Friday, July 27, 2007

天神祭り  Tenjin Festival

On Wednesday July 25th the Tenjin Festival took place in Osaka City. The summer festival is one of the biggest in Japan and there were roughly 500,000 people there for the festival. The festival takes place along the river near Sakuranomiya. There are all the usual food stalls and game booths and an hour long aerial fireworks display like many other festivals have. The thing that is unique to this festival is the parade of boats along the river. It is much like a normal parade with decorated floats, music and celebrities but this one is all on boats floating up and down the river.

The other thing that is really cool about this festival is that lots of people wear a yukata, which is a light cotton version of the traditional kimono worn in summer time. Probably about half of the women were wearing yukata and a decent amount of men as well. The yukata have really beautiful designs and colors and makes the whole festival feel much more traditional. For this festival I even decided to wear a yukata!


I felt a little odd being a foreigner wearing traditional Japanese clothes but it was really fun and I overheard lots of people commenting that I looked cool. The yukata is like a bath robe so its really comfortable and there are pockets in the underhand of the sleaves which are convenient for carrying things. The only problem was that I have really big feet (31cm) and the biggest geta slippers that I could find were only 28cm so my feet were hanging off the back. After walking around all night my feet were really sore by the end of the night.

I ate lots of good food and had a really good time walking around the festival in my yukata getting looks from everyone. Even though the Tenjin Festival is not all that much different from other festivals in Japan the huge number of people and the warm weather created a wonderful atmosphere and was a lot of fun.


(From this point on I am going to start writing this blog in both English and Japanese.)





Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Rhinoceros Beetles

This week was the start of summer vacation for children in Japan. With all the free time and the nice weather what will the kids do with themselves? One thing that kids in Japan love to do is to play with bugs, especially kabutomushi (rhinoceros beetles). So the Seika Town Elderly Talent Association put together an event for the kids to teach them about the beetles, let them play with them, and then the kids got to take them home in little plastic cages at the end of the event.

I went along for the ride to take some pictures and see what all the fuss is about, even though I really don’t like bugs and didn’t want to touch them. As you can see from the pictures the beetles are pretty big and have large horns coming off their heads like a rhinoceros. These beetles have a horn in the center of their heads (hence the name rhinoceros beetle) but the horn often bifurcates making it look like a deer’s antlers.

After the bug hunt the kids also tried out another traditional Japanese game takeuma. Takeuma literally translates to “bamboo horse.” You cut up short sections of bamboo and tie strings around them so that you can hold them in place while you walk around on it. It really does sound like horse hoofs clomping around. Some of the kids made tall ones so it almost looked more like stilts, but obviously made it much harder to walk. There was also a nice little pond in the park where we were that had these beautiful white flowers growing out of the lily pads. For me it was nice to get out of the office on such a nice day and it was fun because some of the kids remembered me from when I go to the elementary schools so they were excited to see me again.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Dragon Boat Race

Two weeks ago I was invited by a friend to take part in an annual dragon boat competition on the river in Osaka City. The competition is pretty big and teams come from around the world to compete in it. Almost all of the teams are serious about the sport and the competition, but the team that I was a part of just does it for fun and doesn’t do any practice. I got the feeling that most of the other teams probably practice all year long and the race is a big deal to them. For us it was just a reason to get together do something fun and then have a BBQ party in the park after the race was over.

A dragon boat is like a really long skinny canoe with two rows of 9 people paddling plus a leader in the front with a big drum to establish the paddling rhythm and a person in the back to steer the rudder (20 people total). The hardest part about it is making sure that everyone is rowing together in the same rhythm. Our team had a lot of big strong people but since we never practiced our stride was off and we couldn’t do very well. The really good teams looked like a many armed beast rowing in perfect unison. Even though we came in last in our heat the race was a really cool experience and the BBQ in the park after was tons of fun.

If you are wondering why they are called dragon boats you can see in the picture below that there is a dragon head at the front of the boat and a tail on the back.

Friday, July 20, 2007

My Own Private Rice Field Pt.II

It's been almost exactly one month since I first planted my veranda rice field and put up pictures of the little sprouts on this blog. I am really surprised to see how much the rice has grown in only one month. At first I was worried that they wouldn't have enought sunlight being on my veranda, or that I didn't get the right kind of soil for rice. But now that they are growing tall and strong I am actually thinking that everything will be fine.

When I got the rice sprouts from a colleague they were in a bucket with mud from a real rice field. That wasn't nearly enough mud for the planters I bought so I had to get a bag of soil from the store. As an experiment I decided to use the original mud in a separate plastic drink bottle and plant the left over sprouts to see if one or the other would do better. Of course there are lots of variables in this experiment but I am noticing that the original mud and rice in the plastic bottle (see the picture) isn't growing as nicely as the ones I planted in the store bought soil. They are still growing but the color isn't as healthy green as the rice in the bigger planters. Maybe thats because they don't have enough room to spread roots but I wonder if its because the soil is different. Only time will tell.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Summer in Japan

Being that it's the middle of July and super hot here in Kyoto it would seem obvious that it's already summer, but to me I only really know its summer in Japan when the festivals start. Recently I went to the Tanabata Festival in neighboring Kizugawa City.

