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

Sunday strolls

During my first year or so in Japan, I was always on the go. Whether it be by bus, shinkansen, local train or plane, I never stopped. Friday evening was go time and Sunday night meant unpacking and preparing for the upcoming week. I traveled to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Wakayama, Tottori, Fukuoka, Shimane, Shikoku, Hokkaido and Iwate–just to name a few. Further, I spent many of my “free” weekends in Hiroshima City with familiar friends.

As a result, that year was a whirlwind. A whirlwind of incredible, life changing trips and experiences for which I will be forever grateful. However, recently, I am equally as grateful for the down time I have had in my Japanese hometown–Fukuyama.

As “Lonely Planet Japan” quickly notes, Fukuyama is a small industrial city “without much to attract the traveller.” However, for those of us who live here, it is full of good friends and thus, good times. I have spent many pleasant Saturdays and Sundays doing absolutely nothing with these friends whom I now consider my family.

On one of these lazy Sundays, we wandered to Myououin Temple, southwest of Fukuyama Station. With its bright orange five-tiered pagoda and view of Fukuyama, it is actually quite impressive and I can’t believe I had never visited it until now. So, take that Lonely Planet.

Two years later

I will never forget the morning of March 11, 2011. On a spring break trip with two of my best friends, we woke up to the devastating news of the Tohoku earthquake and resulting tsunami.

Two years later, on March 11, 2013, I woke up in Japan on a beautiful spring day. In the morning, I learned the expression “hinata boko,” a Japanese expression meaning “relaxing in the sun.” It wasn’t until the afternoon when my school observed a moment of silence that I remembered the significance of that day.

During that moment of silence, my mind raced. However, eventually, I decided to reflect on my personal volunteer experience. After the earthquake, many organizations began volunteer trips to support relief efforts and encourage tourism. Last November, with WhyNot!? Japan, I traveled to the Tohoku region and volunteered for a man named Mr. Sato. We listened to him recount the day of the disaster. Pointing to the ocean and to a road that had been split by the earthquake, he told us his story with such appreciation for life. His courage and perseverance awed me. Surrounded by mounds of debris, he told this story while helping us plant tulips in his garden—his possessions still broken, but his spirit strongly intact.

Photo by Hiroki Miura

Photo by Hiroki Miura

Photo by Hiroki Miura

Photo by Hiroki Miura

This man and others like him offer hope to a country that is still coping with disaster. The disaster united people in support and simultaneously fueled protests. Today, there are debates about reconstruction, decontamination efforts and nuclear energy usage. Charged by the passion of leaders on both sides, I hope these debates, lead to advancement and action. I hope that this passion is utilized to build a strong future for those in Tohoku.

Further, no matter where life takes me, I hope to live with the passion that I saw in my brief encounter with Mr. Sato. No matter where life takes me, March 11 will forever be a day in which my heart is in Japan.

Photo by Hiroki Miura

Photo by Hiroki Miura

Up, up and away

The air is brisk in Fukuyama. The leaves are falling and the mornings are frosty. This weekend, I used my heating unit for the first time since last winter. No matter where I am living, time moves faster in fall. The colors are richer and moods are happier. Every spare moment is spent outside. Every weekend is spent wandering—wandering around the neighborhood or wandering through the new and unexplored.

Therefore, with the lack of central heating in Japan, the first signs of winter can be intimidating–seeing your breath in the morning, sprinting from your bed to the shower, noticing the first frost in the fields and even drinking red cups from Starbucks. However, with said red cup, winter does give one the opportunity to relax. The cool weather and my down comforter have encouraged me to coop up, curl up and catch up. Coincidentally, “up” is exactly where I have been.

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Or, where I was. A long while ago, in the early months of fall, I took a weekend trip to Tottori Prefecture. Tottori may be the least populated prefecture in Japan, but it is also the only prefecture where people can fly paraglide off of sky-high sand dunes. The Tottori sand dunes, or “sakyu” in Japanese, are strange. One moment you’re looking at a forest, and the next you’re in a new world abounding with sand. They are similar to those in Kitty Hawk, N.C., but, either they are bigger, or I simply saw them from a more impressive angle.

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We spent the day with three chilled paragliding professionals. They showed us how to operate all the 80s-colored gadgets and directed us while in flight. Although each flight was only about 30 seconds, being above the dunes and overlooking the Sea of Japan made every short second well worth it. After landing and looking up to where we started, the dunes seemed even larger. Fortunately, the prospect of paragliding again gave us the motivation to hike back to the top.

 

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After paragliding we ate pear ice cream and drank pear cocktails. Pears are famous in Tottori, and in true Japanese fashion, there are countless desserts and snacks made from them. We also visited the sand museum, which had been featuring a British-inspired exhibition since the start of the Olympics. There were sculptures of all things London—Parliament, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Isaac Newton and Queen Elizabeth. It was a stroll down a sand-paved memory lane to the semester I spent in London. Or, as all of my British girlfriends put it—“It was well-good”—as was the entire weekend.

Tottori Pears

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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.

Hiking Fuji-san

Although it is still a blur of mood swings and temperature changes, last weekend, I climbed Mount Fuji. On Saturday morning at 10 a.m., a group of friends and I said goodbye to Hiroshima and hit the road.

With blissfully ignorant smiles and hearts of pure determination, we arrived to Mount Fuji at 10 p.m. Unfortunately, our arrival coincided with rain clouds and a thunderstorm. After watching an ambulance drive into the trail and witnessing a small lightning show, we eventually started hiking.

Then, we hiked some more. And, we hiked higher and higher. We hiked for approximately seven hours. I thought we would never stop. But, at 5:30 a.m., we did stop. In order to catch our bus, 5:30 a.m. was our upward ascent deadline. At this time, we were a football field’s length away from the summit—possibly within range for a field goal. However, the rest of Japan’s extreme insane hikers were in a similar situation. Further, there was no glorious, golden trophy sunrise luring us to the top—only a blur of gray, icy clouds. Therefore, as a result of the standstill line to the summit, the sleet in our faces and our impending bus departure, we started the four-hour descent.

Although I did not reach the summit and I often felt like jumping off one of Fuji’s cliffs, I think, with time, I will look back on my Fuji experience and smile. Through all the climbing, sweating and shivering, there were certainly some moments of delirious happiness. For a good two hours, I think I was actually drunk on the altitude. My friends and I were constantly giggling with one another and freely chatting with the multitudes of rugged Japanese mountain men, collectively deciding that if we were to start dating a Japanese man, we would want to meet him on Mount Fuji.

Then, there was the hilarity of falling climbing down the mountain—which is arguably more difficult than climbing up it. If only I had videoed the numerous wipe-outs, I am sure they would be much more entertaining than this blog post. To top it all off, on the way to the bottom, the sun began to shine and the rain clouds disappeared.  As a result, we could finally see the beauty that surrounds Mount Fuji.

Even though it was exhausting, I am happy I attempted Fuji. Prior to moving to Japan, I read Cathy Davidson’s, “36 Views of Mount Fuji: On finding myself in Japan.” In her book, Davidson continuously emphasizes the unchanging presence of Fuji-san. Ironically, when climbing this symbol of Japanese stability and permeance, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much my life has changed. I am still me, but I am now living in Japan and climbing Mount Fuji. I may have been unbearably cold and slightly miserable, but that simple thought reminded me of how truly fortunate and blessed I am.