Plum Blossoms

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My friend Noriko walking under the plum blossoms.

Finally Spring has arrived! Winter is by far my least favourite season in Japan. I know the whole thing of me being Canadian and how can I possibly be cold in a place that rarely goes below 0 Degrees Celsius in winter, but as I always tell my friends back at home “You got to experience it at least once to know what I am talking about.”

Japanese houses are designed to be nice and cool in summer and to let as much air into them as possible. However that air doesn’t stop coming into our homes in winter and it turns out that in winter the air is actually quite cold. To make it even worse and to my great horror, Japanese homes do not have central heating! Unless you live in Hokkaido you have to make do with what you’ve got; that includes a lot of teeny tiny electric heaters and kerosene heaters. I had never seen one before I lived here and I simply do not like them. I have been told time and again that they are not dangerous, but somehow seeing the open flame and just knowing that kerosene is in there scares me. Plus the smell is quite unpleasant and you need to open the windows every hour or so to let the fumes out, thus letting the cold wind back into your home. To me the whole thing doesn’t make any sense.

I always remember my first winter and how I thought that spring would never come, but then ever so slowly it does and the first sign that spring is on its way is the plum blossoms. The first time I ever saw a plum blossom was here in Japan and when I first saw it, I thought it was a cherry blossom and got very excited but I still had to wait another month to see what everyone kept telling me was the most beautiful sight in Japan.

I really like plum blossoms because they come in some amazing colours! My personal favourites are the bright pink ones and there are also light pink and white plum blossoms. The white ones are very similar to the cherry blossoms.

One thing I learned in Japan is to take the time to literally “smell the flowers.” Japanese people have seen plum blossoms every year of their lives, however they never stop appreciating the beauty around them. They love their blossoms and they love seeing them and showing them to you. They go for walks and they take pictures of something they see year after year. They never take what they’ve got for granted and that’s one of the biggest lessons I will take back with me.

These are some of the plum blossoms I saw earlier this month. Enjoy!

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Plum Blossoms, March 2013, Ehime, Japan.

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Plum Blossoms.

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Different colours of plum blossoms.

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My friend Noriko and I enjoying the plum blossoms.

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Would have been a great picture…

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Full bloom!

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Japan at its Cutest: Yuru-Kyara

Last month Thomas and I went over to Imabari to take part of a very strange but very cute Japanese phenomenon: Yuru-kyara.

Yuru-kyara are mascots created by local governments, companies and campaigns. The country has over 1, 000 Yuru-kyara and they have maintained huge popularity in the country.

In the event we went to in Imabari there were many of these mascots but we only got to see a handful of them. Most of the ones present at the event represented different cities throughout Japan. Every year the country hosts the Yuru-Kyara Grand Prix in which hundreds of mascots compete for the chance to be #1 in the country. Last year over 800 mascots entered the competition and the winner was the mascot from our neighbouring city of Imabari! His name is Bary-san and he is a very cute looking chicken. He is a chicken because the city of Imabari is well-known for Yakitori which is a popular type of Japanese cuisine. His crown is shaped like the Shimanami-Kaido bridge which joins the island of Shikoku to Honshu island. He is also wearing a towel and is holding a ship because those are the main industries of the city. Imazo is the largest shipbuilding company in the country and 4th in the world and its headquarters are in Imabari.

We got to see quite a few of the mascots and got to take pictures with as many as possible. Hope you enjoy the pictures!

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Thomas with a samurai.

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A doggy.

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I believe this is the mascot for Tokushima, but I’m unsure.

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Chicchai Ossan represents Amagasaki City near Osaka. Thomas’ favourite.

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The most adorable children in the world!

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Ro-Ra (Lola) repressents Fukuyama.

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Yachinyan of Yonbancho Square shopping street.

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This guy was SO big, no one could touch him or he would have fallen over.

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This guy’s name I believe is Mikan-Maru, but I don’t know where he is from.

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This is the creepiest! He represents Nara and is a mixture between a buddha and a deer.

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Some type of chicken man.

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We had too much fun!

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Tochimaru-kun represents Tochigi Prefecture.

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She looked like a pixie, but I have no clue where she is from.

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The man of the hour Bary-san!

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He’s so popular I couldn’t get a picture with just him, so we had to improvise.

I will finish with the story of the Guinness World Record. At the beginning of this year 141 of the yuru-kyara set the world record for synchronized mascot dancing. Of the 141 participants, 134 continuously danced in unison for 5 minutes. Here is the link: Mascots set World Guinness Record

 

Jr. High School Speech Contest

Back in the summer of 2012, Thomas spent most of his days helping students throughout our city of Niihama prepare for the annual English Speech Contest. Every year our town sends students to the prefectural contest and those students who win go on to the national contest.

