Winter Holidays, Part 2: Mom in Japan

A huge shout out to my mom, who survived a hellish trip to Japan (arriving 30 hours later than she was supposed to) just to see me, and another to my dad, who booked hotels for her stranded nights in Chicago and Narita!

So winter vacation in Japan officially runs from the 29th of December through the 3rd of January.  It’s a total reversal from the US holiday season, because here in Japan, Christmas is more of a “dating holiday” (and a KFC holiday), whereas New Year’s is the big family celebration. Anyways, I tacked three days of holiday leave (nenkyu) onto the end of that vacation period… because my mom and I had a pretty busy week lined up!

First, on New Year’s Even, I took my mom to Nikko, Tochigi for a brief day trip. I knew she would enjoy the history of the wondrous Tosho-gu Shrine (which I styled as “the Versailles of Japanese shrines,” because of all the ornate gold leaf).

I visited Tosho-gu back in September, and unsurprisingly nothing has really changed, so for photos of this magnificent place, check out this September post. But I will include a photo of my mom and I near Nikko’s famous bridge:

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We took a photo with the famous bridge

It was a pretty cold day in Nikko, and we were “Dreaming of a Warm Train,” after a few hours in the open air, but a bowl full of hot New Year’s Eve Soba later, I dragged her outside for one more walk — a walk through the Abyss.

More accurately, it’s the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, but that’s quite a mouthful, so I just stick to “The Abyss.” It sounds more mysterious that way, anyway.

It’s not the easiest place to find, but once we arrived, I was more than happy to have put in the effort. The Abyss has a bit of a magical feel about it. Nestled serenely in a little gorge, the riverside pathway is lined with somewhere around 70 statues of Jizo. (I think the actual number depends on whether you really count the headless statues, or the statues where only a vaguely face-shaped rock remains).

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We were both intrigued by the fact that all the statues wore knitted caps and matching red bibs. On the train ride home, I researched Jizo statues and the meaning behind the ornamentation.

Apparently, Jizo statues are the Buddhist guardians of a lot of different people (pregnant women, physical and spiritual travelers, and the weak) but Jizo pays special attention to the souls of unborn children as well as children who die at a young age. The statues and their red clothing are usually cared for by local women who are building up merit for the afterlife. Gifts can sometimes be seen near the statue, offered by both grieving parents and by parents whose child recovered from a serious illness. So overall, Jizo seems to be a very popular, very well-loved Bodhisattva. We learned a lot that day.

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What does this count as? One Jizo? Two Jizos?

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New Year’s Eve ended exactly how I thought it would end: both my mom and I were asleep. Of course, my mom at least had the excuse of being jet-lagged. So I missed the temple visits and the ringing bells and the fireworks of New Year’s Eve in Japan, but that’s okay! Maybe I’ll see it all next year?

And at least we did one thing right in the tradition of Japanese New Year: at least we ate December 31st soba!

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Winter Holidays, Part 1: Bōnenkais and Ikebana

I’ll be honest. Christmas this year… didn’t quite feel like Christmas.

However, I don’t for a minute regret spending Christmas in Japan. I mean, if I had really wanted to, I could have bought plane tickets home, but I didn’t.

Why? Because I wanted to test myself, to see how I could handle Christmas alone. Because I want to save my nenkyuu (holiday leave) for future adventures. Because I wanted to experience Christmas in another country. Because I knew that for all that I was missing out on with family and friends at home, I also knew that if I left for the US, I would be missing out on things here in Japan, too — things that were completely new to me.

And so I don’t regret staying. This is how the first part of my winter holidays went:

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Anecdotes 1: Sneezing

Background: It’s a muggy August day in the staffroom of my base school. I’ve been in Japan for two weeks now. All is quiet — everyone is busy working, or at least they are pretending to work. My Kyoto-sensei (my vice principal) — the kind gentleman who doesn’t speak a word of English — sneezes loudly.

