Thursday, July 30, 2009

The magic of Mitaki

After nearly two years in Hiroshima, I finally got around to visiting a place that's on the tourist maps but probably a bit too far off the beaten path to be visited by many out-of-towners: Mitaki Temple.

It doesn't take long living in Japan to start feeling like "Seen one temple, seen 'em all." Sure, some of them really are extraordinary, but a lot of temples just look pretty much the same. So I guess that's why I wasn't in a huge rush to see Mitaki. I figured, yeah, I'm sure it's pretty, but what's the rush?

So one recent Sunday while Joe had something else to do, I rode the train 10 minutes from our apartment and hiked up the hill to the temple grounds (have you noticed these things always seem to be uphill?). At the entrance, I was greeted by a line of buddhas and an old stone marker carved with the faces of two children wearing bright red knit caps that contrasted sharply with a light layer of moss.

The world that opened up before me as I climbed the steps into the forest was nothing short of stunning.

There are very few places that have given me the sense of wonderment and the excitement of discovery that I felt wandering the grounds of Mitaki. It was old, peaceful, and meticulously manicured, with Buddhist statues and stone carvings everywhere I looked.

All around me came the sound of rushing water from the three waterfalls after which the temple is named ("Mi" meaning "3", and "Taki" meaning "Waterfall"). Incense lingered in the air. Bits of sunlight streamed through the lush trees that shaded the grounds, giving the whole place a kind of soft green glow.

The last time I can remember feeling this way was during my solo road trip through New England in 2004, when, driving down the freeway surrounded by mountains ablaze in autumn colors like some kind of living Monet painting, I wanted to press the accelerator to the floor and speed through every mile of those mountains, take it all in, discover the beauty over the next crest, around the next bend.

Tucked away in a little clearing was this nearly 500-year-old tahoto built in 1526. It was originally built in Wakayama Prefecture but it was moved to Hiroshima in 1951 to console the souls of victims who died in the atomic bombing.

Inside the tahoto is a seated wooden statue of a Buddha that dates back to the Heian Period (the years 794 to 1192). It's crazy to think about how old these things are, isn't it?

Walking further, there was a large bell beneath a pavilion like the one in Peace Park, and occasionally someone would swing the long wooden hammer and pray as the gong carried through the forest.

I watched a mother with her toddler go through the ritual and nearly cried at how cute the little boy was emulating her, head bowed, palms pressed tightly together under his nose. I wanted so badly to take his picture, but good manners trumped my impulses. I didn't want to be the obnoxious gaijin intruding on a solemn moment.

Further up the path, something I certainly wasn't expecting to find was a memorial to the concentration camp victims of Auschwitz.

"Here lie the souls of the sacrificed at Auschwitz Poland caused by the Nazism Policy against the Jewish people during the World War II. Together with that of Hiroshima, this utterly inhumane tragedy shall never again be repeated. We should ponder over ourselves of the avarice, rage and stupidity that are deeply infiltrated in the hearts of each and all, and cultivate the integrity that human shares."

I love the look of the inscription on the back of the marker.

The largest of the three waterfalls was a tall, slender stream tumbling over a giant cliff, though with all the greenery I couldn't get a clear photograph.

Up a bunch of steps to the temple itself, I was immediately struck by this horrific wooden statue in the entryway.

It was tough to get a good picture due to the darkness inside the temple and the bright daylight outside. But is this thing wild, or what? It's so graphic. I couldn't stop staring at it.

I don't know what this statue is supposed to represent, but the temple is dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy. So I find it a little puzzling that there's a crazed monster on the front step about to smash out the brains of an infant.

These sights were fascinating, but the best was yet to come. Following the path up the hill past the temple, I found myself in a magnificent bamboo forest. The beauty of this place is just beyond words. It was so peaceful. You can feel the spirit of this place, so palpably alive.

I hadn't planned on climbing Mt. Mitaki, but after making my way through the bamboo trees, my exuberance carried me the rest of the way. Here's me at the top:

Unfortunately, it started to sprinkle once I got to the peak and the visibility was nil, so I missed out on what is supposed to be another incredible view of Hiroshima. But that's OK. I know I will be back to this place at least three more times because I want to see it in each season. There are supposed to be around 500 maple trees on the temple grounds, which means it must be even more gorgeous in fall, and I can only imagine how pretty it will be with a gentle dusting of snow in winter or with the delicate cherry blossoms in spring. I only wish I'd discovered this place sooner.

Mitaki is quite easily my favorite temple in Japan, better even than the treasured ancient temples of Kyoto. And it's just a 20-minute trip from my house.

