A Local Festival

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The palanquins all lined up

Most Western tourists who come to Japan tend to fall in love with the temples and shrines here. I guess it’s because Shintoism and Buddhism seem exotic to us, who are more used to Christianity and Gothic cathedrals. 7 months later, I still marvel at every little temple I pass.

I hold a special affection for the tiny Gomo Shrine, located a few steps down the hill from our dormitory. This week they hosted a lovely little festival for the local community.

For the past month, every Sunday I could hear children practising a melody to be played at the festival and inside the mikoshi – divine palanquins that get carried by people. The actual festival lasted for three days, and from afternoon until midnight I could hear a buzzing crowd follow these mikoshi around, chanting “ose ose ose” or “mawase mawase”. The first, “ose”, means “push”; “mawase” means “turn”. The divine palanquins are carried by several people, with others riding on top and inside, and crowds love to watch them go at a fast speed or perform difficult turns in the narrow Japanese streets.

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Looks heavy, doesn’t it?

Our dormitory is located on a high hill, just above the temple, and the community that celebrated together gathered all the way down the hill, which normally would be a 15 minute walk. There were stalls with all sorts of toys, snacks, and beverages – I was amazed at how much the quiet area transformed¬†on a Tuesday while I was at university. I joined the celebrations in the evening, and was immediately swept up in the company of friends and acquaintances, and given lots of free drinks and food. There were four palanquins in total, and at around 9 pm we all gathered to watch them being carried up the hill, accompanied by music and chanting. There was something magical about that night – the spirit of the community, being with my friends, my head spinning slightly from the drink, and chanting “mawase mawase” at the top of my voice. I’m so happy I got to witness this small, local festival, and to be part of it.

The timing of the festival was no accident – it was around the middle of the so-called Golden Week. In Japan, about 5 different national holidays all take place very close to each other, which normally forms an entire week off work or studies (though this year we were unlucky and it was broken up by work days on Monday and Tuesday). I remembered about the Golden Week too late (in early April) and the prices for destinations both in Japan and abroad were triple or quadruple the normal. It all turned out for the best – I stayed home, spent time with friends and catching up on movies and books. Others went off to Okinawa or even South Korea, or on hitchhiking adventures. And now I feel almost ready to go back to classes tomorrow!..

There was a festival basically on our dorm's doorstep!! ūüéä

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Getting to know Kyoto

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Hello Kyoto

Now that I’ve spent 6 months in Japan, and travelled to various towns in Kansai and Kanto areas, I’m grateful that I live in Kobe. When I just arrived it felt small, especially as I’m used to living in London. There are many cafes and some places to have fun in Kobe, but the shopping is pretty bad and those who like clubs and bars often complain about the lack of those here. But Kobe is very cosy, and perfect as a home. If I want a big city, I can visit Tokyo. If I want to go out, I can go to Osaka. If I want cultural experiences, I can go to Kyoto. Nothing is too far away.

And Kyoto is the town I’ve changed my opinion the most about since October. From the start I knew I’m not a fan of Osaka or Tokyo, but I dreamed of living in Kyoto. However, Theo and I spent several days in a row commuting to and through Kyoto, and… it was a nightmare. The town remains beautiful and serene, but the transport system¬†started grating on my nerves. And, well, the tourists. I can’t really complain because I’m a tourist myself, but Kyoto feels more like a museum and less like an actual town. In London and Tokyo tourists are less noticeable, lost in the crowds of the locals; but they really stand out in Kyoto.

So there. Kobe is wonderful, well-located, and peaceful. And Kyoto remains an amazing place to visit once in a while. Especially for dates.

