If I were to ask you what Japan produces, chances are you would say something along the lines of “cars, TVs, cellphones, video games”. And in our travels outside of Kyoto, we did see many factories that produced just those and more. But there was something else that dominated the landscape as far as the eye could see: rice paddies. Rows upon rows of rice plants, neatly organized in rows and columns, seemed to change in front of our eyes between being arranged in horizontal, diagonal and vertical lines as our bus sped past and our point of view changed. (We spent six weeks studying, among other things, this effect as seen in gardens. It was refreshing to see it manifest itself outside of them.)
From the fields…
…to the table.
Rice is an extremely important staple of Japanese diet. All the traditional kaiseki meals we had, from breakfast to dinner, were accompanied by a bowl of white rice. Faced with its presence everywhere, it’s hard to guess the veritable economic war surrounding it. After World War II, bans and exorbitant tariffs were placed on imported unprocessed rice. Though they are not as strict anymore, the result is that the Japanese pay much more than Americans for the same amount of rice. But that does not seem to deter them, and rice can be found in your meal (think sushi), your dessert (daifuku: a rice cake, or mochi, filled with a sweet paste), your drink (sake anyone?). And in all its forms, it’s simply delicious.
BrE /ˈkʌltʃə(r)/ NAmE /ˈkʌltʃər/
1. [uncountable] the customs and beliefs, art, way of life and social organization of a particular country or group
5. [uncountable] (specialist) the growing of plants or breeding of particular animals in order to get a particular substance or crop from them
From Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary
It has been only 3 days since I have been back yet my adventure in Kyoto feels like it occurred ages ago. In a state of severe jet lag, I find myself remembering everything I learned in the country I fell in love with. One of the many parts I loved was the food. This has been the first time in my life I have willingly eaten so many vegetables and enjoyed them!
Before my stay in Kyoto I would see the meals as they are shown in tv and I used to think that the serving size was too small to ever be satisfied. Most meals are a main dish and have small servings around it. The main dish may be some type of meat mixed with some vegetables while the side dishes could range from miso soup to rice to pickled vegetables or tempura vegetables. In general you find rice in most meals either as a side dish or part of the main dish. Regardless of the meal, one thing I learned is that those small servings actually leave you more than satisfied.
Kaiseki is a traditional dinner with multiple main courses and delicious delicacies you will probably never taste again. The meal generally has an appetizer, sashimi, a simmered dish, a grilled dish, and a steamed course aside from other small side dishes that tend to incorporate some local ingredients. Aesthetics are very important in Japanese culture thus this meal requires that the food is placed and prepared in such a way that not only does it taste amazingly but so that it is also aesthetically pleasing.
Only one of the many courses in kaiseki. The aluminum bowl is for the boiled food part of the meal. The meat and vegetables on the right are placed in the aluminum bowl to boil.
Now while anyone who knows a thing or two about tourism in Kyoto has probably heard more than enough about the Fushimi Inari shrine, after having visited this gorgeous, sprawling, mountain shrine myself I honestly think it deserves its fame. Since I was already interested in visiting Shinto shrines, loved hiking mountains and knew Fushimi Inari was one of the largest and well known in Kyoto, deciding to visit was a no-brainer for me. I visited a lot of gorgeous places during my month and a half there but I honestly think Fushimi Inari was one of my favorites.
The beautiful forests of the mountain!
Whether it was the thousands of stunning, scarlet Tori Gates framing the path to the mountain summit, the ancient fox statues and shrines to the Shinto deity of rice and wealth (called Inari Okami) represented by its fox messengers dotting the path, or the towering pines and bamboo rustling in the breeze, I was enthralled by the space from start to finish.
The famous Tori-gates.
Me in the bamboo forest halfway up Fushimi Inari
One of the fox satues at Fushimi Inari
Halfway up the mountain there is even a popular sitting area where one can see the entirety of Kyoto shrunken down in the distance. During my long rest there (it was a typical blazingly hot day) I remember my friends and I commenting on how different and oddly futuristic Kyoto seemed to look from way up in the mountains with its raised train rails glittering in the distance and how odd it was to be able to observe such an old city from this angle.
Even with the city in the distance the mountain really made me feel as if I had gone back in time a bit and felt peaceful in a way. After we finally reached the summit and payed our respects to the shrine to Inari at the top, observing and imitating the native worshipers who were praying when we arrived, we ended up making our way back down via and alternate path that led through the mountain’s bamboo forests instead of the Tori gate path. It really was a beautiful forest in a beautiful shrine on a beautiful mountain and we all agreed that it was a great experience.