To me it really feels like summer when I can go to a festival where the streets are lined with vendors selling all sorts of typical Japanese foods like, okonomiyaki, yakisoba, karage and other such treats. The day of the festival was pretty hot and humid and with so many people packed into the streets it only increased the heat. But its so nice to walk down the rows of food vendors smelling the different foods and maybe drinking a cold beer. The best part of the whole thing is that most of the young children were dressed up in colorful yukata (a light summer version of the traditional kimono). At the festival there were large decorations were people had written down their wishes for the future (see above picture), one such wish was for world peace.

With the smell of grilled foods and tons of people out creating a lively atmosphere it really made me realize how much fun summer in Japan can be despite the oppresive humidity.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Climbing Mt. Fuji

This past weekend I did one of the most challenging and foolish things I have done since I got to Japan; I climbed Mt. Fuji! I say foolish because who in their right mind would subject themselves to climbing a snow covered volcano in the pitch-black of night, in the rain for 15 hours straight?! I am not a hiking or mountain climbing enthusiast, but it seems like for foreigners who live in Japan climbing Mt. Fuji is just one of those things that you have to do.

I am not quite sure who decided this practice, but the most common way to climb Mt. Fuji is to start at 6pm and climb all night long so that you can arrive at the top in time for sunrise at 4:30am. While it is great to see the sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji I don’t see how climbing the mountain in the middle of the night is seen as a good idea.

Before making the trek I had minimal knowledge of the climb and just figured that since so many people make the climb each year, and since this is practical Japan, that it would pretty much just be a paved staircase with lights for most of the hike. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The trail is far more treacherous than I expected which is further complicated by the changing elements.

I went because a friend of mine wanted to go and as I said before I had always thought that I should do it once while I am here in Japan. We went with a tour group that left by bus from Kyoto. I have to say that a 7 hour bus ride is not the best thing for body and mind before a long trek. So we arrived about half way up the mountain where the paved roads end at 2,305 meters (7,562 feet). At this elevation the clouds and mist are so thick that you can barely see 10 ft in front of you. The hike starts from this point up to the peak of Mt. Fuji at 3,776 m (12,388 ft).

One of the great things about going with the tour group was that they had lined up a hearty dinner for us before the start of the hike. After dinner and final preparations we set off with our guide who must have been at least 60 years old. He took us on a slow pace and thankfully stopped to let us rest frequently. The first 2 hours of the climb weren’t so bad as it was slowing inclining gravel and dirt paths. It was still light out at this point, but the fog, clouds and or mist made visibility pretty minimal and the condensation was high. So even though it wasn’t raining it was wet and slippery everywhere.

(Don't I look like a certain Hobbit on his way to Mordor?!)

I thought the path on Mt. Fuji would be like paved steps but it turned out to be a variety of treacherously steep and narrow paths, and climbing slippery rocks all in the dark with occasional rain and strong winds. Taking into account the 5-10 minute breaks we took along the way the first stage of the hike took us 5 hours up to about 3,200 m. We arrived at the lodge at 11 pm where we would get a bowl of rice and two hours of sleep in a large bunk-bed filled cabin. I slept like a rock in that cabin and awoke at 1 am for the remaining 3 hours of climbing to the top.

Towards the top it starting getting really windy and cold even though it’s the middle of the summer. The terrain wasn’t so scary but with all the large volcanic rocks and dirt it was still rough climbing. At this point we were far above the cloud line and once the sun starting rising the view was amazing. During the hike I thought it was madness to take a bunch of amateurs on a night climb over such difficult paths, but seeing the sun rise over the clouds from the top of a volcano made it all seem worth it.

Sitting on the top of Mt. Fuji after an 11 hour hike (minus 2 hours of sleep) I was surprised that my legs didn’t feel that tired and that the climb wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. After a victorious rest at the top we set off for the return hike down. After about 30 minutes of climbing down the steep and gravely paths my legs and knees started to burn. This is when I realized that the total hike would indeed turn out to be hard. For some reason climbing or hiking uphill isn’t so hard on my body, but hiking down is tough on my knees. The trip back was made torturously hard by the guide would told us it shouldn’t take more than about 2 hours when in reality it ended up taking 4 hours. It seems to be a rule on the mountain to lie and tell people half the actual time whenever asked how long it would take to reach a certain point. I admit that on the way up this was encouraging, but on the way down it really sucked. I just kept thinking, “He said 1 more hour but its already been 2 and we don’t even seem close yet.”

We finally made it back to the original starting point 15 hours after we set off. We had climbed 2,471 m (8,106 ft.) overnight with only 2 hours of sleep as rest. By the time we got back my legs and back were so tired, and while I really enjoyed the hike up and the challenge the return hike back down was harsh and I vowed that climbing Mt. Fuji once is quite enough. There is an old saying that roughly says, “To not climb Mt. Fuji is foolish, and to climb twice is foolish.”

All in all I did have a fun time climbing and the challenge of the terrain and the elements made for an exciting trek. The view from the top and the feeling of overcoming the difficult task was great. The climb up was not nearly as tiring as I thought it would be, but after the hike down I was just as tired as I imagined beforehand. If you have the desire to climb Mt. Fuji I would say it’s a great experience and that you should definitely do it! But if you asked me to go a second time I would say NO!