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A heroic effort of putting up my hair

I fulfilled a life-long dream in Kyoto: I got to try on kimono!  I googled various kimono lending places in Kyoto and found the cheapest one; it was extremely busy when we arrived.  I rushed through picking kimono, a belt, and a bag, and then spent about 30 minutes getting it all on. I also spent some extra yen on getting my hair up in a fancy hairstyle. The assistants were amazed and horrified by my hair Рmost of their customers are Japanese, and Japanese hair is much easier to handle! Theo also put on kimono, but it was a little faster for him, though also complicated. Finally, we put on the infamous geta (traditional Japanese shoes) and wobbled out of the shop. We only had an hour before we had to take the kimono off, which was a real shame, as we spent most of it frantically taking photos. Still a magical experience though. The looks we got from strangers were funny Рsome smiled with approval, and some frowned at the silly foreigners appropriating Japanese clothing. Cultural appropriation is a sore topic and a grey area for me as a Japanologist, and deserves a separate blog post.

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Trying to keep up the rhythm…

That same day we went to a taiko drumming workshop. This was a particular delight for Theo, who is a talented drummer back in England. I had fun too! We shared the teacher with three other people, and the lesson was full of movement and rhythm. Theo now dreams of finding proper taiko lessons in the UK.

Another dream came true for me in Kyoto: attending tea ceremony. The kind we went to is designed as a workshop for foreign visitors who want to learn about it. Tea ceremony is not practised by Japanese people very often nowadays – it’s¬†reserved for very special occasions. I have a Western friend who attended one in Japan, and she said it lasted 3 hours and was extremely formal. Our workshop was pretty relaxed and lasted 1 hour. The teacher explained the history and significance of tea ceremony, demonstrated how tea is brewed properly, and gave each of us a go at making our own cup of tea. The other guests brought young children, who decided real green tea tastes like spinach. Well, it is an acquired taste, but I rather liked it, and Theo was such a fan that he bought loads to bring home. Certainly one of the more interesting things I’ve done in Japan.

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Photos can’t do this place justice

At this point our time with Theo was running out, and we only got a little more Kyoto tourism in. We went up the Kyoto tower to get a great view of the sun setting over the city. It was far less impressive than the Skytree, but still romantic. The highlight was Fushimi Inari though. It’s one of the most famous temples in Japan, in particular known for the thousands of torii gates you can walk through. It was painfully crowded, but I imagine that if you visit early in the morning, the view gets truly surreal. The torii gate path leads up the foresty mountain,¬†creating a real sense of magic.

And that was that. Kyoto left a strong, mostly positive impression. The next thing I knew, I was standing in the airport saying goodbye to my partner for another 4 months. It was extremely difficult, and right now I’m going through homesickness almost as bad as when I first arrived. Luckily for me, I’m surrounded by friends who are bursting with affection for Japan and ideas for what to do next, so my adventures here are not over just yet.

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Showing off our kimono on the streets of Kyoto

Christmas in Japan

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Kobe Harborland

Christmas over here is very different from England; it’s not an official holiday and you don’t get a day off if it falls on a weekday. There is no feeling of a countdown to a cosy time with family and gift-giving. Instead, it’s a commercial affair that is directed mostly at couples – and after having been out on the evening of the 25th I can testify that everywhere you look, you’re gonna see a couple. It’s funny and surreal. And everybody tries to go for a KFC if they can.

Japan does have the equivalent of a family holiday that Christmas is to England – it is celebrated on New Year’s Eve, much like in my home country Russia. I’m yet to experience the Japanese New Year celebrations, but that will come later, when I set off for Tokyo in a few days.

I managed to have a very lovely Christmas with my Oxford friends, who feel more like a family by now. Whenever it’s holiday time, or even my birthday, I feel strangely down – something many people experience. However, we were lucky to have days off on the 23rd, 24th, and 25th, so I was determined to try and cultivate a festive mood.

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Willkommen zum Weihnachtsmarkt

We all went to Osaka on the 23rd to visit a German Christmas market. That was a surreal sight, because the market is right next to the Umeda Sky Tree building, amidst a steel jungle, and yet there was an atmosphere of a small and cosy European Christmas market. I guess this is how Chinese tourists feel when they visit the London China Town – it’s cute and sells familiar food, but something is a bit off. To top off the confusion, we went to a lovely Indian restaurant nearby, and enjoyed the cultural mix that our little Christmas outing turned out to be.

