Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Sprinkled with Holiday Joy, History Lesson

Even though I haven't been completely off work this week, John and I have enjoyed this holiday season. We bought our own Christmas presents this year and said they were from each other, a tradition I'm sure we won't keep, but it worked out better for us this time. Actually, John accompanied me to buy my fancy hand-made watch, and so before buying he said "Hey babe, gimmee some money for your Christmas present." Then, a few days later, I was at work while John took the train to a neighboring town about 15 minutes away and went to a bike shop to buy a folding bike for himself. This will make all of his commutes easier, since he now has a bike he can take on the train and use when he gets off.

John's new Dahon folding bike

handmade bunny watch

And soon, I'll get a yoga bolster as a New Year present to add to my tatami-room make-shift yoga haven complete with travel yoga mat, 2 blocks (squishy foam ones, that shall be traded for wooden, one day), a strap, and two blankets. My mother's infinite wisdom sent me packing with two afghan blankets because we weren't sure if our apartment would be furnished with enough bedding. Those blankets now provide duel services: yoga props by day and covers by night. Japanese houses (even the really expensive ones) don't have central heaters, so we have three electric heaters in our apartment that we rotate throughout areas depending on use.

Christmas Eve we had a wonderful lunch date with an elderly couple in the next town over called Yawata. It's still part of the greater city of Ichihara, like Mobile has many towns or sections (i.e. mid-town, LoDa, WiMo, etc.) Norriko-san and Bumi-san are little firecrackers, and they always want to ensure that the current Ichihara International Asssociation Foreign Language Teacher (IIA FLT) settles into their Japanese life without lonliness. The old FLT, who still lives in Japan, also joined us. Norriko-san cooked a turkey (even though she's only done it a few times, so she was asking John for advice) and John carved it in perfect Christmas tradition. Norriko-san told me that at 70, she's learned a lot about making vegetarian Japanese food for me! I appreciate her going out of her way so much. Norriko used to be a calligraphy and English teacher. Now she spends her time teaching community center calligraphy classes. She speaks very good English, and every time we go to here house, she spends about 10-15 minutes testing the evolution of our Japanese. Her husband, Bumi-san, is a farmer. He loves playing golf (like a majority of the Japanese men I've met) and also Japanese-style "chess", called igo (pronounced ee-go). John tried it after lunch; the rules are simple but it's a difficult strategy game. Two players alternately place black and white playing pieces called "stones" on the vacant intersections (called "points") of a grid of 19x19 lines. The object of the game is to use one's stones to surround a larger total area of the board than the opponent. Once placed on the board, stones may not be moved, but stones are removed from the board if captured. When a game concludes, the controlled points (territory) are counted along with captured stones to determine who has more points. John got his ass kicked, but you know, it was his first time, and Bumi has been playing for like 50 years.

Christmas Eve, we decided not to sit around our apartment. I wanted to take John to Doitsu Mura (German Town) about an hour away to see the "illumination" (Christmas lights). We took the train one station south to Anegasaki, then a cab about 30 minutes to Doitsu Mura. (This is the part where you're super impressed that I can get a cab from one place to another in Japanese. Also, I was impressed that I understood about 35% of what the cabbie was saying. My comprehension and writing are coming along far quicker than my speaking). Doitsu Mura was packed with people on Christmas Eve, but we still had a great time taking pictures and looking at lights. When we wanted to leave, we tried to ask the gate attendant how to get a cab. She called the cab service for us, but said that all the cabs were too busy. There was however, a line for a free bus service to a train station (although it was way further west than we needed to be). The line was two people wide and about 300 yards long. We waited in 0-degree weather for about an hour before we got on the bus to the train station. In the end, it was worth it, though.

Christmas day, I had to go to work in the morning (as I have to every morning this week, from 8-11...well, today it was bed, it's cozy). Then, we got picked up by two women from the weekly Goi komikan (community center) English class. They took us to the Hilton hotel in Narita, about an hour from our house. Our present from them was a wonderful buffet lunch, complete with dishes from around the world. After lunch, Mineko-san and Tomiko-san took us to Katori Shrine. It's famous for many things, but mostly Goshinboku (The Tree God, or better, Scared Tree). Before you get to the worship hall, on the right side there is this massive cedar tree. It is said to be over 1,000 years old, and is about 7.4 meters around.  We learned the traditional way to wash our hands and mouth before entering the shrine. For New Years, there is a giant ring set up at the entrance, a symbol for...well entering the new year. First you walk around the left side of the ring, then the right, and then through. We threw small offerings (100 Y each, about $1.20) into a large wooden box on legs. It also had wooden bars vertically across the top, spaced out about every two inches. Then, we bowed twice, clapped twice, and then bowed again. On New Years day, we'll go to a small local shrine in Goi called Ohmiya shrine to celebrate the New Year in Japanese style. Now we know all the right moves!

Entrance to Katori Shrine

1,000 year old tree

It's extremely difficult to tell the difference between a shrine and a temple. Although there are some differences, like the smoking barrel at temples and the purifying water at shrines, they can look pretty similar and even be built next to each other! The quick and easy explanation is that a temple is a place for Buddhist worship and a shrine is a place for Shinto (Japanese indigineous "religion") worship. So really, the question is similar to asking the difference between a church and a mosque. But at second glance, the simple answer is not so simple, with some historical complications that explain the ambiguities of the differences. Shinto is a religion of nature worship, and originally, people prayed to great natural phenomena, such as mountains and trees. As Buddhism made its way to Japan in the 6th century, it was not met without resistance and in need of an effective marketing strategy. In order to appease the nationalist resistance to a foreign "god" and to help spread Buddhism throughout the country, Buddhism was essentially superimposed onto Shinto, basically saying, "You know, actually, the Shinto gods are Buddhas that are taking another form." This Shinto-Buddhism hybird world continued until the Meiji period when the government demanded the separation of Shintoism and Buddhism in order to restore the legitimacy and power of the emperor, who is regarded as the supreme being in Shinto. Still, hints of a hybrid history remain, as you may see some Shinto objects in Buddhist temples or vice versa, and many shrines and temples remain friendly neighbors.

