Thursday, June 28, 2012

Exploration: Abroad and at Home

The last few blog posts have been about very specific details of my trip abroad and about the culture surrounding them. Toilets and vending machines in Japan are awesome. I was there in time for the cherry blossoms, and they were amazing. I joined a nihon buyo club and had a great time learning a traditional dance. But some experiences of traveling cannot be condensed into single events or specific details. Some experiences are built up over many events, constructed from feelings and impressions. One such experience for me while I was in Japan was the experience of exploration.

In a new country, exploration occurs pretty much constantly. You are exploring the sidewalks you walk on, the people you encounter, the culture around you. Sometimes, you even go out and intentionally explore, taking the unusual path and getting lost on purpose, for the sake a wholly individualized experience. For me, exploring like this was so much fun. I could describe it with prettier words; it was exhilarating, inspirational, exciting. But really, the best phrase for it is just pure, unadulterated fun.

During the early part of my visit, I wandered away from the classrooms and dormitory on a rare occasion when it wasn't raining. It wasn't sunny, but the lack of rain was good enough for me. Taking along my camera, I drifted towards some unspecific direction, with really no purpose in mind except to look at whatever there was to see. Although I was familiar with the buildings in the center of campus, I had no idea what was behind them or what the mysterious section of woods off to the side contained. So I decided to just walk around. I kept my camera on to record what I saw and my random musings, for posterity's sake, or something like that. 

What I discovered was a street lined with cherry trees; a cute, little convenience store a short block away; a couple picturesque farm plots; a bike rental company; and a large, beautiful garden behind the campus. This garden contained a myriad of unfamiliar plants, trees, and flowers. I was fascinated by the lack of grass, which usually covers American garden-parks. Instead, there was soft, fragrant moss everywhere—even on the pathways. And then, I found a bridge.

(The magnificent bridge, surrounded by leafless trees of early spring.)

It's almost embarrassing how excited I was to find this bridge. It felt like I was walking through the wardrobe into Narnia or using the rope to cross the creek into Terabithia. I had no idea where it would take me, but it looked so mysterious. The thrill grew as I chanced upon sets of stairs leading in two directions. The first path led me to a house and another farm; turning back, the second one led into the heart of the woods near the campus. I discovered a series of raised wooden pathways over creeks that spindled out like capillaries. I noticed how remarkably different the pine trees were compared to my home in Colorado; tall and bare until close to the top where they flourished out in dark green, soft needles. I found a kind of bright green tree with delicate leaves that seemed to float in the air on barely noticeable, thin branches. A couple branches of some tree had wound around each other, forming a rope-like structure that looked man-made. Fiddle ferns grew on the ground, curled up so they appeared almost alien. Although it was not some raw, untouched forest, it felt entirely undiscovered and revolutionary to me. I was disappointed when I came out the other side, finding myself once again near the campus buildings.

(The stairs that went up.)

(The stairs that went down.)

Luckily, these exploration experiences peppered my entire stay in Japan. I followed an unknown path beyond a lighthouse during a school excursion to find myself standing a hundred feet over a beautiful, rocky coastline. Hawks and large sea-birds dove and surfed the winds around me. There, a nice couple offered to take my picture. Back at campus, I took an afternoon to explore to the books in the library, discovering illustrated books on Japanese folklore, an interesting book on the history of chemistry, and texts on traditional dances of obscure cultures. Thoroughly exploring shops at the mall exposed me to the nearly infinite variety of “cute” merchandise in Japan, delicious watermelon puree drink and, conversely, gross placenta drink, as well as super expensive taco ingredients (which were too pricey even for my desperate taco cravings).

(The beautiful, tempting path beyond the lighthouse. How could you not explore it?)

The results of my explorations were always interesting and rewarding, but the real pleasure came from the exploration itself. Simply giving myself over to curiosity and welcoming any result filled me with pure happiness and a cleansing sensation. My existence in those moments was not complicated. I had no preferences, but I was interested in everything. I had no goals, but I felt accomplished whenever I made a found something new. I think this basic level of curiosity rivaled that of an infant. The world was new and amazing to me, and even the smallest detail contained endless entertainment. I think it is the purest state of being; to explore the world, to observe the world, to delight in the world.