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Mini-feast

The 24th was a quiet day, spent watching Doctor Who Christmas specials and doing last-minute present shopping. By the morning of the 25th we had an impressive mountain of presents under a tiny Daiso-made Christmas tree in Hannah’s room. This was the cutest time – opening funny presents from each other and our families; helping each other not to feel homesick. Then we slowly started cooking Christmas dinner (I contributed mostly with my presence since I’m terrible in the kitchen). Frank made the loveliest vegetarian burgers! After eating together we crawled out of our comfy sits to go to Kobe’s Harborland, an area full of shops and other attractions. They had an open-air ice skating rink right by the sea and it really felt like a magical evening. We finished it off with a ride on the ferris wheel and spontaneous face-timing with our parents.

So, I managed to have a great Christmas in Japan, even though the country hardly acknowledges it as a holiday. It’s all thanks to my friends, of course.

New Year’s is next and I’m very excited, as I will be in Tokyo for it! I will update with my experience in a couple of weeks, because I will be on the go for the nearest future. Hopefully it will be a great time.

Kobe Luminarie

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On January 17, 1995, at 05:46 am JST, Kobe was shaken up by the Great Hanshin earthquake, otherwise known as the Kobe earthquake. Up to 6,434 people lost their lives; around 4,600 of them were in Kobe. According to wikipedia, this was the second worst earthquake of the 20th century in Japan.

I asked one of my Kobe language instructors, Ito-sensei, about his experience of the event, and this is what he shared:

Back in 1995 he was a student around my age, living alone in an apartment block on the second floor. At around 4 am he just finished writing a last-minute essay, and settled into bed to get some much-needed rest. That night he would not get any. Japanese people are very used to experiencing earthquakes in their sleep, so initially he did not think much of the shaking. However, when the first floor collapsed through to the ground floor car park, it was clear he needed to get out fast. Back then Ito-sensei wore glasses, but he could not find them in the dark, and he could not even use a lighter to help him search, as the electricity was out and there was a smell of gas in the air. After grabbing whatever he can, he had to jump out of his window, as there was no other way to get out. It took a long time for help to come, because the phone booths have fallen over and were unoperational. That night Kobe had some rare mid-January snowfall, though Ito-sensei could hardly appreciate it, waiting outside barefoot.

Most people of my parents’ generation and above seem to remember this earthquake, even in the West, and were concerned for me when I shared that my year abroad was going to take place in Kobe. However, the city today is fully revived, and only small tremors can be occasionally felt – I already experienced one in October and it felt just like being in bed on a train. Of course, today’s safety is no reason to forget the tragedy of the Kobe earthquake.

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This is why every year Kobe organises the Luminarie, which is a 9-day memorial, done by creating intricate light-up displays along the central streets. Moreover, the event attracts hundreds of tourists, promoting what a lovely city Kobe is. It happens every November and also helps create a bit of a Christmasy atmosphere as people start shopping for the holidays.

I went to see the display with some friends on a Monday night, and the crowds were huge, despite it being a work day. It probably took us 2 hours to walk through a street that normally takes around 15 minutes. Definitely a recommended experience, though. The light displays were breathtaking, and at the end of the street there were many stalls with food and souvenirs. There was a festive atmosphere, which is quite strange for a memorial, but I guess it is hard to remind people of the tragedy when all they want is to enjoy themselves. The organisers clearly tried to give it a more serious feeling by playing some dramatic Bach music, but the resulting mood felt a bit strange – a clash between celebration and mourning. I guess it gave the Luminarie a special charm.

P.S. Fun fact: after the earthquake, because the phone lines were down, the police struggled to help the citizens. Instead, the city was rescued by the yakuza, who were quick to offer supplies and shelter, and are still prominent in the city today!

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