After we visited Katori shrine, we  enjoyed a  popular snack food for visitors. It's called dango and can be purchased from several shops along the road leading up to the shrine. We also had a popular drink called amazake. We really enjoyed these traditional Japanese foods; I'm sure we'll be eating much more of them!

Christmas night, John stayed home tucked in warmth, and I went with my new yoga buddy to a Christmas night hot flow class. Full of sweat and vinyasas, it was the perfect way to conclude Christmas. It feels so good to sweat when the weather doesn't get over 15 degrees, and is usually closer to 3 or 4 degrees. For the next 10 days, the temperature will be in the single digits, with wind chill in the negative. In other words, it's freaking cold, and I don't like it, so a heated sweaty yoga class was wonderful.

The day after Christmas, I worked in the morning. When I got home, John and I decided to see the Imperial Palace East Gardens, so we hopped on the Rapid train (and switched to a local subway) and we were in Tokyo 50 minutes later. Even though it's winter and there weren't any flowers blooming (except camellias, those resilient things), it was still so beautiful.  They even have a bamboo garden with some 20 different kinds of bamboo!

After the Japanese garden, we decided to check out the Shimokitazawa area. It was about a twenty minute subway ride from the Imperial palace ruins. "Shimokita", as it's known by residents and those "in the know", is considered to be one of Tokyo's hippest neighborhoods, full of cafes, theatres, and music venues. It's laid back vibes and retro shops made John and I realize that we'd moved to the wrong part of Japan! We ate at a vegan restaurant called &Vege hidden behind Starbucks. The online directions read thusly:
- Go into the alley, right side of starbucks.
- End of alley, looking out into the main street.
- Go through the door to the left.
- Go out another door.
- Another alley, leading to the cafe entrance.

It's tiny, even by Japanese standards, with only 10 seats. But the cozy, non-smoking environment and the fulfilling vegan food, both hard to come by in Tokyo, will lure me back. The falefel lunch plate comes with a satisfying mound of fresh salad, freshly fried chipea nuggets, 2 half pieces of pita bread, and one small scoop of hummus, and another small scoop of vegan chili. Even John enjoyed the meatless meal. Sometimes falefel is heavy and greasy, but this was light and tasty, not leaving me grody-feeling afterward. John said after lunch, "If you told me we'd be eating vegan chili today, I'd assume I'd be making vegan chili." What a great surprise!
Also, we found this place!

We made it home by 7:00, with plenty of time for exercise, cleaning, dinner, and THE DR. WHO CHRISTMAS SPECIAL! I enjoyed it with my husband and a small glass of Japanese liquor that he MADE! He took shochu (a Japanese liquor) and soaked kaki (persimmons) in it for about a week. Then, he made a persimmon flavored simple syrup with cinnamon and ginger, strained the syrup, added then added a little more shochu for the perfect Japanese Christmas drink! We gave small bottles to all of our acquaintances for Christmas, combining Japanese ingredients with a favorite Japanese past-time...drinking! It's been a hit so far. Today and Friday, we won't do much but relax, clean, and work out. Saturday, I'll go to a yoga event where we'll do 108 sun salutations. 108 is an auspicious number in India, as well as in China and Japan, but for different reasons. Other than being a mathematically abundant, semiperfect, tetranacci, hyperfactorial, and refactorable number, in some schools of Buddhism, it is believed that there are 108 defilements. In Japan, at midnight on the first of the year, a bell is chimed 108 times in Buddhist temples to finish the old year and welcome the new one. Each ring represents one of 108 earthly temptations a person must overcome to achieve nirvana. For more information about 108,  click here and here.

On Saturday, December 30, John and I are planning to go to Ueno in Tokyo. It's home to a science museum and a big zoo, both of which we plan to visit. On New Years Day (shougatsu), we'll go to Ohmiya shrine in the morning, to celebrate new years, and we'll make some traditional Japanese New Year food (osechi) together, most likely seki-han and mochi. January second, we're going to a famous Buddhist temple in Narita, called Narita-san, to participate in New Years customs.  Then, we'll have a meal with my yoga teacher and her family. My yoga teacher (Mina-san)'s daughter is my age, and she studied ballet in England. Mina, her daughter Akari, and her husband Michi, all speak good English, and I'm so grateful they've invited us to join their New Year activities. We'll be sure to take some kaki-shochu for them to enjoy :-) On the third, we've been invited to another New Year party by a new student in my community center English class. On January 6 I'll wear a kimono to IIA's New Year Party, and on the 7th, I'll return to regular work-days and classes with students. (Although John and I both took off January 8th for the National Championship game, Roll Tide). It's a busy holiday season, full of wonder and festivities. But fancy food, presents, and parties aside, I'm just so grateful to fellowship with nice people and to spend this holiday with my wonderful new husband. 2012 brought my first (two) "real" job(s) using my degree, travels to India, and elopement, leading my partner-in-crime and me to the most foreign of places and richest experiences. I'm hopeful that 2013 will bring just as much excitement and love.

Happy Hols to you and yours.

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