Me: [automatically] “Bless you!”

Kyoto-sensei: [curious stare in my direction]

The only JTE/English-speaking person in the staffroom at the moment: [getting up and casually walking over to my desk] “So… why do you say that when someone sneezes?”

Me: “Don’t you say anything?”

JTE: “No, in Japan we don’t say anything. Some people believe that sneezing means other people are gossiping about you, so we don’t acknowledge it. Why do Americans say Bless You?”

Me: [floundering for a response] “Oh! Um… well, in ancient times, people believed that when you sneezed, your heart stopped, and they would say “Bless you!” because you were blessed… because you were still alive!”

JTE: [looking half-amused] “Really?”

Me: [continuing to babble nonsense] “Yeah, and you know, when we are kids, adults tell us that if you don’t close your eyes when you sneeze, your eyes will pop out of your head! So we say “Bless you” because… uh… you still have your eyes?”

My JTE translates all of this for the rest of the staff (who, by now, are all staring at us, trying to figure out what we are saying). Their response is a mixture of  horror and amusement, and laughter can be heard. My Kyoto-sensei looks shocked.

Me: [flustered, clarifying] “But no one actually believes it! It’s just something to tell little kids!”

Too late. The damage is done.

For the next two months, whenever my Kyoto-sensei sneezed (which was often, poor guy), our eyes would meet.

He would pat both his eyes, checking that they were still there, then give me a big thumbs-up.

Climbing Mount Tsukuba

Early December 2015: three friends and I decide to finally hike Ibaraki’s only worthy and/or notable mountain, the one that looms in the distance of all of my schools: Mt. Tsukuba.

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See it there, in the right corner? Yeah, that mountain.

It started as a sunny, warm winter morning, although, as you can see from my later photos, the day turned a frosty grey by mid-afternoon. The four of us met up at the mountain’s base, climbed to the top of both mountain peaks (named Mt. Nantai and Mt. Nyotai — Tsukuba is famous for it’s unusually distinctive twin peaks) and then took the funicular back down.

Here’s a brief snippet of history/mythology concerning Mount Tsukuba, ripped straight from Wikipedia (I’m unsure of exactly how accurate the information is, but I’ve heard parts of it before, so it’s not completely false):

“As legend has it, thousands of years ago, a deity descended from the heavens and asked two mountains for a place to spend the night. With its great summit and almost perfect cone, Mt. Fuji refused, believing with pride and arrogance that it does not need the deity’s blessings. Mt. Tsukuba, on the other hand, humbly welcomed the honored guest, even offering food and water. Today, Mt. Fuji is a cold, lonely, and barren mountain, while Mt. Tsukuba bursts with vegetation and is filled with colors as the seasons change.

Ancient chronicles say that the sacred progenitors of the Japanese race are enshrined here, the male divinity at Mt. Nantai, and the female divinity at Mt. Nyotai. Legends say that the two deities wed and gave birth to other deities, and even to Japan herself.”

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Really, Mount Tsukuba isn’t a tough mountain to climb (only 877 meters, well-marked trails!) but it was still a good workout, and a great day trip. The mountain seems to be a bit of a warm-up mountain for others, though. Many local hikers climb Mount Tsukuba on a weekly basis to keep up their endurance, or in preparation of climbing more challenging, further-away mountains.

(After all, Mount Tsukuba rises straight up out of the Kanto Plain, which is one of the biggest, if not THE biggest section of flat land in Japan. All other mountains are far away, and it’s a pretty lonely mountain itself.)

I will admit that we were passed by many 70-year olds. And it took us a leisurely 4 hours to hike to the top of both peaks, when everyone says it should only take about two hours. Although, in our defense, we scrambled up some huge side-rocks that were decidedly not part of the hiking trail (all for a good view) and we also spent a lot of time taking photographs (well, that was me… sorry for slowing everyone down!)

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“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” — Dumbledore, Harry Potter.

