Well 2015 turned out to be another year of firsts!! We finally managed to see Fuji-san (The dream is complete!). We visited a Shinnyo Buddhist temple and shared in the Festival of Oneness, celebrated Obon with the local people and taken up a new love for Japanese baseball!
It all started in February where I embarked on my first residential trip with my G6 students and my first trip to Nagano prefecture. It was a truly wonderful experience with many firsts!! I tried my first onsen, although I am not sure it could be counted as a REAL onsen experience. The onsen bath was in the cabin that we were staying in and as I was the only female member of staff, I was free to use it alone every night. No awkward nakedness so I suppose it could be considered cheating… who knows. It was also my first trip away with ‘Japanese’ children which doesn’t sound like much but if you are teacher then it will totally may sense. Imagine this… children actually go to their rooms on time (9pm) and do not move. Of course they stayed up chatting but their was NO movement, no swapping rooms or sneaking around to chat to each other. None! Then in the morning they woke me up at 6:30am! We didn’t have to be up until 7! There was never any bother getting them up and ready for breakfast… it was an absolute pleasure and I would certainly do it again. To add to all of this, I also got to try snowboarding. I had been skiing twice as a child but I soon found out that snowboarding is a very VERY different sport and one I have very little talent for but it was nice to try. Overall a very nice experience.
March saw the arrival of our first visitor Lisa (read the last entry for details). It also saw the start of a first full academic year with my new grade 4 class at school. A fresh start and a chance to put my own stamp on things. An exciting start to the year.
June was the first time to go to a local Japanese baseball game. It is one of the most popular sports in Japan, even more so than soccer and rugby. Apart from Sumo it has quickly become of one Japan’s national sports and they take it very seriously. Each player has their own chant and some of the more popular ones have actions too! There is the Chiba Lotte anthem which is sung quite regularly throughout the game, especially just before the 8th innings where a rather strange event occurs which involves hundreds of phallic shaped balloons being released into the air at the same time.
In May we were forced to move apartments within the same block. There were many reasons for our move but let’s just say our sleeping patterns are finally back to normal. It was difficult getting used to the new place and the new sounds but the first time I saw Mt. Fuji across the bay on a clear day from our living room window, was the moment I was sold. Who couldn’t love a view like this:
July saw the arrival of our second visitors – my parents and my brother. Three weeks of introducing them to the Japanese culture, both strange and historical, was an experience. They decided to book their trip during the hottest months of the year and to say they struggled with the intense heat was an understatement but luckily it didn’t stop them exploring this beautiful country. We treated them to the obvious sights, Kamakura, Tokyo and Kyoto.
Even though Kyoto was way too hot in the summer and packed, we did get to try a calligraphy lesson hosted by two lovely ladies near Nijo castle.
It was such a wonderful experience and for a mere ¥2000 each we walked away with three pieces of work. Our name on one, another on a postcard and one beautifully backed to be framed. We also chose a kanji that we practised over and over again until we were ready for the final one. It was probably one of my favourite experiences in Japan so far.
For the last part of their trip, we also embarked on a 1 hour 40 minute bus journey to Lake Kawaguchi (one of the Fuji Five Lakes). There we stayed in another traditional ryokan facing the lake with stunning views of Mt Fuji once the clouds temporarily dissipated. We booked my parents a beautiful room with a private hot spring bath so they could try an ‘onsen’ style experience without the awkwardness of being naked in front of strangers. Needless to say it was a hit and they kindly let us all have a go after dinner. Bonus!!
When travelling around Japan it is quite easy to get ‘templed out’ if you visit places like Kyoto, Tokyo and Kamakura in quick succession so it was nice to go out to the lakes and enjoy the lower temperatures and something a little more relaxing. In the hotel we were given a choice of yukata to wear all around the building, including at dinner, which was a delight.
