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 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.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Going to Noriaki Nakabayashi San's house

Mouthful of a name isn't it? Well I call my assistant at work Nori for short. The other day he invited me over for dinner at his house. At 26 yrs old his household comprises of him, his father, both of his grandparent and his great grandmother (who is amazingly 100 yrs old this year)

It's actually very common in Japan for 3 or even 4 (like Nori) generations of a family to all live under one roof with the younger generations having more of an obligation to take care of the aging parents (compared to us shameful lot in England who just throw them into old peoples's homes!)

Got to Nori's house which is just on the outskirts of Tonami City (about half an hour drive from where we work in Oyabe City) The house is a typical Japanese style and really big (believe me "big" is a rarity in Japan when it comes to dwellings) In fact I was told that Toyama Prefecture (prefecture is the county/state) has the highest home ownership in Japan and one of the largest average size of house (150m sq). I'll move on before this starts sounding like some a statistics report....

Nori's house is like walking into one of the samurai's houses in Kanazawa. Huge tatami mat rooms divided by wooden shoji screens (apart from the front door Japanese don't generally use doors in houses) and old scroll type paintings on the walls. One of the rooms was called "butsuma" which can be literally translated as "Buddhist family chapel". Nori opened the doors of this plain looking cabinet in the corner and inside was the most beautiful, intricately designed shrine all in gold, like opening the doors to a miniature size Emperor's palace. It's actual name is "butsudan" and Nori's father works for a company who sells them so that might explain why this one had the WOW factor.

The beautiful Butsudan at Nori's house

The house was soooo cold, so cold that I thought my fingers might freeze around my chopsticks. You see the Japanese DON'T have central heating. Can you believe it? A country whose winters are almost more brutal than in the UK and a country that is so technically advanced? What?!

Instead they archaically put gas heaters in the room they want to heat and all huddle around it OR they the kotatsu, a low wooden table with a heater built into the table which is then covered by a heavy blanket OR I guess they use both!

Nori on the left, Nori's father in blue shirt, his uncle and grandmother

Anyway I digress. After popping down to the supermarket we prepared raw veggies, beef, gyoza and some white fish for a Nabe dish, absolutely perfect for cold winter nights. The gas heater was put in the second lounge and in no time it was toasty warm and I was a happy bunny!

I then met Nori's father who returned late from work and his lovely grandmother. Neither of them spoke a word of English but I stumbled through using my terrible Japanese. At least I tried! I only met Nori's grandfather briefly and he later explained that his grandfather hated the Americans and the English. How bad did I then feel?! The war scars obviously never really healed. I did my best to promote international peace, gave countless bows and "dozo yoroshiku onegai shimases" ("nice to meet you" or more literally "please be kind to me")

Nori's uncle then appeared clutching a few bottles of Toyama's best sake. We laid out all of the Nabe ingredients on the low table, placed the camping gas stove in the middle of the table (yes camping stoves are very popular household item here!) and chucked everything into the bubbling pot.

The Nabe was so delicious and its the first time I've drank sake and actually liked the taste, hallelujah. I didn't particularly want to spend a whole year in Japan only drinking Chilean Cab Sav! I'm sure his father and uncle were trying to get me drunk. I did my best to stay sober but must admit was a bit wobbly when I left the house and didn't even feel the cold when I got outside. So that's why hot sake is so popular in the winter!

Girls weekend in KagaOnsen, Part 4. Ping Pong, Karaoke & Spa

First the drag then drumming what next? It was time to get competitive with a ping pong contest (how random?!)

Yes, still wearing our yukatas and indoor slippers courtesy of the hotel we got into teams and played in a mini tournament. I just found it so funny to watch these elegant looking Japanese ladies in their yukatas battling it out over a ping pong table. Watch the video and you'll see what I mean, brilliant fun.
I won the singles (vs a very good Yoko) but lost with my partner in the doubles. I forgot how much fun ping pong is! We then decided to hit the karaoke and hired a private room.

Some of the girls belted out tone perfect enka (a traditional Japanese style of music which most of my pupils hate but I think is popular within the older generation) and some contemporary Japanese songs.

I then destroyed the wonderful Japanese ambience by attempting to sing Beatles' Twist & Shout and teaching them how to do "the twist". In true Japanese style they all applauded me encouragingly kept saying "jozu" (you're good) but really I was rubbish ; )

Next morning, after a huge Japanese buffet breakfast, we went to try out the outdoor natural spring foot spa, 40 degrees of wonderful heat.

A blissfull weekend all in all. Thanks Yoko, you really are a star.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Saigawa cycle path & Kenminkaihin park, Kanazawa

Beach at the end of the Saigawa cycle path, Kanazawa

Got home from my wonderful Kaga weekend at 2pm on Sunday so thought I'd make the most of the beautiful afternoon and go on a bike ride to the beach.

I know the cycle path pretty well as in the good ol days when I could actually jog (still can't, knees are wrecked) I used to head as far as the small harbour on the outskirts of Kanazawa which is the point where I'd hit the "wall" and run out of water (then I'd run back dehydrated in the midday heat, CLEVER).

Anyway the cycle path is such an easy ride, 8km, flat all the way, no traffic, no stops and starts for the lights and quite a pretty route along the river. Today I managed to go further than I'd been before (thanks to the wheels!) and just before I got to beach (30 mins later), walked the bike up this huge hill and rode down into a really beautiful little park with a boating lake and BBQ/picnic. The trees were such beautiful autumnal colours. (only had small camera so pics don't do it justice!)