A beautiful old fox statue I saw at the foot of a personal shrine.
Gion Matsuri Festival 2015
The Gion Matsuri Festival is an annual event that started out as a purification ritual to ward off sickness and has been going annually since the year 970. For the three days preceding the final parade, the main shopping district of Kyoto is blocked off to vehicles and is absolutely flooded with pedestrians. Stalls line both sides and the street and amazing smells fill the air – balls of fried dough filled with octopus, pancakes stuffed with red bean paste, frozen bananas, cucumbers on a stick, cabbage pancakes (better than they sound), fried noodles, chicken kebabs – the list goes on. The floats are constructed and set into position in the streets for the approaching parade. On Wednesday night, we went out as a group, got fitted with yukatas, and explored the streets together.
Unfortunately, by the time Friday rolled around, the typhoon had hit, but the parade went on nonetheless. We sat in our amazing front-row seats huddled up in our rain ponchos and sipping on our complimentary sports drink. It was the quietest parade I’ve ever been to. People stood shoulder-to-shoulder, but even when the floats rolled by, there was no one shouting, no audible fanfare. Only the sound of the boys sitting in the float jingling bells. The floats themselves were incredible – they were wooden structures and massive amounts of twine held the beams together. They were pulled by two long ropes manned by about 15 people each. To turn, wedges were placed in front of the giant wooden wheels. It was fascinating to see these things on the move.
We also saw one of our friends in the parade! His name was Mike and he had been one of our hosts at a tea school/museum just a few days before. He was a really cool guy and we all shouted his name and waved like loud Americans. I think he was also a little embarrassed but he smiled.
I always find that the most interesting thing about a country isn’t its large skyscrapers or its natural wonders; neither of which Japan lacks.
What makes a trip worthwhile (in my opinion) is finding and marveling at the small differences in everyday life.
Here are some of my observations, which may or may not only apply to Kyoto.
It’s pretty easy to buy alcohol underage as a foreigner (Not that I would know).
There are no trashcans anywhere, and yet Japan is really clean.
There are vending machines everywhere, and they sell things ranging from beer to hot food.
You walk and drive on the left side.
Streets going left to right are super narrow and streets going north to south are super big.
Jaywalking is a lot less common. People will literally stand there and wait until the light turns green even if there are no cars coming.
Fruits are very expensive.
People are so polite here that they make Canadians look rude.
People leave plastic bottles filled with water in front of their doorsteps and alleyways. I wasn’t sure why so I looked it up online and it is supposedly to ward off stray cats(?)
The elderly makes up a significant percentage of Japan’s population. But they’re really nice and friendly! They’re like the loving and adorable grandparents you always wish you had.
Green tea Kit Kat is the bomb. Seriously, I’m bringing a couple(a lot) back. If you’re interested, I will be selling them at a marked up price.
Collecting ten 1 yen coins is equivalent to collecting 7 dragon balls.
You pay the bus fare when you get off, not when you get on.
Going to an onsen (hot spring bath) is an interesting experience…
Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, One Direction, Frozen, Tangled, Big Hero 6, and Twilight are universal.
You can randomly walk in town and come up to a building that was built 1000 years ago.
Everything and everyone here is super kawaii.
Thank you for reading.
Today, I visited Nijojo-mae, or Nijo-jo Castle. I was definitely happy that it wasn’t too far of a walk from my apartment–especially on a very hot and humid day like today. (I’m really beginning to appreciate that the Global Seminar was scheduled during June and July instead of August with its relentless heat).
While at Nijojo-mae, I went inside of the Ninomaru Palace (pictured above). In particular, I was struck by the differences in architecture and artistic style of the interior. This Palace was starkly different from the temple complexes that I’ve visited with my class. Unfortunately, no photography was permitted inside.
I was first surprised with the dimensions of the hallways throughout the complex. The hallways seemed to be both very wide and tall; the ceiling panels were painted with beautiful designs and flowers. Throughout the building, there seemed to be more of an emphasis on delicate woodwork.
After the Palace, I walked the grounds of the Castle to view the gardens (pictured above). Unfortunately, I was rather disappointed with what I saw. Influenced by what I learned about the aesthetics of Zen gardens in the Global Seminar, I was very surprised to see a preference to use grass over moss in many of the spaces; in some areas, the grass was overgrown and looked very disorganized. In general, the moss did not seem well tended. In my opinion, the grounds seemed to follow a hybrid Japanese-Western style garden. I felt this detracted from the Castle’s aesthetics.
