An artsy first day of spring

People work hard here. There are certain Japanese words with no exact English translations that relate to this tradition of hard work. Every day, I hear, “otsukare sama deshita” more times than I can count. According to Google translate, the phrase means, “cheers for your hard work.” But, it is so much more than that. Further, when anyone leaves the office, he or she says, “osaki ni shitsureshimasu,” Japanese for, “I am sorry for leaving work before you.”

“It’s already 8:30 p.m. and I’m very sorry to be leaving work before you.”

Sike.

However, lucky for everyone in Japan, there are 15 public holidays every year. In America, there are about seven. So, that’s a whole week more of three-day weekends and mid-week breaks.

On one of these public holidays, Spring Equinox Day, a friend and I took a trip to Naoshima. Naoshima is most famous for its contemporary art museums, such as Benesse House and Chichu Art Museum, as well as the idea of living art—art that coexists with the community. So, we often stumbled upon art without even realizing it was art—if that can happen.

Red pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama

Red pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama

Street festival to celebrate Spring Equinox Day

Street festival to celebrate Spring Equinox Day

Chichu Art Museum is almost entirely underground. So, on this very rainy day, it wasn’t a bad place to spend the afternoon. There are works by artists such as James Turrell and Walter De Maria. However, my personal favorites were those by Claude Monet. Not necessarily because they were by Monet (although, who doesn’t love Monet), but rather because, before entering the exhibit, we had to remove our shoes and put on slippers. Then, we entered a huge white room and admired Monet’s Water-Lilies while wearing slippers… only in Japan.

After wandering around the museums and in the rain, we eventually made our way around the island to see the famous yellow pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama. She is best known for her trademark of polka dots—that can also be seen in her recent collaboration with Louis Vuitton. My friend and I might as well be in an advertisement selling expensive handbags, or at least promoting tourism to Naoshima… don’t you agree?

Yellow pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama

Springing into new opportunities

Excuse my absence. I have been soaking up spring.

My last post was on April 15—most likely when the first cherry blossoms began to bloom. Their beauty awed me last year, and would continue to do so every year, even if I spent the rest of my days in this lovely country.

Cherry Blossoms at the Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima

Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima

However, just as the blossoms come and go, I recently made the decision not to extend my teaching contract for a third year. The (almost) two years I have spent in Japan have been more than I ever expected them to be—full of friendship, opportunity and most importantly—self-awareness and self-empowerment. With all of these experiences and unforgettable memories, I will head home in August.

Although I clearly focused my studying on speaking at izakayas rather than writing kanji,  I did manage to complete my final paperwork.

Although I clearly focused my studying on speaking to strangers in “izakayas” rather than writing kanji, I did manage to complete my final paperwork.

Therefore, although this is certainly not my last encounter with springtime in Japan, this spring was especially special. From Hiroshima City and Fuchu to Onomichi and Fukuyama, I enjoyed the blossoms in every corner of Hiroshima prefecture.

Cherry Blossoms at Fukuyama Castle, Fukuyama

Fukuyama Castle, Fukuyama

Nighttime "Hanami" at Fukuyama Castle, Fukuyama

Fukuyama Castle, Fukuyama

Next spring, I hope to experience “hanami, 花見” Japanese for “relaxing under cherry blossom trees,” in a new city—Washington D.C.  Therefore, tell your friends and professional contacts… (as my students would say)… let’s hiring Katie Ray!

Atsukos's birthday, Fukuyama Castle

Atsukos’s birthday, Fukuyama Castle

Cherry blossoms at school--Kannabe

My school, Kannabe

My daily commute, Kannabe

My daily commute, Kannabe

Fuchu Park, Fuchu

Senkoji Park, Onomichi

Senkoji Park, Onomichi

 

Sake celebration

In October, I celebrated my 24th birthday. One year ago, I never imagined that I would celebrate two birthdays in Japan. However, after one of the best years of my life, I was more than happy to welcome in my next year of adventures and challenges.