I don't usually post picture slide shows because I figure people don't really care enough to look through tons of photos, but in this case I'm making an exception because I want to share several more pictures. Enjoy.
Mitaki Temple

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Solar eclipse, Spaceman Spiff style

Nothing like a little solar eclipse to spice up an otherwise boring Wednesday at work.

Well, I guess I shouldn't say "little", as July 22 marked the "longest solar eclipse of the 21st century" — at 6 minutes and 39 seconds, the longest one I'll witness in my lifetime since there isn't supposed to be a longer eclipse until the year 2132.

The eclipse began in India and followed a path over China and the southern reaches of Japan.

Source: NASA

In Hiroshima we were too far away to see a total eclipse, but I heard we saw about 89 percent coverage. It's still rainy season and it's been raining an awful lot this year, but we were lucky enough to have a break from the rain on Wednesday and a clear enough sky that we could witness the event.

On the map above, Hiroshima is between Fukuoka and Kyoto, so you can see about what the eclipse looked like to us.

To view the eclipse, everyone at my school made special glasses out of poster board and film negatives that were doubled up and taped over the eye slits.

The time schedule was adjusted to let students out of class for the big event around 11 a.m. Everyone poured out into the courtyard and school grounds to watch. I used my cell phone to take a couple pictures of students with their glasses but apparently I forgot to hit the "save" button after taking them (typical), so the photos evaporated into the abyss. Oh well.

We looked like Spaceman Spiff.

I expected darkness to descend over the land, but it just looked like a cloudy day. Still, it was neat to see and cool to know that I got a chance to see this while everyone back home on the other side of the planet was in the dark (literally).

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dear Obama: Please come to Hiroshima

Atomic bomb destruction in Hiroshima. Genbaku Dome is in the back right. (Source:

The New York Times ran a touching op-ed today from a Japanese fashion designer who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Issey Miyake was 7 years old when the bomb dropped, and his mother died from radiation poisoning. Like many hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors), he has kept silent all these years about the horror of that experience — until now.

Miyake felt compelled to write after hearing Obama call for the eradication of nuclear weapons. He urges Obama to come to Hiroshima for the 64th anniversary of the atomic bombing on August 6 to show the world that his goal is to work toward nuclear disarmament.

There has indeed been a movement to invite Obama to visit. I know that English students at some schools were assigned to write him letters asking him to come, and the Hiroshima newspaper also organized a letter-writing project.

The media never fail to note that no sitting U.S. president or vice-president has ever visited the atomic bombing memorial (although Jimmy Carter came after leaving office and Richard Nixon visited between terms as vice president and president). It seemed like a a significant gesture to the Japanese when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi paid her respects at the site last September during a trip to Japan to meet with representatives of the G-8.

Maybe Obama, with his message of hope and change, could become the first president to accept the invitation to come. Nowhere would his words be more appreciated, more embraced, than right here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tackling Takeda-yama

During the precious sunny days this rainy season, I've been taking advantage of the weather to get out and do some hiking. And, in the spirit of more backyard exploration, one of my recent treks took me to the top of Takeda-yama, the mountain on which my school sits.

My daily commute to work ends with a 15-minute walk up the side of Takeda-yama, with the road dead ending at a cemetery next to my school. From there, a narrow trail snakes its way to the top of the mountain, but I'd never realized just how much higher up the peak actually is. I was surprised to find my school is perhaps only 20 percent of the way to the top.

All in all the climb probably took Joe and I two hours at a leisurely pace. It was a little steep in spots but nothing too horrible. Of course at the end we were rewarded with beautiful views of the city from the sea all the way up north. It was a very clear day and we're not sure, but we think we might have been able to see all the way to Shikoku.

View toward the sea

View inland

So now I can say I've scaled my school's mountain, all 411 meters (1,348 feet) of it. Yippee! If memory serves correct, Takeda-yama is the sixth mountain I've climbed in Japan.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Birthday festivities

Saturday was my 29th birthday (the first one!), but my lovely husband's gift came one day early while I was at work:

29 sunflowers

Sunflowers have special meaning for us because Sunflower is one of Joe's pet names for me. (I'll spare you the reason why. I know you're already gagging. I'm sorry.)

This was especially sweet because ordering flowers for delivery I'm sure was no easy task for him. And actually, he couldn't remember how to ask the flower shop to include a vase, so one day last week he ended up going to a home-goods store and buying one himself and then sneakily bicycling all the way to my school so he could deliver it to my office right after I'd left work. He got my supervisor to hide it in her cabinet so I'd have a vase after the surprise flowers arrived on Friday.