The experience was so impressive, that I think I have been chasing after it since I've returned, like searching for the sensation of a first high. Curiosity and exploration gets lost in the bustle of the every day. Responsibilities or even just weariness keep us from opening ourselves up to experiences that have no purpose; they stop us from indulging or perhaps even noticing our natural curiosity. In light of my experiences abroad, I am trying to change this in my life. It's not easy. I have classes and homework and regular work and chores just like everyone else. Not to mention, my boyfriend is currently less mobile due to a hip injury, and my desire to include him in my adventures often prevents me from having them at all. But I forget that curiosity doesn't always mean going out and finding some unknown path in the woods. It can mean turning on my computer and reading about some new fact, then following that interest and learning more. For example, I just finished reading an National Geographic article about the leading theory on how the statues of Easter Island were transported from miles away. I realized I really don't know anything about Easter Island. Instead of just letting my interest end with the article, later I'm going to do some reading about the island and learn more about the culture and its history. Following a curiosity, no matter whether its in concrete or digital form, is always stimulating; and for me, often has the added bonus of inspiring stories I can write.

There may be no point to indulging in curiosity. It doesn't always provide any rewards except perhaps as a conversation piece. It doesn't make money; it doesn't get anything done. However, I really believe curiosity is the most defining and basic characteristic of the human species. Humans love to learn, which is something we often forget when looking at education and homework, but it's true. We want to know things just for the sake of knowing them; because they're interesting, because they're fun. Perhaps that is a goal and a reward enough in itself. So go out and explore, even if it's just from your couch. 

(The sakura lined street near campus.)

(The mossy pathways and bright green trees of the garden-park.)

(The awesome twisted wood in the forest.)

(Floating leaves.)

(A bad, blurry pic of the fiddle ferns that look like they're from Star Trek.)

Below are some of the videos I took while exploring. I swear I'm not as ditzy as I think I sound. I apologize for the awful quality. :) Also my camera has a time limit on videos, so some of them start/cut abruptly. Again, sorry.

The tree lined path. 

Exploring the garden, interrupted by a full memory.

Continuation of the exploration of the garden.

Discovering the bridge. 

Wandering up the stairs.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Parties under the cherry blossoms

When I went to Japan, spring was just spreading over the island nation. Of course, Japan is probably most famous for its beautiful sakura, or cherry blossoms, that bloom across the country like a pink wave. They begin as early as the end of January in the far south, and finish as late as May in the northern island of Hokkaido. In Akita, the cherry blossoms arrived in late April, just after I got there, as if an earthquake-shattered Japan was donning her best kimono to distract me from the shambles around her. Cherry blossoms bloom quite suddenly, with entire trees bursting into cloud-like fluff seemingly overnight. Just as quickly as they appear, they fade within a couple weeks, gently sprinkling their petals over the ground like tears until they are spent and green leaves has taken their place.  

The Japanese love sakura more than any other flower. It has been depicted in paintings, lauded in poems, and glorified as the national flower. The sakura mark the 100 yen coin. It is a popular girl’s name, Sakura have even been made into sweets. The blooming of the cherry tree is both a happy and melancholic event. As the harbingers of spring, it represents renewal, harmony, growth, and beauty. However, their rapid disappearance carries symbols of death, impermanence, and letting go. This duality is a common theme in the Japanese religion*, especially the Buddhist elements.

One of the positive associations with the sakura is the tradition of hanami, or flower viewing. “Flower viewing” is a literal translation, although there is no real, concise English equivalent that communicates the same concept. Hanami is hanami. It is the tradition of going out with family or friends to sit under the blooming cherry trees to watch and appreciate their beauty. It is a chance to feel a sense of oneness with nature. It is also a party, often including lots of drinking, picnic food, and rowdy behavior.

The hanami has a long history in Japan. Although records of the gatherings are found in Japan’s first historical texts, such as the Nihon Shoki, dating them as far back as the 3rd century, the tradition is said to have really begun in the Nara Period (710-794), with its full form and sakura-only focus beginning in the Heian Period (794-1185). Like many beloved Japanese traditions, it began as an activity for the wealthy and high class, and eventually found its way into the hearts of the common folk. It is so firmly rooted in the culture that it is enjoyed by nearly everyone in the nation, and news stations even have daily reports in the spring to show exactly where the sakura are beginning to bloom. Schools take their students on hanami outings, families crowd the parks with their children, eating obento (packed lunches) beneath the shade, and friends gather together to drink and enjoy the brief time of the cherry tree in full bloom. The tradition of hanami communicates the same sentiments of the sakura, perhaps even more so. It especially emphasizes the idea of “ichi go, ichi e,” which means “One moment, one encounter.” English speakers may be more familiar with the equivalent of “carpe diem,” “seize the day,” or “live in the moment.” The sakura are a brief beauty, and the hanami is the best way to enjoy them while they last. (

In a culture where many people are disregarding their heritage and old traditions, hanami and the love of sakura is one example of a tradition that continues to remain strong even in the face of constant technological development, busy work schedules, and endless distractions. Even the most overloaded salary man, the busiest housewife, and the most absorbed gaming or texting teen gather together to enjoy an afternoon of hanami. Hanami and sakura are the essence of Japan and the Japanese people.

