Fire Festival

There was a little bit of excitement in Akita prefecture today.  AIU arranged a bus so students could visit a fire festival nearby.  It was a curious event.  When we arrived people were standing around little fires, facing a Shinto priest who was reading something traditional and important that we couldn’t really understand.  Then the crowd broke up to get cups of hot sake or tea and mikans (Japanese oranges–satsumas in America).  Several people began directing us in to various spots thanks to an announce that we were visiting from the university to see a local tradition.


Next, everyone walked over to a big bonfire that was being lit.  People began throwing things into it, and we found out that they were throwing out the old charms that they received from Shinto shrines in the previous year.  Burning the charms of the last year in special fires is the traditional way to dispose of them–every year the charms have to be renewed.  Once the fire was burning strongly one man picked up a bundle of kindling attached to a rope, lit the kindling, and began swinging it around.  I’m not sure what the significance of this is supposed to be, but it was cool to watch.  However, after the first man finished people began trying their hands at it in every corner, and pretty soon we had to watch where we were standing.  A lot of AIU students tried it too (not me, I’m a chicken when it comes to fire).





After an uneventful return and dinner, I remembered that I had found a sledding hill a few days before, so a few of us decided to hike into the park with our makeshift “sledges” and go sledding.  It was lots of fun!  It took some work to get our two little trails working, but pretty soon we’re sliding and spinning to the bottom.  Since we didn’t have proper sleds, it didn’t always work very well, and the thigh deep snow sometimes made getting back up the hill interesting, but it was a great time.  We’re hoping to go again–once we’ve warmed up!


Japanese word of the day:  kaji / かじ  (kah-jee)  noun: fire

Hokkaido: First Day

The first trip I went on after I arrived in Japan was a trip to Hokkaido, the north island of  Japan.  At the end of September we had a Monday off of school for “Respect for the Aged Day,”  so a big group of us headed out on Thursday night to see the sights.  The trip was completely student organized–a Czech graduate student who lived here last year had the idea to bring some new students on trip similar to one that he had already done.  I heard about the trip later than a lot of people so I decided to go only 24 hours before we left.  Even though it was a last minute decision, it was probably on of the single best decisions I’ve made since I got here.  It was a great weekend.

A group of 15 of us set out from AIU on a Thursday night.  My good friend Titus from the US was going too, a few of the others I knew from classes or the dorms, but I didn’t know anyone else very well.   For the long leg of our journey we had made a group reservation on a ferry.  The only problem is the ferry starts boarding at 6:40 and leaves at 7 am.  Which meant that we had an entire night to kill in Akita city and had to find some way to entertain ourselves.

It turned into a memorable night.  Our trip leader J. walked us through the rain to an all night bar that he knew of.  We shared umbrellas in the rain as we walked and talked about what we wanted to do in Japan.  Unfortunately, J.’s friends’ bar was busy and didn’t have enough room for 15 dripping gaijin.  However, they gave us directions to a karaoke place and an extra umbrella.  In Japan, lots of karaoke parlors are open all night (in this country, groups rent small rooms to do karaoke in privacy with their friends) and they usually have a discount for those unbusy hours.  So we rented a room and stayed up singing till 5 am.

We walked a little way, looking for some breakfast, and ended up taking taxis to the ferry landing.  It took us half an hour to write down all our names and addresses.  Some students had only been learning Japanese for a couple weeks, and I can vividly remember having people sound out their names so I could write them down phonetically.  Then I sat with Cat, who was tallying up prices, while everyone else ran off to get food before the boat departed.  It was my first time spending much time with her, even though we lived only two rooms from each other, and we were both realizing that we had a good chance of gettting along well.

There was a small panic at about 6:45 when the other students still hadn’t returned from the convenience store.  Cat shoved all the papers and tickets at me, left her bag at my feet, and ran after everyone else.  I got watch all of them run to the building just in time to make the ferry.

We had a shared room with cubbies and floor space for sleeping (actually we had two rooms, but our Japanese wasn’t good enough to understand that until the return trip).  We settled our things and then made our way up the deck of the ship.  Standing at the back, we watched the dock pull away and the city sprawl under the early sun.  It was great feeling, and despite the earlier rain, and the tiredness, it was a perfect start to our journey.