Isn't he wonderful? I feel so lucky. I was so overwhelmed by it I started crying in the office. And that made my supervisor cry, too. It was all very sappy.

At the same time, I couldn't help but feel a little guilty, too, considering that my supervisor was sadly telling me recently that her birthday fell on Mother's Day this year, and her husband completely forgot both. Ouch!

And today Joe got busy in the kitchen and baked a chocolate cake. Last year he made a cake in his school's home economics room. Since then he discovered our microwave doubles as an convection oven, so this time he made the cake in our microwave and iced it with icing that flew back from America with us in my suitcase.

It was excellent.

My birthday this year conveniently coincided with the annual sayonara party to bid farewell to all the JETs leaving Japan, so we had a good time partying the night away. Definitely a memorable day.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Tanabata Festival

Christmas in July?

Well, not exactly.

Every year around July 7, some teachers at my school erect a tall segment of bamboo tree in the courtyard to celebrate the Tanabata Festival (Star Festival). This is not so much a festival as the celebration throughout Japan of a significant celestial event happening on the seventh day of the seventh month.

According to legend, the two stars Vega and Altair, separated lovers, are allowed to meet each other across the Milky Way only once a year on the evening of July 7. On this occasion, prayers are offered so that young girls will improve in calligraphy and handicraft.

The custom is to set up leafy bamboo branches in the garden and have people write poems or wishes on long strips of colorful paper that they then tie to the bamboo leaves.

My wish: To own a successful business. Maybe I should've wished for world peace or an end to world hunger or something, but, uh... I guess that didn't occur to me first. Oh well.

What did the students wish for? Here are a few...

A wish to pass an exam.

A wish to win a sports championship of some kind.

According to my supervisor, the boy who wrote this one wishes for a lovely woman to descend from the heavens to be his lover. Hence, the evil grin.

A proclamation of love where the second half of the beloved's name is missing. It's a secret! Aww.

Shall we dance? Why yes, let's!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Tan-Tan-Tanuki follow-up

Saturday night while I was at an English Department work party, Joe hung out with a couple of friends and mentioned my recent discovery of the tanuki song. One of them, apparently more in the know than us, introduced him to this hilarious cartoon video clip from a 1994 movie featuring tanuki. The movie is called Pom Poko (and yes, it's available in English, too). It's about some tanuki who live in the forest near a government construction project. The tanuki, facing extinction due to the destruction of their habitat, band together to sabotage the project, taking advantage of their shape shifting super powers to cause mischief. In this video clip, you can hear the tanuki singing the song at the beginning, accompanied by (very P.C.) English subtitles.

You've really got to see this. (Unfortunately, the original video I posted to this entry was deleted for copyright violation, so I've reposted this one instead. The real action starts about one minute in, so just be patient.)

Haha! I am still in disbelief.

I wish they'd make plush tanuki dolls. That would really make my day.

Since I got the idea to search for tanuki videos on YouTube (why didn't I think of that before?), I found another short video of a random Japanese guy singing the tanuki song. It's easier to hear the melody in this video.

I am still awaiting Joe's musical rendition. Maybe someday I can post a video of him singing the song.

Additionally, with a little more digging, I found an explanation for how the tanuki's giant balls evolved. (You really wanted to know, didn't you? Of course you did.) An article published last year in the Japan Times says this:

In his book "Hagane no Chishiki, (Knowledge about Steel)" (Diamond Shakan, 1971), Shigeo Okuwa traces the super-size scrotum story to metal workers in Kanazawa Prefecture. To make gold leaf, these craftsmen would wrap gold in a tanuki skin before carefully hammering the gold into thin sheets. It was said that gold is so malleable, and tanuki skin so strong, that even a small piece could be thinned to the size of eight tatami mats. And because the Japanese for "small ball of gold" (kin no tama) is very close to the slang term for testicles (kintama), the eight-mat brag got stuck on the tanuki's bag. Soon, images of a tanuki began to be sold as prosperity charms, purported to stretch one's money and bring good fortune.

Most tanuki statues are Shigaraki-yaki, a type of ceramic ware made in and around the town of Koga in Shiga Prefecture. According to the association of local pottery manufacturers, the now familiar design of a cheerful, slightly goofy-looking tanuki, often carrying a flask of sake, was developed by Tetsuzo Fujiwara, a potter who moved to the area in 1936 and devoted the rest of his career to tanuki statuary. In 1951, on the occasion of an imperial visit, the town prepared a special row of flag-waving tanuki statues. Emperor Hirohito was so charmed by this welcome that he penned a poem about it. That was a story the media couldn't resist, and the resulting publicity contributed greatly to the popularity of the statues. The most common place to see a tanuki statue is in front of restaurants and shops, where they're placed to lend some traditional atmosphere and invite success in business (shobai hanjo).
So there. The giant balls are the media's fault. Damn liberal media!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Sometimes, Japan's a little nuts.