On Friday, I visited Kinkakuji, a famous site in Kyoto where the Golden Pavilion is located. The Golden Pavilion, with its exterior covered in gold leaf, overlooks a pond-garden, and its sunbeam reflection in the water is striking in the summertime. It is no wonder why so many tourists want to visit it–even on the Friday I went, when it was one of the hottest and most humid days of my stay in Kyoto so far!
I actually preferred looking at the pond and garden surrounding the Golden Pavilion to the structure itself. The Golden Pavilion seemed unnecessarily baroque when viewed in the context of the aesthetics of Zen and other gardens that I have seen with the Global Seminar.
On Saturday, I went to Ginkakuji with some friends from class. Ginkakuji is home to the Silver Pavilion (pictured above). Unlike the Golden Pavilion, the Silver Pavilion wasn’t covered in silver leaf. I felt that there was less of an emphasis on the Pavilion and more of an emphasis on the gardens at Ginkakuji:
The gardens here were absolutely beautiful. To be able to stroll through the gardens and view the different sites from various angles was one of my favorite aspects of Ginkakuji. Also, the view from Ginkakuji of Kyoto and of the mountains surrounding it is amazing:
I can’t believe that I only have a week left in this fantastic city and country. It’s definitely going to make me sad to leave!
This past weekend, I had an fantastic time–from painting in the Japanese nihonga style to taking a trip to Osaka. On Friday, half of our global seminar visited the atelier of Professor van Tonder’s wife where we were able to see many of her nihonga works. She then led us in crafting our own nihonga paintings. It was a very arduous process that required a lot of patience (and hopefully, good weather conditions). We started by sketching our design on paper and then transferred it to the paper canvas. After that, we watched her prepare the ink that we then used to outline our sketches. Afterwards, we applied a white paint that would be the adhesive for the other paints we would use later on. We applied layers upon layers of paints onto the canvas, waiting between each application for the paint to dry out. The most intense part was the application of gold leaf to the canvas; the windows were closed, and everyone held their breath as we glued the gold onto the painting.
On Saturday, several classmates and I went to Osaka to visit Osaka Castle. Walking up to the castle, we were surrounded by a very beautiful complex. The Castle itself had an amazing view of Osaka, and we went through each floor of the Castle to view the museum exhibits that explained the history associated with the Castle’s construction and destruction.
Oh, yeah. I visited a Pokémon Center. Pikachu plushies for life. 😛
The Toji Temple Flea Market is a truly authentic Kyoto antiques market on the grounds of Toji, a temple built in the 700s during the Heian Period. The flea market is only held once a month on the 21st, so we were encouraged by our professors to make the trip to Southern Kyoto to experience it.
Rising bright and early on a Sunday morning is never ideal, but it was definitely worth the grogginess to get to the temple at 8am to beat the crowds. I have never seen so many priceless antiques, handmade artisan crafts, and delicious food all in one place! It was such a treat to experience the bustling market, taste the food (I especially loved the yakisoba wrapped in egg), and attempt to communicate and bargain with the vendors using what little Japanese we have learned so far.
I personally have quite the weakness for ceramics and couldn’t resist purchasing some beautiful handmade mugs and tea cups. The artisans themselves were there selling their work, and they all seemed so humbled and grateful that I had taken a liking to their pieces. It really makes a difference to personally buy something from the craftsman who made it by hand, and it was extremely rewarding to be able to ask them about their work.
It is a shame that the market only comes around once a month. I’ll most definitely be planning any future visits to Kyoto to coincide with a flea market date!
I was walking down Horikawa Street when I coincidentally met Mr. Oh-yabu and other members of Scout Unit 38 of Kyoto Scout Council. As an Eagle Scout myself, I recognized the Scouting uniforms that they were wearing, so I decided to stop and ask them about the community service project that they were doing. With water flowing around their ankles, they were raking up the algae off the bottom of a shallow stream running along Horikawa. Mr. Oh-yabu told me that their volunteer work is important in the preparation of a festival that is to take place there in a few weeks.
I asked him if I could join them in their service project, and he happily accepted. For a few hours, we raked up the algae and traded many Scouting stories. I explained to him my experiences in the Boy Scouts of America, and he compared them to his own experiences with the Boy Scouts of America and Scouting in Japan. Mr. Oh-yabu was a very good-natured and funny person, and we shared a number of laughs in the heat of the afternoon.
While talking to Mr. Oh-yabu, it amazes me to experience how global the Scouting organization is, and even when I’m on the other side of the world, I see how the spirit to give service back to communities continues to thrive. It really was an amazing opportunity for me to participate in this project because of my own admiration for the Boy Scouts of America.