After months of preparation, the prefectural speech contest took place in October of 2012. That weekend happened to be the Sake Festival in Hiroshima Prefecture a pretty fun event that we were hoping to go to, but Thomas felt that it was important to see his students perform at the contest and me not knowing the difference between one sake and another, didn’t mind not going to Hiroshima after all.

The contest took place in Matsuyama and we made our way early in the morning. I don’t teach children anymore and this is one of the few events in which I got to see some of what Thomas does at his work. The children were excited to see him there and there were a lot of children from Niihama participating, which was very encouraging. Unfortunately none of his students won, but we were glad to have gone.

There was one girl in particular who really touched my heart. She has a stuttering speech disorder and Thomas worked with her very hard throughout the summer. The day of the contest she got up there and talked about her stutter disorder while growing up and how it has affected her life, but also how it encouraged her to try out for the contest and talk about an issue that affects her so much personally. She stopped a few times for long periods of time, but she completed her speech and by the time she got off the stage, I was in tears. She did SO incredibly well!

Thomas took a couple of pictures with his students, but due to privacy concerns I won’t be able to upload those pictures. Overall, it was great experience for the students. After the contest Thomas and I walked around Dogo Onsen which is the oldest onsen in Japan (and it also inspired the movie Spirited Away) and ended the day by having dinner at my favourite french restaurant in Matsuyama.

I am posting a few pictures of Dogo Onsen since I don’t think I have done so before.

Dogo Onsen.

Dogo Onsen.

The film Spirited Away was modeled after Dogo Onsen.

The film Spirited Away was modeled after Dogo Onsen.

A man relaxing outside Dogo Onsen.

A man relaxing outside Dogo Onsen.

Dogo Onsen, Japan's oldest hot spring.

Dogo Onsen, Japan’s oldest hot spring.

 

Outside Dogo Onsen on a lovely fall day.

Outside Dogo Onsen on a lovely fall day.

Climbing Mt. Ishizuchi – November 2012

 

On top of Ishizuchi Mt.

On top of Ishizuchi Mt.

After living in Ehime for over 3 years and always saying that one day I would do it, it finally happened… I climbed Mt. Ishizuchi! We went back in November when the weather had cooled off from the hot Japanese summer and the tree leaves had changed into fall colours.

Climbing Mt. Ishizuchi was a much bigger challenge than what I was prepared for. We began the day early in the morning and began our climb up. Everything went pretty well for a couple of hours. We reached Mt. Ishizuchi’s shrine, a beautiful shrine at the entrance of the path that leads to the highest mountain in Western Japan at 1982m high. This is where climbers pray before making their way up to the top and from the window you can see the summit of the mountain.

Shrine at the bottom of Mt. Ishizuchi.

Shrine at the bottom of Mt. Ishizuchi.

Paper cranes inside a shrine at the bottom of Mt. Ishizuchi.

Paper cranes inside a shrine at the bottom of Mt. Ishizuchi.

After a brief stop at the shrine we began our climb. I got to say that there were a lot of stairs going up! Also on the way to the top, you come across 3 sets of chains, which if you choose to you can climb up to the top. We decided to go up the first set of chains and boy was that scary! This chains are attached to the mountain, but if you let go of them you go straight down to your death… no joke. There is nothing that could top you from getting a very serious injury and I have heard from several friends that people have indeed fallen and died. It was very physically challenging to go up the chains and once you begin climbing there is no other option but to make it to the end. Unfortunately, in the first set of chains once you make it up you got to get down… using the chains again! Thomas was horrified once we reached the top and realized that we had to use the chains and climb our way down again. If I remember clearly he said: “This is the stupidest thing we have ever done!” Thinking back on it, it really was quite dangerous but fortunately we made it up and down without sustaining any injuries.

Our lovely friend Ian on our way up.

Our lovely friend Ian on our way up.

So we continued our journey to the top and then it got quite cold and icy, and I knew we were reaching our destination. Snow was beginning to accumulate at the top and after about 3 hours we made it to the summit. The views from up there were just incredible. I wish we had been able to stay up there longer but it was quite windy and cold so I was only able to capture a few shots.

Cold Thomas at the summit of Mt. Ishizuchi.

Cold Thomas at the summit of Mt. Ishizuchi.

When we began our descent is when things got a little rough for me. I had completely forgotten about an old snowboarding injury and with all the steps leading to the bottom, my knee couldn’t handle the pressure and it was an incredibly painful experience. My knee was in so much pain that at some point I just broke down and began to cry, but Thomas was so incredibly kind and carried my backpack all the way down. He just waited for me and we very slowly went on our way. I was also very afraid that it would get dark and we would get stuck somewhere on the mountain. Fortunately we were able to make it down just as it was getting dark. So while it should have taken 2-3 hours to go down, it took me over 4 hours. I was so glad that we made it!