There are aspects of Japanese culture that are really inexplicably weird when you first encounter them, but as time goes on you become desensitized to how bizarre these things are. They become just another oddity in the Japanese landscape, something you hardly notice or think about.

One of these things is the raccoon dog statue. I first noticed this statue in front of a little restaurant while walking the streets of Kyoto.

A, uh, *ahem* gifted raccoon dog statue

I remember passing this statue and doing a double take. Yep, that's what I thought it was: a tiny little peter with a jumbo set of balls hanging down to the ground. Naturally, I took pictures.

Now this statue certainly struck me as odd at the time, but since then I've occasionally seen it in front of businesses and I guess it became somehow "normal." I don't stop and stare in wonderment anymore when I see raccoon statues with giant nuts.

Then last week I saw a post on the "How the World Works" blog on titled "The art and folklore of Japanese raccoon dog testicles," addressing the main question surrounding this statue. That, of course, being, "What the hell??"

It seems that the raccoon dog, or tanuki in Japanese, is beloved in Japanese folklore and that their oversize testicles symbolize financial good luck. Which explains why shop owners like to put these statues on the front stoop. How this symbol came to be is anybody's guess, but in the 1840s Japanese artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi created a whole series of woodblock prints showing the tanuki using their mammoth testicles in outlandish ways, say as...

Shop signs...


Fishing nets...

This wasn't even my favorite part about the whole thing. Yes, it gets better. Salon (which ripped this information off from the very fascinating Wikipedia page on tanuki) goes on to say that there's an old schoolyard song about the tanuki that goes like this:

Tan Tan Tanuki no kintama wa,
Kaze mo nai no ni,
Bura bura

Roughly translated, this means:

Tan-Tan-Tanuki's testicles,
There isn't even any wind,
But still go swing-swing-swing.

The song continues for several verses, with many regional variations. It is sung to the melody of an American Baptist hymn called "Shall We Gather at the River?"

Stupefied, I ran this new found knowledge by my new supervisor, who is always happy to teach me all about Japanese culture. Do Japanese school children sing this, really???

These kids could be singing about giant balls.

Yes, she said, it is indeed a school yard song, but it's old. She learned it from classmates in kindergarten, though she wasn't sure if today's high school students would know the song. Why did kids sing that song, I wondered? She had no answer, as mystified as me how such a thing made its way into Japanese culture. Feeling bold, I pushed the line a bit and asked if she remembered the melody. Suddenly she was in a big rush to get out the door to her next class and quickly suggested that the math teacher who sits next to me could serenade me instead.

Turning my computer screen toward his desk, he read the lyrics and stifled a laugh, which only attracted the attention of half a dozen other male teachers in the office, who were soon gathered 'round, bent over my computer screen and discussing the discovery in rapid Japanese. One teacher was goaded into singing, but didn't make it through the first line, omitting kintama, telling me that on TV, that word is beeped out. (As a side note, I'm tickled that the Japanese slang word for testicles, kintama, is written 金玉, symbols literally translating to "golden balls.") The bell rang for the next class and as they all hurried out the door, I heard him telling the others, "hazukashii" — "I'm embarrassed."

I figured I'd let it drop after that, having caused enough of a stir, but my supervisor made a point of bringing the subject back up when she returned to the office the next period, prodding the notoriously sukebe (perverted) teacher sitting beside her to sing the tune for me. This is the same teacher who occasionally reminds me how much he adores Joe due to his knowledge of dirty Japanese, and who once, to my astonishment, burst out in a stream of English obscenities in front of my class because he thought it was funny that he could do that and the students wouldn't understand. With my supervisor egging him on, it became a point of pride that this sukebe teacher could not back down from singing the naughty song. As we sat waiting, this normally profane old man suddenly became very meek, singing so softly that I couldn't even catch the tune. I suppose nobody wanted to risk being overheard by the boss. Can't blame them, really.

After that the subject did drop, though Joe was quite delighted to hear all about it when I got home and determined that he would have to learn the song so he could sing it in the halls and then play innocent like he didn't know what it meant. Just something some little kids taught him somewhere.

He hasn't done it yet. We'll see if he's got the kintama for that.