After the boat left port, most everyone went back to sleep.  I was too restless.  I stayed up and talked with Cat for while, until she too needed to sleep.  Then I wandered indoors and watched the scenary.  Japan is absolutely beautiful from the sea.  Full of mountains and some mist, sailing in a boat surrounded by bright blue water.

After a confusing conversation with an old Japanese man (who wanted to know where I was from and then proceded to explain how much he loved skiing (I didn’t really understand that part)), I headed to bed myself.  I only slept about three hours (we had a ten hour journey on the ship) before I was too restless to sleep anymore.  I went back up to the ship and wandered around some more.

Things I remember from that trip:

The water was so blue–I didn’t want to look away!

The conversation with the old man, one of my first real connections to regular people in Japan.

A man who moved from place to with his guitar, playing as he went.

Wandering, bumming into one of the other students, talking a little, and then just looking out at the waves.

Seeing the very first view of the north island as we came around the edge of it.  For no real reason, it was so exciting and so beautiful.

The water was so blue.  The sun was so warm.  The sound of the water. It was a perfect day.

Knowing everyone else was sleeping and missing it.

Japanese word of the day:  fune /ふね  (foo-nay)  noun: boat, ship

Fresh Snow

Fall Semester ended a few days before Christmas and now Winter Session has started. There have been a lot of goodbyes here at AIU as the single-term students head home and the long term students head out to travel. Now most of us have collected back here, with a few new additions, to take classes over the winter break.

I traveled myself for a week, starting on Christmas day, with my friend C. We saw the sights and then parted ways in Tokyo. She’s starting an internship in Kawagoe near the capital while we start classes here. I had a lot of fun traveling with her, and I wish her well–her internship is going to being really challenging.

Here at AIU, we’ve mostly settled in for the winter. The snow is already thigh-deep. The six and seven foot snow poles that line the roads and walkways don’t seem quite so funny anymore. The people who are having the hardest time are our new students. They have just arrived from Egypt and they told us they were swimming outside last month. I can hardly believe it. I’m having fun in the snow–when I don’t get stuck, that is. I love it a lot. I think it’s more snow than I’ve ever seen before. In the same that Akita weather is always rainy, it’s vaguely snowing everyday here. Last week, I took out my garbage and in the few hours I’d been inside it the sky dropped a foot of powder snow. The weather is pretty mild however; it never gets too cold here. Nonetheless, Japanese buildings don’t really have central heating, so I’ve been staying in my cozy dorm, getting over a cold and knitting.

Today marks the second day of winter classes. All I’m taking is a Japanese language class because the schedule is so intense. We meet for 8 hours a week! However, I much prefer my current teacher over my last one and I am much more motivated to study.

That’s the past month in a nutshell. I’m working on several projects, and among them, hopefully I’ll be able to add more stories of my time here and more interesting facts about Japan.

Filler Edition

So, I’m working on a few updates that will hopefully be up and running soon. In the meantime, while doing background research I stumbled across this photo blog. It’s about 10x coooler than mine–you should definitely look at it if you want a view of the local countryside. I’m not sure who writes it–they’re not a student at my school, but I’m pretty sure they live in central Akita (they blog about places that I know of/have visited). I think they might be Korean. Check it out for the beautiful photos if nothing else:

Weekend Trip to Tokyo: Part 2

On Saturday, k. had to stay at home because she was officially sick, but the rest of us decided to explore some more.  Now, most people visiting Tokyo for the first time would visit all the best historical and sightseeing spots, but with two girls in the group and being surrounded by Japanese fashion, we headed for some of the shopping districts.  First we headed to Harajuku for shopping, lunch, and seeing a shrine (though not in that order).  We got a big surprise when, after wandering around looking for a restaurant that didn’t have a waiting list, we came across an American-style burger place.  It was a little bit expensive, but they gave us more food than we could eat–it was like being home!

Once we were no longer hungry and distracted, we head to Meiji Shrine, which is right by the station exit.  This shrine was created by the order of the Meiji Emperor (who was responsible for opening up and modernizing Japan in 1848).  In the middle of the city, he had a small forest planted, with a lily garden and wide paved square within the shrine.  At every entrance are tall torii gates that you must pass through to enter the shrine.  (They’re taller and wider than any others that I’ve seen so far, and I think they’re the largest in Japan.)