After we all gathered at the bottom of the mountain, we went for a well deserved onsen and caught the train back home. By the time I went to bed my knee was twice its normal size and it took me 4 days to be able to walk properly again.

While it was a very challenging experience I am very happy that I was able to climb Mt. Ishizuchi. This was something that I really wanted to do before departing Japan and it would seem silly not to do it considering the mountain is practically on our backyard. The views all the way to the top were incredible and we were with a very cool, chill group of people, who helped each other both on the way up, and the way down.

The experience also taught me that as much as I would like to climb Mt. Fuji, I reckon I am better off seeing it from a distance!

Almost there.

Almost there.

Fall colours!

Fall colours!

Let's do this! At the entrance of the path leading to the summit.

Let’s do this! At the entrance of the path leading to the summit.

Statues at the bottom of the mountain.

Statues at the bottom of the mountain.

Niihama Taiko Matsuri

 

 

Taikodai during the Niihama Taiko Matsuri

Today I will write about the most exciting event in the town where I live: The annual Niihama Taiko Matsuri (Niihama Drum Festival).

Taiko Matsuri takes place from October 16-18 every year. I have been fortunate enough to have experienced it 3 times and after seeing it the first time, I knew that I had to see it at least one more time.

Taiko Matsuri is a 300 year old tradition to give thanks for abundant autumn harvest. There are 47 taikodais (drum floats) that parade around town for 3 days and you can hear the sound of the drum inside the float all day and late into the night. I absolutely love the sound of taiko drums and look forward to the night about 2 weeks before the festival when you can hear the drums as teams begin to practice and get ready for the big events. So, the 47 taikodais parade the streets and compete in their 5 distinctive districts for the best carrying style. The taikodais are decorated with gold and silver thread and are lifted up and down the shoulders of about 150 men per taikodai.Is quite the sight. I also refer to the festival as the “men festival” as only men are allowed to carry and soemetimes even touch the taikodai and it requires incredible physical strength to carry a taikodai because here is the impressive fact of the whole festival: the taikodais are about 5.4 meters high and weigh about 2.5 tons.

In an usually sleepy city, during festival we get about 350,000 spectators so the whole city is a buzz with all the visitors.

Niihama Taiko Festival.

The Taikodai

It is said that the tenmaku on the top of the taikodai represents the universe, and the red and white colors represent the brightness of the sun. The thick knots or the kukuri represent clouds, the tassels or the fusa represent rain, and the four vertical supports; the shihonbashira, represent north, south, east and west.
On the hanging panels on each side of the taikodai are embroidered three-dimensional figures of such things as dragons, wild birds and ferocious beasts, famous buildings and popular characters from legends. Dragons were once believed to ascend to the sky and become the gods who brought the all-important rain for agriculture. This could possibly explain why dragons are often used as a motif in the embroidery.

All the information about the taikodai and the festival was taken from the Niihama City website, including the picture above. All other pictures were taken by me during the 3 festivals I have seen.

A dragon embroidered into a side panel of a taikodai.

This year we were also lucky enough to see an event in which they carry the taikodais into barges and they float out to sea and we were able to get some pretty good seats at the final event of the festival, the parade into Ikku Shrine, our neighbourhood’s main shrine.

Taikodais parading into Ikku Shrine.

Japanese Culture 101: Sumo

The beginning of a sumo tournament.

In the last few weeks not much has been happening. Fall has arrived which is great. Japanese summers are full of activities but the weather becomes insufferable by the end. I actually get exasperated by the heat, can’t think clearly and begin to make mistakes at work and at home. One day this past summer it was so ridiculously hot that I couldn’t think of anything else besides how hot I was, and I forgot all of my textbooks for my classes. I arrived at work without books! I also left my house keys in different stores a couple of times and because it was so hot all the time I didn’t sleep very well from mid-May to mid-September. Therefore, fall is a much needed change.

Since not much has been happening lately today I am writing about Japan’s national sport: sumo.

Sumo is an odd concept for everyone, that includes Japanese people. Nowadays. sumo is nowhere as popular as it used to be way back when. Young Japanese are not interested in sumo at all, so for many it is considered a sport for grandpas. I guess my boyfriend is a grandpa because he loves it! As such, I have been acquainted with the sport and had the most fantastic time when we went to see the Osaka tournament back in March.

In the middle of a fight.

Sumo wrestlers begin their career once they graduate jr. high school as high school is not mandatory in Japan. Some others go into universities with a sumo program in it. Sumo wrestlers get head hunted and once that happens they belong to certain stable. A stable is a training ring and all wrestlers belong to specific wrestling rings. They train and live in the stables with other sumo wrestlers as their team members. Lately there has been a lot of scandals between stables along the lines of fixing games and gambling, but that’s a whole different posting.