For someone from dry Colorado, the sheer number of cherry trees and the culture surrounding them was completely astounding. I spent a lot of time trying to take as many pictures and videos of the blooms as I could, always aware of their ephemeral nature. I watched the gradual invasion of green with apprehension, despairing at the scattering dead but still beautiful petals on the ground.

 I delighted at discovering how many different kinds of cherry trees were on the AIU campus. Below, you can see a small sampling I collected. The shapes are so beautiful and distinct, and yet they all carry the same emotional symbolism. Someday, I will do a small, watercolor painting of this shot. According to, there are over 100 kinds of cherry trees in Japan. The different kinds range in the number of petals, their general shape, the way they hang on the tree, their color (white to bright pink, as well as yellow), and the location and length of their blooming period. Some of them are wild, but most of them are cultivated. I think the three below are called imose, soushunzakura, and akebono, from left to right. (Those are only my guesses!) (

The scattered trees around campus were beautiful, but there is nothing like seeing dozens of trees clustered together. My trip to a town called Kakunodate was the perfect chance to see that the beauty of sakura grows exponentially with each additional tree.

 Their splendor made the rainy days of early spring as far from dreary as possible. And yet, I did not feel the rumored sadness when the last petal fell. The lush green that had replaced the pink was just as gorgeous. Perhaps I am not familiar enough with their passing, or the intense heat of the Japanese summers, but I felt only invigoration from the blooming of the sakura, and the green summer with its new flowers continued the inspiration. I think I focused on the symbolism of rebirth and somehow missed the melancholy meaning of death. All I know is that the memory of those beautiful pink and white clouds springs to my mind’s eye with ease, the feel of the petals lingers of my fingertips, and the curious floral yet fruity taste of sakura ice cream still dances on my tongue. The sakura may be evanescent, but the delight of my memories is constant.

Below are some of the best pictures of sakura I (or my boyfriend) took while in Japan.

(Me by the pinkest sakura I could find.)

(A pathway near the river at Kakunodate.)

(The white cherry blossoms lining the river. I wish it had been sunnier.)

(A set of three pictures from a particularly scenic rest area on a bus trip. Sakura under a blue sky are so beautiful!)

(Sakura petals on the ground.)

The background of my blog is another picture I took, up close. Can you spot the spider I also managed to photograph?


*Many people distinguish between Shinto and Buddhism as Japan’s major religions; however they have become so intricately linked over the centuries that they are almost a single, uniquely Japanese religion.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Nihon Buyo

My love for Japan is based mainly in the traditional aspects of its culture, which survive alongside the hyper-modern, technology dictated lifestyle of the average person. Japanese people, especially the young, have a fading interest in such traditions, and many fascinating older aspects of the culture are only kept alive through tourism and the sometimes fanatic interests of foreigners. At my school, the Japanese culture department was taught by one charmingly neurotic British guy. Even I had to do a bit of teaching myself, when many of Japanese friends didn’t know how to don a yukata (summer kimono). Luckily, a few Japanese people still continue the old fashions, such as the instructor for the nihon buyo club. In fact, nihon buyo is one tradition that is experiencing a resurgence in the Japanese population, with people taking classes for entertainment as well as health reasons.

Nihon buyo, which translates as Japanese traditional dance, is a gorgeous art form, the many faces of which have captivated my curiosity since I was young. Dating back to the Heian period (794-1192), it has changed over time and influenced or drawn influence from several other forms of dance. Many types of dance were originally designed for daily use, particularly Shinto rituals. Although many of the traditional dances people watch today are performed as both stage art and ritual, such as dances by shrine maidens, or only stage art, such as noh, nihon buyo is one of the only forms designed for the stage from the beginning. It draws elements from various other forms of dance, such as bugaku (a form of dance performed for the Imperial court), nohgaku (from noh theater), as well as a variety of folk dances that vary based on locality. Elements of nihon buyo are incorporated into kabuki buyo (dances for kabuki plays) as well as other, traditionally inspired free form dancing.