The above quote, in association with the above photo, is all I thought of when I saw this random string of light bulbs on the second mountain peak… which led to a ten-minute photography shoot of abandoned light bulbs. I liked the elements of light and darkness, you know?

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Mount Tsukuba is one of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains — the list was composed in 1964 by mountaineer Kyuya Fukada — so if you are in the area, check it out! Well, to be honest, if you are in the area, you’ll probably see it whether you want to or not, because on such a flat plain, the silhouette of the mountain can be seen for miles. Anyways, one of the criteria for selecting the top 100 mountains back in 1964 was elevation; Fukada chose only mountains that were 1,500 meters and above, although he disregarded this criteria to include Mount Tsukuba.

To end with, another fun fact: my iPhone’s questionable “Health” app calculated that we climbed about 180 flights of stairs that frosty day in December. Cheers to that!

2015 Review, 2016 Preview

2015 in review. A brief list of my “firsts,” most of which are related to Japan :

  • My first apartment, and my first time living alone
  • My first time paying rent (I procrastinated it till the last day, fell asleep after work, woke up and literally ran to the convenience store only to find that the ATM rejected my cards, finally scrounged up the cash and ran to my landlady, who just chuckled at me)
  • My first experience with raw fish (and raw shrimp, and raw squid, and raw chicken, and raw everything, to be honest)
  • My first earthquake — which went unnoticed by my colleagues because it was so tiny
  • My first September out of formal education
  • My first time hosting Thanksgiving
  • My first Christmas away from home, away from family, spent at work

So, 2016. It’s here. What lies ahead?

First off, re-contracting is the hot topic among all the JETs right now, so I’ll start with that little announcement: I’m staying. It’s signed, sealed, delivered. I’ll be here through August 2017!

Ever since I first arrived here back in August, I’ve been unwavering in my decision to stay in Yuki for another year. (This was truly a blessing, because I’ll be honest with you — I’m a living embodiment of an indecisive Libra. Have you ever seen me stress over ordering an ice cream cone? There are too many choices, so much pressure…)

Anyways, one year is just not enough time for everything I want to do here — and yes, while further travel is among the reasons for staying, it’s not my top motivation. (I’m not traveling and sightseeing all the time here, I promise). I still have a lot of things that I’m eager to learn; about teaching, about my coworkers, about being an adult, about Japan, about the rest of the world, and about myself.

Next up, New Year’s Resolutions. This seems to be a trend on blogs and YouTube channels. I figured, why not add a few of my own? Please excuse the lack of originality.

  1. Read 20 books over the next 12 months. Challenge accepted. Although a lot of the books that await me on my kindle are 600+ pages long, so I’m aware that I might not accomplish this goal.
  2. Run three 5k or 10k races here in Japan. I’m already signed up for my first 5k in February! Basically, I just want to start running again.
  3. Be the first person to smile. I was a painfully shy kid growing up — I’m still pretty shy — and on self-conscious days, it would really brighten my day if an acquaintance, passing me in the hallway, smiled at me or spoke to me. I don’t know exactly what is going on in a lot of my students’ lives, but I know that many struggle behind the scenes. So as stupid as it sounds, I’m going to try to be that smiling acquaintance in the hallways.
  4. Here’s a rather vague one: become a better teacher.
  5. Learn more Japanese history. I’ve come to realize that Japanese history was only briefly touched upon during 10th grade “World History,” leading to a real lack of knowledge on my part. It’s time to fix that.
  6. Learn enough Japanese to take (and pass) the JLPT N5. It’s the easiest level of the official Japanese proficiency test, but hey, it’d be a big deal for this beginner.
  7. Lastly, keep up with my French. Which is terribly difficult because, unsurprisingly, there are very few French-speakers around for me to practice with…

2016 holds a lot of promise, as many new years do. I have a lot of ideas and a lot of plans under construction, so I’ll keep you updated! You’ll hear from me again soon.