There are six divisions in sumo: makuuchi (maximum 42 wrestlers), juryo(fixed at 28 wrestlers), makushita (fixed at 120 wrestlers), sandanme (fixed at 200 wrestlers), jonidan (approximately 185 wrestlers), and jonokuchi (approximately 40 wrestlers). The makuuchi division is the one that receives the most amount of attention from the media and at the top of the division is the yokozuna (champion). The current champion is Hakuho who has been yokozuna for the whole time I’ve been in Japan. During the last tournament a new yokozuna was named Harumafuji. The promotion criteria for yokozuna are very strict. Hakuho has won most of the tournaments in the time I have been living in Japan, but when we went to see the tournament we saw Hakuho loose, which rarely happens. This was a huge upset and people in the crowd began to throw their seat cushions into the rink. It was great!

Life as a rikishi (wrestler) is not easy, it is highly regimented, with rules laid down by the Sumo Association. Breaking the rules can result in fines and/or suspension, not only for the offending wrestler, but also for his stablemaster. The junior rikishi must get up earliest, around 5 am, for training whereas the most senior rikishi may start around 7 am. When the senior wrestlers are training, the junior rikishi may have chores to do, such as assisting in cooking the lunch, cleaning and preparing the bath. The ranking hierarchy is kept for the order of precedence in bathing after training, and in eating lunch.

When we went to Tokyo over Golden Week holidays we walked around the sumo neighbourhood and had lunch in one of the local restaurants. We were all excited because we wanted to try out what sumo wrestlers eat on a regular basis. We ordered our own lunch set, but it was way too much food!  The portions were huge and by the time we finished it looked as if we hadn’t touched our plates. We ate something called chankonabe which consists of a simmering stew that contains various fish, meat, and vegetables. Is very fatty and beside the stew you also get rice, soup and other things in between. After the chankonabe, wrestlers usually take a nap and this helps them put on weight.

Going to the tournament was a ton of fun! We went to Osaka and spent some time enjoying the city. The day of the tournament we passed to the convenience store and stocked up on beer and chips. Is pretty awesome that they allow you to go into the tournament with outside food. We had a great view and the tournament was very exciting and we just enjoyed screaming and booing with all the people around us. Thomas was so excited to be there and pretty much gave me the whole English commentary. We were so excited when we came out that when we went to Tokyo we spend half a day just walking around the sumo area and was lucky enough to get a picture with one of them.

Walking around Ryogoku (sumo neighbourhood) during our holidays in Tokyo.

A sumo rekishi.

Hanabi: Fireworks Festival

Niihama Fireworks Festival!

We’re reaching the end of summer in Japan. Is still pretty hot and humid, but the nights are cooler, more typhoons are passing by and by 6:30p.m. is completely dark outside. With the end of summer, I am also beginning to think about the end of my stay in Japan. In less than a year I will be back in Canada, will go back to school and more or less go back to the life I had before I came to Japan, but with many more experiences.

Thinking about going home makes me think about the things that I will miss most about life in Japan. When it comes to summer events the fireworks festival is pretty up there in my list.

Every summer towns and cities around Japan have their annual fireworks festival (hanabi matsuri). This is the ultimate summer festival. It is always ridiculously hot and you need fans and lots and lots of water and you never stop sweating, but the festival is amazing. The town where I live, Niihama has its festival at the end of July and they display over 8, 000 fireworks. Children and adults alike love hanabi and we all gather at the bank of the river for this great festival.

My favourite thing about hanabi is seeing the girls wearing their yukatas (summer kimonos). They also get their hair done and accessorize it with flowers and other hair accessories. The yukatas are brightly coloured and they all look so, so beautiful. They also wear the traditional Japanese wooden clogs (gettas) and all night long you can hear the sound of the wood on the pavement. It has become my favourite sound in the summer! (as well as the sound of the frogs in the rice fields).

Hanabi matsuri is also a great occasion to eat all of the Japanese street food your belly desires. You can find fried potatoes, takoyaki (balls of dough with pieces of octopus inside), grilled squid, and my favourite yakitori, pieces of chicken or pork on a stick that are later grilled. A favourite among Japanese people both young and old in kakigori (shaved ice). They LOVE shaved ice and choosing from all the different flavours of syrup available. I am not a fan of shaved ice, but I always see the long lines of people waiting to get one.

This year I had the chance to see 2 fireworks festivals. One in my town of Niihama and one a few towns away in Imabari. The Imabari fireworks festival is much bigger and has almost double the amount of fireworks from the Niihama one. Some of the fireworks include shapes such as: hearts, happy faces, stars, etc.

I will most certainly miss attending fireworks festivals but I am glad that over the last 4 summers I have had the chance to experience something truly unique in Japanese summer culture.

Niihama Fireworks Festival!

The name of this firework display… the Niagara Falls. haha.

Imabari Firewoks Festival.

 

 

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