After one last small(er) torii, you reach the group of buildings that make up the shrine.  The main part is a large paved square enclosed by by walls.  At the far end is a god tree–a tree marked with rope and strips of paper to mark that a kami (god/spirit) lives there–that is surrounded by a wall of wishes.  Past the tree is the shrine itself, though people can only enter the front to pray and offer a few coins.  This shrine–since it was commissioned by the Meiji Emperor–is very large and beautiful, but it’s difficult for a casual visitor to see much.

Meiji Shrine is really popular for weddings.  While we there, we saw three couples, including one very grand and stately procession:

After seeing our fill of the shrine we headed for Takeshita Street, one of the main venues of alternate/teenage fashion in Tokyo.  It was ridiculously crowded, but a lot of fun.  There were sightseers and regulars, and plenty of the things to look at.  The stores all have their best stuff displayed, and plenty of the customers were dressed to the nines as well.  It’s an area that I’ve heard about since I first became interested in Japan as a teenager, so it was great to be able to see it in person.  Also, Harajuku is also known for its crepes (crazy fruit/sauce/ice cream/whipped cream/cheesecake combinations that are wrapped in soft pancake-type crepes.  They put them together in front of you).  We just had to get some:

We wandered and shopped for a couple hours, and the jumped one station stop to Shibuya, a higher-end district and our last stop for the night.  It was full of food and shopping, and we wandered there for an hour or so as well.  It was a big schock to get off the train.  Harajuku was popular and full of people, but Shibuya was RIDICULOUSLY busy.  It looked like Times Square in NYC.  The station is next to a big intersection where, after all the vehicle traffic signals cycle once, all the Pedestrian walk signals light up at the same.  The result is a big mass of people moving in their chosen direction.  The street corners look less like an intersection, and more like a plaza in a busy city.

The crowd in Shibuya.

The next day, Sunday, was the last day of our trip.  K. and k. had homework to do (and k. was still sick), so we had few plans and a slow start to the day.  In the afternoon, I went off on my own, exploring the local neighborhood.  I did a little bit of shopping (sweets, books, and keep-sakes) and about four hours of wandering.  One thing that I was reminded of as I walked down a local backroad was how in Japanese cities things are piled on top of each other.  Walking down a street of restaurants, bars, and houses (all looking similiar enough they’re hard to tell apart if you don’t know your way around), I came across small Buddhist temples, tiny cemetery plots, and shrines every block or so.  Over a high street-side wall, you catch a glimpse of an ornate roof, and the next moment, you’re watching past the entrance of a small local sanctuary.

After walking further, I came across Yanaka Cemetery.  It had some beautiful

fall foliage, but I didn’t plan on spending much time there until I found a sign that said the land had several large sections dedicated to the Tokugawa clan.  (The Tokugawa’s were the group that took power in the early 1600s and stabilised and unified Japan after its warring-states period.  Supposedly (with my limited Japanese, I’m only relying on wikipedia for this) the Tokugawa shogun rests there.)  I decided that was pretty cool and set about trying to find the famous tombs.  I had mixed success–two of the most famous plots have walls and locked doors around them, and I simply wasn’t tall enough to see much.  I did, however, see a few dozen cats.  They were every where in the cemetery, and I think I saw as many people taking pictures of cats as of trees or graves.

After leaving the cemetery I tried to head back to K. and k.’s, and ended up on the wrong side of the railway.  There were lots of big bright shops (very different from the cramped, twisty roads of K. and k.’s neighborhood), but I didn’t take much time to explore.  Instead I headed back to my friends.

They sent us off with one last meal of sukiyaki (soup, but better) and then Titus and I navigated our way to the night-bus pick up.  After some tricky conversations, we figured out which bus we needed and got ourselves settled.  (Along the way, we met up with two other pairs who were heading back to AIU, which meant some nice chatting.)  It was a long bus ride–longer than the first–and we realized the cause of the slow going when we woke up to trees covered in snow.  It was very beautiful, but by the time we reached Akita City it was mostly rain.  (We saw the snow just after first light, so I think we may have been up in the mountains still.)