This kind of dancing is designed to be performed in small spaces, and thus includes small, precise, and measured movements. The use of props, such as fans or poles, is common to help accent and dramatize the moves—the long sleeves and bright coloring of the kimono or yukata also help. The dances are choreographed so that each step flows easily in the next one. Whatever position one’s foot is in, the next position can be easily reached, and the arm movements will echo the movement of the feet. There are often subtle moves that are made in preparation for future steps, such as discreetly placing one’s foot behind the other in anticipation of a fluid turn. There are also independent movements of the hands and neck, and ideally the dance should be performed with a look of placid thoughtfulness on the face. Overall, this form of dance is very refined and delicate, and for some people it may be boring. However, for those with a longer, more observational attention span, it is a beautiful form of art, full of expression in every movement of the body.

Being a fan of most traditional Japanese culture, particularly dancing, this is the first club at Akita International University that I joined. Any other club came second to it, and luckily a lot of my friends joined as well. Including my roommate, I also had friends in the club from Taiwan, Malaysia, Hungary, and the Netherlands, which made getting over any embarrassment easier. The senpai* (senior members) of the club were all very nice and helpful, and the sensei (teachers), while sometimes relentless in their practices, were easily approachable when you needed a particular step explained. I only wish we could have met more frequently, as we only met once a week. Although I was only able to perform once, the experience was one of my favorites in Japan.

The club was split into several groups; one was for the new students, two other groups containing senpai performed more advanced dances, and then our single male member, who was new as well, performed his own dance. The above picture is of my group, ready for our performance, around the one guy. The new students worked on a dance accompanied by a folk song that every Japanese person grows up knowing: Sakura Sakura. It is a song that beginners on instruments play and that little kids learn to sing for concerts. Musicians often rework the melody to try to modernize the song, keeping its place firmly rooted in the culture.
Here is a recording of the song.

Here is a translation of the lyrics:
Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms,
Across the spring sky, as far as you can see.
Is it a mist, or is it cloud? Fragrant in the air.
Come now, come, let’s look, at last.

As you can see, it is a short song, like many folk songs, with a simple melody and simple, poetic words. I wish our recording had been as lovely as this one, but for some reason our sensei insisted on using an outdated, poor quality tape recording. I even own such a tape myself now, courtesy of my sensei as a gift at the end of my trip. What am I going to play it in, since I don’t own a tape player? No idea, but it’s a nice keepsake regardless.

As beautiful and graceful as nihon buyo is, learning it is not so delicate. The moves were difficult and sometimes felt quite awkward to my foreigner’s feet. We had to bend our knees slightly in the traditional feminine style, which made my calves and knees hurt in the beginning weeks. This was always difficult for me, and my sensei was always reminding me to bend lower. (I think it’s because I was taller than the other girls.) Our first lesson didn’t involve explanations of each individual movement, but rather was a sink-or-swim plunge that involved watching the senpai perform it once, and then giving it a go ourselves until we figured it out. The fans require a special technique to open them, which made them unreliable at times, especially since our practice fans were worn out and tended to stick every once in a while.

Eventually, after extra practicing on my own with fellow members, we finally got the dance down and were ready to perform it at a student festival near the end of the semester. I invited my host family (who I will tell you about in a later post), and they said they were really impressed, describing our performance with complicated words that were definitely out of my vocabulary! I was sad to be done with the club, but I have many pieces of memorabilia that keep the experience fresh. I have pictures and recordings of our performance, as well as a tape recording, my tabi (Japanese socks), and a pretty dancing fan that I bought for myself in the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo. I can even remember the dance moves, a year later. Although I am far from achieving the grace of the dancers I admire so much, it is comforting to know that despite being a foreigner, I can still perform dances with origins dating back a thousand years, and not look like a complete idiot. If you ever travel to Japan, I highly suggest going to a performance or, if you can, maybe try a lesson or two. In the meantime, here are some videos of my club's performances! I apologize for the horrible video quality; it was filmed on my dinky camera by my boyfriend in a crowded room.

(I am in the front on the right.)

(My friend from the Netherlands doing his awesome one-man dance. The difference in style is pretty cool.)

(A few senpai performing a really lovely dance with streamer fans.)

(Here are some videos of girls performing nihon buyo at a festival I saw. They're much better than me, and  the youngest ones are so cute!)

*Many people who might be familiar with common Japanese words may have a problem with me writing "senpai" instead of "sempai." I also write "tenpura" instead of "tempura," and "kanpai" instead of "kampai." Why do I do this? Because it's the correct phonetic translation. The 'sen' in 'sensei' is the same character/pronunciation as the 'sen' in 'senpai.' There is no single 'm' sound in Japanese, but there is a 'n' sound, written like: ん. It just sounds like an 'm' when next to a 'p' sound, but that doesn't reflect the transliteration properly. So, this is how it will be written in my blog, no matter what.