It started with some very traditional Japanese style food. A mixture of seafood, sashimi and soups with some beautifully cooked beef. After that you were free to help yourself to a more mixed buffet where you could eat pasta and burger steaks if the Japanese cuisine was not for you. The breakfast was also a buffet which was relief for the fussy eater in me. We greatly enjoyed out stay at the Lakeland Hotel Mizunosato, the staff were extremely friendly and made our stay very comfortable.
The best part of our trip was of course seeing Mt. Fuji and it turns out we were extremely lucky. When we arrived mid afternoon it was no where to be seen but after lunch it just kind of emerged like a giant out of the clouds giving us a good hour of perfect Fuji-san viewing. It was amazing! It stayed clear the entire walk back to the hotel and even gave us some extra viewing time to take some photographs from the viewing deck on the top floor. And here is the result:
Such an impressive sight and one I will never get bored of seeing.
In August, during my parent’s visit, we were invited to celebrate Obon with a colleague of mine at his local temple. We met him at the Kaihimakuhari station where we took a quick train ride to Soga. The temple was nothing like I expected, it was completely modern and average looking from the outside. If he hadn’t had been guiding us, I would have walked straight past it. Besides the signs in Japanese, which could have made it obvious had we been able to read them, the only clue that this was a religious building of any sort was the small golden wheel above the entrance.
As with most important buildings in Japan we took our shoes off at the door and put them in a locker. We were then shown into a small meeting room where from this point on we were treated as royalty (which was nice but a little unnerving). We were each given a red rosette to wear and then shown around the various rooms. The most impressive was the main prayer room which was the largest room by far and was covered with a grassy green coloured carpet. At the far end was a stage which was elaborately decorated with a mix of gold and flowers and the centre piece was a beautifully carved Buddha statue in a lying down positition. I had never seen a Buddha depicted in this way before and so Ito-san (my colleague) explained it to me. A standing Buddha represents the Buddha who is learning and is on the path to enlightenment. A sitting Buddha represents the Buddha once enlightenment has been achieved and a laying Buddha represents the Buddha who now teaches what he has learnt to help others find their path to enlightenment.
After a brief history of Shinnyo Buddhism, we were shown into another room where we were asked to write wishes for our family and our ancestors on the four standing sides of lantern which was then placed on a foam shaped boat and a glow stick put inside.
Once finished, we were taken outside for the ceremony where we were given front row seats. We watched a live stream of the festival from Kawaguchi, followed by a Hawaiian dance and a prayer. Because we were considered ‘honoured guests’ we were asked to place our floating lanterns first into man made pond from the jetty they had created. We placed them on the water followed by an expected bow and then everyone else followed. It was lovely to see them all lit up on the water as the sun was going down and we all left feeling like we had been given a rare opportunity to see the inside of a special Japanese celebration. It was the first time, I felt that by living in Japan it had allowed me to see and experience something I would not have done, if we had just been travelling. Thanks mum for the photograph!!
In September we were invited to go to another festival with my colleague Ito-san and this time it was to celebrate the ‘Festival of Oneness’. It turned out to be a rather big event held at the main temple on the other side of Tokyo. The Obon festival is a national holiday which holds the same importance as Golden week however the ‘Festival of Oneness’ is unique to the Shinnyo sect of Buddhism and so this time it was a very different experience and had a much more religious feel. We were given seats in the main hall and watched the primary ceremony streamed live from Osaka with her Holiness leading the event. I was surprised to see just how many people attended the event and it was clear it was important to them but it was difficult to follow without a true understanding of what Shinnyo is about. I got the impression that the Festival of Oneness was pretty much what the name suggests, the coming together of all followers to form one unified essence and celebrate the good they could achieve. It was an interesting experience but unfortunately I felt disconnected from it all and so I could not appreciate the true meaning of the celebration.
The last big event of 2015 was flying home for Christmas. Another first since arriving in Japan almost 18months ago and it was emotional to say the least. 2015 has been an amazing year so here’s to an exciting 2016!