting thoughts.

Haydn explained a little bit about the different depths of meditation (beta/alpha/theta) and the science behind it. I don’t think I even hit alpha. He then opened up the Q&A. The strict training that Nonomura (Author of “Eat Sleep Sit”) had gone through during his Eiheji training had, at times, been so brutal that I wondered if it was the same here. So I asked. He told us it wasn’t although a lot of the practices are the same. They get up at 4am (Eihehji it was 3), their daily routines are similar and they have the same hierarchical type structure.

Their meals also sounded similar, breakfast consists of minimal portions of okayu (rice porridge), takuan (pickles) and condiments (such as roasted sesame and nori) For lunch, miso soup, vegetables and rice followed by the same for dinner. Haydn told us he lost 35kg (that’s about 5 stone) in 3 months! This guy must have been humongous when he arrived as he wasn't exactly small.

Haydn was a funny guy. He told us that for 6 months of the year there was a “lock down” period where trainee monks were forbidden to leave the temple grounds. However as he was learning Japanese he had special permission to leave the grounds for his Japanese classes and revealed that he had, on occasion, grabbed a pack of biccies from Lawsons on his way, hilarious!

I have so much more I could write but am fully aware that this blog post is turning into an epic novel of war & peace proportions. In summary, a fantastic experience for me. I can’t say I've experienced untold depths of inner peace but I’m happy that I got to see and experience Zen Buddhist zazen in one of the oldest temples in Japan as well as learn more about the faith.