Thus ended our long, fun Tokyo trip.  I can’t wait until I can visit my friends again!

Japanese word of the day: kankou suru / かんこうする  (kahn-koh-sue-rue)  verb: sightseeing, tourism

Weekend Trip to Tokyo: Part One

On Thanksgiving Day, Titus and I reached  Tokyo at the early hour of 6:30.  We took the night bus from Akita Station to Tokyo Station–a 9 hour trip.  We arrived to early morning light, tall buildings, and a crowd of salary men making their way to work.  After several confusing minutes of trying to decipher the train map, we got our bearings and headed for K. and k.’s place at Toyo University.  We got there about an hour earlier than planned, but luckily our friends were already awake.  So for the first time since last May, the four of us finally met again!

After a quick trip to a local bakery, we settled in to talk and nap while k. went to class.  It was

Salary men in Akihabara

great to have a chance to compare our experiences at very different schools in Japan and just to see each other.  When k. got back from class, we had a small lunch and then caught a train to Akihabara.  Akihabara is known as the electric town of Tokyo–it’s where you can buy the newest electronics and find the best deals.  It’s also famous for manga and anime and basically nerd-culture.  Like every other part of Tokyo, shops were piled on top of shops.  Our first stop was a little cafe on a second floor that K. and k. had found a couple weeks earlier.  It was relatively cheap and the food was good.  Then we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering in and out of shops searching for figurines and souvenirs.

That night for our Thanksgiving dinner, we to a small bar/restaurant near our friends’ apartment and ate yaki-tori and yaki-niku (grilled chicken and grilled meat that are the Japanese version of kabobs).  The man who runs the bar has a perpetually irritated expression, and he quickly directed us to a small table away from the bar.  Despite that, he was very helpful when we were trying to decipher the menu (he pulled out a selection of meats to show us what each one was).  We ate chicken and shared a couple  beers until it was obvious that we had over-stayed our welcome (and possibly ordered too many rounds of chicken and onion).

As one last Thanksgiving celebration, we ended up at one of K. and k.’s friends’ room, where the international students at Toyo University had gotten together to cook their favourite holiday foods.  They still had some dessert left, and we sat with them and ate apple and pumpkin pie while we played games.

The next day was much quieter because both our friends had morning classes and k. started feeling sick from her flu shot. We met K. at one of the university’s cafeteria for a small tour and food (curry!), and then spent most of the day talking, exchanging stories, and resting.  We made one short excursion for groceries so k. could cook adobo for us and some other friends.  Two of their Japanese friends, Ryohei and Aki, came to eat with us.  It was a lot of fun to sit around and talk with them.

Every time we met K. and k.’s friends, they were very welcoming and happy to hang out with us.  It made the weekend even more fun.

Japanese word of the day: ryokou / りょこう  (ryo-koh)  noun: travel

The Latest…

November has flown by here at AIU.  It’s been full of midterms, drama, and parties.  Christmas decorations have been up since before Halloween (just like being home!), and more of them appear in the mall every week.  It took a while to get used to not seeing any Thanksgiving decorations or advertisements, but there’s not really any place for turkey and stuffing in Japan.  In one of my Japanese classes, my teacher asked me what Thanksgiving was meant to be celebrating.   That was definitely an exercise in using my abstract vocabulary!  (Still, I think we had it easier than the English students who had to try and explain Bonfire Night.)


Various groups of American students have made arrangements to celebrate Thanksgiving.  One of the American professors has offered up his apartment for some of his students to come and make food.  For the main event, American and international students have arranged a potluck on Saturday in the student hall.  It sounds like it will be a full meal.


As for me, I’m doing something a bit more unorthodox for Thanksgiving.  I’m taking a trip to Tokyo for the weekend to visit my friends K. and k. who are studying abroad there.  I’m happy to see them for the first time since July and hear how their semester in Japan has been.  Also, my friend K. is a great cook, and I’m looking forward to having some of her cooking.


Take care, and have an excellent Thanksgiving.  Remember why you’re celebrating!


Japanese word of the day:  kansha matsuri / かんしゃまつり  (kahn-sha-maht-sue-ree)   noun, a festival for giving thanks, gratitude.