I took a path down to the beach and was surprised at how quiet it was for a warm, sunny day. Anyway, this is the beach near Kanazawa (not Uchinada) and the Sea of Japan. It was so lovely to have sand between my toes again!

Local fisherman in Kanazawa

Saigawa cycle path just by my house in Nishi Izumi

Girls Weekend in KagaOnsen Pt4: My hilarious "Doctor Fish" experience!

The Japanese creations and innovations never cease to astound me and here's a belter for you. I just couldn't believe my eyes.

In the ryokan where we were staying for the weekend there was a blow up pond full of little grey fish. Ahh for the kids, I initially thought, maybe a "catch a fish and win a prize" type game? But no, I failed to read the sign above the pond "ドクターフィッシュ" which literally reads "Doketa-Fishu" or "Dr Fish" to you and me! These fish are, in this sense, doctors who give your feet a good ol' pedicure treatment. You pay to sit on the edge of the pond, dangle your feet in and have scores of fish nibble off the dead skin on your feet! Yep, throw away that old pumice stone, these hungry little nippers will polish off that dead skin in minutes leaving you with baby smooth feet (well in theory).

Yoko having her Dr Fish experience!

The fish aren't exactly phirana size nor do they remotely look like the vicious cousins. They're tiny but still they're ALIVE!! I'm all into holistic medicine but this takes the biscuit.

Anyway this is Yoko having her Dr Fish foot cleaning experience. She did tell me it didn't hurt, just tickles but every time I so much as submerged a toe the little buggers would come up in their hundreds all chewing at the bit to get some of my foot, AGGGGGGHHHHHH!

We paid ¥500 (about £3.50) for a 10 minute session with Dr Fish. I couldn't even bear it for 30 seconds but was such an hilarious experience it was worth the money.

NB!! After writing this post I found out that Dr Fish actually originated in EUROPE! (Turkey) God and there was me thinking this was a crazy Japanese invention. Doing a bit of web research it seems that the fish (known as Garra Rufa) are used to consume the skin of patients with psoriasis and eczema, leaving the healthy skin to grow.

Girls weekend in KagaOnsen, Part 3. Playing taiko drums!

I thought the drag dancing show was enough crazy Japanese "cultural" drama for one day but nooooo. As we were heading back to our room when we heard the boom of taiko drums the hotel lobby. The word "taiko" means drum in Japanese, and "wa" stands for Japanese so I guess 'wa-daiko' (和太鼓) is probably more appropriate.

I first saw a wadaiko drum performance at the Hyakumangoku festival in Kanazawa back in June. It was so powerful, I was almost mesmerised and I SO wanted to have a go. The drummers (even the women) look so cool and hardcore, bandanna's, matching jackets and those cool split toe socks.

Anyway, I digress. This group of 3 drummers and a flutist were simply amazing. See my video below (although it still doesn't do it justice.)

After the show, they asked if anyone wanted to give it a try. Well Yoko immediately started nudging me to go up which got their attention so they invited me on "stage" to play. All I had to do was strike the drum with a wooden stick called the bachi (桴, 枹) to a simple rhythm whilst the other lady played some more complex rhythm on the other side of the drum. Well I swear it sounded professional! I was so proud. I then got it a bit carried away trying to play 2 drums at a time and lost the rhythm.

Me playing taiko with audience in the background....

At the end I bowed to the all Japanese audience gathered in the lobby, said "arigato gozaimasu" (thanks) and got a (non-standing) applause. Not bad for a beginner ey?

Girls weekend in KagaOnsen, Part 2. The after-dinner drag show

Japanese men in drag, scary stuff.....

Posters of the Japanese cross dressing performers.

This had to be one of the most "off the wall" shows I've ever seen; a bunch of male cross dressers wearing enough foundation to fill a truck on stage re-enacting traditional Japanese female dances (I'm still not sure exactly what dance they were trying to re-enact). Japanese tacky drag at its best.
The theatre walls were plastered with posters of these chickguys all dressed up wearing really bad make up that made them look butch and scary, really not that feminine!

Note first the amount of "indoor shoes" (you can't wear outdoor shoes indoors in Japan so they usually give you courtesy indoor shoes) piled by the door of the theatre. It was some poor young girls job to come along and place all the shoes in the right direction (outwards and together as a pair) ready for everyone when they leave.

Before the performance, look at how I tower over everyone, stand out like a sore thumb...

The theatre was packed, a few drunk Japanese men started heckling the compere were sat right next to me, so I knew this was going to be interesting! The show as hilarious in a kind of "what the feck" is this all about kind of way.

Japanese cross dressers; Not quite matching the elegance of the traditional Japanese geisha...

Check out this performers eighties quiff..

Videos not allowed but managed to play the ignorant gaijin who didn't understand...

Different acts came on, one cross dresser who kept taking his arms out of his kimono sleeves and popping them up in front of his chest (I'm not sure if this is skilled or just random), one act with 2 cross dressers flipping and opening fans and another little boy, kindergarten age, fluttering around the stage effeminately.

During the show people from the audience were going up to the performers and wedging ¥10,000 notes (about £70) in their kimonos as tips. Unbelievable. They must have been doing something right. Fun performance all round, videos should be testament!

After the show we got to have our pictures taken with the performers. Brilliant, you can now see them close up.

The first time my head has EVER looked small, hahahaha

This little kid was so sweet, at primary school. The eigo sensei (English teacher) came out in me & I made him speak English...I'm so cruel.