I could think of no better way to celebrate my birthday than by relaxing outdoors in the fall weather and drinking Japanese sake at an all-day sake affair. Luckily, this exact situation transpires itself every October in what is fondly referred to as the annual Celebration of Katie Ray’s Birth, or as others call it, the Saijo Sake Festival.

Last year, I could not attend because of my school’s sports day. Therefore, I was excited to finally experience this popular festival. Located in Saijo, a small town in the city of Higashi-Hiroshima, the festival (or my birthday party, if you will) features various types of sake from every prefecture in Japan. Before entering the party, you receive a party favor that comes in the form of a sake cup. The rest of the day is spent wandering through the different regions of Japan and Japanese sake—each represented by a different tent.

Because I am not a sake connoisseur, I chose my sake at random or asked the servers for their favorite types. Although I am still not sake’s biggest fan, I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of the festival. A little day drinking goes a long way in bringing people together. So, this year’s birthday was full of sake, tipsy English and Japanese conversations, beautiful weather and beautiful friends.

A man named Yuki Tanabe asked if he could take a picture of us for a photography contest. Although I don’t think he will win with this photo (sorry Sarah!), he was kind enough to send it to me the following day!

Fireworks freakout

Most people can sympathize with that irresistible urge to photograph the same thing an inappropriate number of times. For example, that time you took 84 pictures of your fluffy friend with a tennis ball in his mouth. Or, that time you took 37 pictures of olives from various angles at the farmers market. I understand that real photographers do this with real intention and purpose, but–alas–I am not one of them.

I am just your average gal with a point-and-shoot camera who often gets carried away by the utter cuteness, beauty and surreality of people and events surrounding me. Further, I recently purchased a new camera, which I am sure doesn’t play a huge role in eliminating folders such as “Dec 2010 Buddy with Ball” and “Oct 2009 Olives at Market” on my computer.

This time, it was not a woman’s best friend or an infinite array of Mediterranean fruits that caused my inner paparazzo to reveal herself. Rather, it was the fireworks that fill Japan’s summer sky. For the past month, I have been on a blogging hiatus and a fireworks binge. I have been mesmerized by fireworks in Onomichi, Fukuyama, Miyajima, Setoda and Innoshima. And, let me assure y’all… that’s a lot of fireworks.

Japanese summer festivals often end with fireworks shows. These shows are nothing like Fourth of July fireworks in America. Stateside, I would expect 10 minutes of bright booming whilst enjoying a hot dog and a Bud Light–and, in all fairness–that’s not a bad night. However, in Japan, the shows can last one to two hours and include elaborate musical pairings that perfectly accompany the colorful bursts. I’ve also witnessed fireworks shaped like Hello Kitty and a fireworks rope that appeared to be dripping a rainbow of fire.

Although I can capture neither the awe resulting from a sky full of raining color nor the oddly comforting feeling of hearing happy children react excitedly in Japanese, I can show you a few of the photographs I have taken during the last month. Enjoy.

Oh my, Otaru

During our trip to the Sapporo Snow Festival, we visited a city called Otaru. Because Otaru is simply a skip and a 45 minute train ride away from Sapporo, it is a very popular destination for travelers of this winter wonderland. Even though Otaru is relatively large, it has small-town, welcoming vibes. So, naturally, I loved it and think it deserves its own blog post.

Coinciding with the Sapporo Snow Festival, Otaru hosts a festival of its own. Hundreds of candles and lanterns line the paths and light up the snow. With so many dimly-lit snow-shaped hearts, in theory, Otaru could have been quite romantic. But, instead of a romantic stroll, I ventured around the town with some of my best girlfriends. Maybe next year, I’ll see if snow has romantic potential, or, if it is just plain cold.

Also, given that it is on the coast, Otaru sells a lot of fresh seafood. As I am only accustomed to reeling in bass, brim and the occasional catfish, I was completely intrigued by all the strange sea animals.

However, rather than slicing an urchin or cracking a lobster, we decided to have our cake and drink coffee, too. Ironically, a quiet cafe that played French radio proved to be the perfect ending to our visit to the port town of Otaru.

Snowy Sapporo

One month ago, I traveled less than 200 miles north and fell in love with snow. Several weeks ago, I traveled more than 1,000 miles north and now my relationship with snow is more complicated. Nonetheless, after visiting Sapporo for its 63rd annual Yuki Matsuri, or Snow Festival, I now understand that snow can simultaneously be astonishingly beautiful and painfully cold.

Coming from mild Hiroshima to Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, I soon found myself out of the airport and in a winter wonderland. The snowflakes were almost as big as those holiday paper decorations. Further, a moving billboard displayed that the temperature was far below 0 degrees. After discovering the existence of kairo packs (small packs that generate heat) and buying some spiced mulled wine from a street vendor, I was in my happy place.

Once we found this state of winter bliss, my friends and I walked through the city to check out the snow and ice sculptures. During those rare, but lovely dustings of snow in North Carolina, I have made snowmen, snow angels and snowballs; however, the sculptures in Sapporo put my Frosty to shame. From dolphins and Mickey Mouse to Japanese castles and the Taj Mahal, the sculptures were so detailed that I often forgot they were made of snow.

Venturing outside of Sapporo, we later managed to find ourselves on snowmobiles. Although we weren’t given free reign to drive in a recklessly fun manner, the snowmobiles were basically a snowy environment’s equivalent to jet skis. More clothes and accessories are required, but essentially, they result in the same amount of entertainment. Also, snowmobiling gave us the chance to see Hokkaido’s beauty sans the bustling sidewalks and bright lights of the city.

Even after cruising through the sculptures and cruising on a snowboard, one of the best things about the whole trip was the food. First of all, to all my girlfriends who order Sapporo beer at the famous Shiki Sushi in Durham, yup, it’s brewed here. Also, Sapporo is famous for its butter corn ramen. If Paula Deen came to Japan, this would be her jam. As if ramen wasn’t already delicious enough, Sapporo decided to add sweet corn (a personal fave) as well as an entire stick of butter.

Snow sculptures and snowmobiling? Beer and butter? You can’t beat that folks.

A friendly competition

Sports day is officially my favorite day of the Japanese school year. Anyone who knows me at all can confirm that I can turn a tea party into a competition. Therefore, an event including relay races, jump rope contests and choreographed dances will immediately capture and maintain my sincere interest.

The closest American comparison to sports day would be an insanely intense and competitive rendition of an elementary school’s field day. Now, we are all well aware that American field day’s are full of colorful parachutes and crying children. So, I suppose it’s not much of a comparison after all. Rather, in Japan, students practice months in advance for sports day. They spend weeks preparing elaborate dance routines and impressive acrobatic exercises to perform for their parents, teachers and peers.

Although it is highly organized and well prepared for, sports day also includes some relaxed and informal fun. At my senior high school, the students are divided into three teams: red, blue and yellow. During the first part of the day, the teams compete against each other by participating in events such as potato sack races, bamboo relays, tug-of-war games and chicken fights. Most of the events require a large amount teamwork and communication.

San-nensei, or third-year students competing in a traditional relay race.

Ichi-nensei, or first-year students competing in a jump rope contest.

During the latter portion of the afternoon, ichi-nensei, ni-nensei and san-nensei, or first-year, second-year and third-year students all performed their choreographed routines. I had the opportunity to join the san-nensei students for a folk dance at the end of the day. Although I wouldn’t consider myself to be a shabby dancer, learning the routine in Japanese does make matters slightly more difficult!

Ichi-nensei, or first-year boys performing their dance routine.

As you can see, a traditional Japanese sports day is full of competition and laughter. I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with my students and fellow teachers in a more casual atmosphere. If I learned anything from sports day, I learned that relay races are basically the same no matter geographic location and a little cheerful competition can instantaneously bring people together.

Distracting my ichi-nensei students during clean-up. The yellow team won!