Monday, January 28, 2013

Lake Tazawa and Lady Tatsuko

The second part of our first 3-part bus trip was an interesting study in contrasts. Our trip had actually started with a short stop at a cherry-blossom lined valley, where we bought snacks, took pictures, soaked in the sunlight, and distracted a large group of elderly people playing croquet. After going from that to the beautiful river, still bathed in sunshine, I thought for a while that the sun would stay all day. It didn't. And while the lake we traveled to next, called Lake Tazawa, was beautiful and interesting as a tourist, I was dismayed at the grey clouds which erased all the color that had dazzled me just an hour earlier. Such is early spring in Japan, I suppose.
(The beautiful sunny beginning of the day.)

Lake Tazawa has many claims to fame. First of all, it is the deepest lake in Japan. It's maximum depth is 423 meters, or roughly 1388 feet, and because of its depth it never freezes ( It's depth also causes the water to be a beautiful, rich blue color. It is flanked by Japan's largest ski resort, Tazawa Ski Area, as well as several famous onsen, or hot springs (

It is also famous for the golden statue of a beautiful woman, named Tatsuko. The legend surrounding this statue says that Tatsuko was a woman of great beauty. Fearing the fleeting nature of such beauty, Tatsuko prayed at a shrine for 100 nights that her good looks would remain. On the last night, she received a message to drink from a holy spring. Perhaps because of her vanity, instead of granting her everlasting beauty, the drink turned her into a guardian dragon to watch over the lake (Oh Tazawako Blog). However, maybe in the end she received her wish, now that her image has been immortalized in the form of the gold statue, made by Yasutake Funakoshi in 1968 (

(The Golden Tatsuko. This picture belongs to a friend of mine.)

If you were to google image search Lake Tazawa, you would find hundreds of beautiful landscapes, with clear skies, deep blue water, bright white boats, and the golden charm of Tatsuko. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, by the time we got there it was cold and grey. Although the lake was still beautiful, it was mostly due to the fact that nature can never really be plain. As such, my pictures are all quite monochromatic.

Our time was short. As we filed out of the bus, we were all handed a prepackaged bento, or boxed lunch. These were actually quite tasty, consisting of rice, Japanese pickles, fried potato dumplings, noodle salad, hamburger patties, fried chicken pieces, and fruit. As we munched, we gazed out at the mountains hovering over the expansive lake. Close by was a small shrine, flanked by beautiful stone lanterns decorated by engraved kanji characters, as well as two stone lion guardians. Many people bought fortunes printed out on thin strips of paper called omikuji. Tradition grants people a fail-safe against bad or bland fortunes, by allowing them to tie the strips of paper to near-by ropes. This is supposed to erase bad luck, and create a blank slate for another chance at good luck (

(The shrine at Lake Tozawa. You can see the stone lantern in front there, just on the sand.)

(A close up to show you the kanji inscribed in the lantern.)

(The stone lion guarding the shrine.)

(The numerous  fortunes bought and tied at the shrine for better luck.)

Having finished our meals, Justin and I went to greet the golden Tatsuko, and had our picture taken beside her. Reaching her required a bit of dexterity, as we crossed over jagged and wet rocks. I think perhaps you cannot reach her if the tide is high. Thinking back now, I hope we didn't commit a culture faux pas by going all the way out to her.

(Me and Justin beside the beautiful Tatsuko.)

When we loaded back on to the bus, I think we spent a mere 45 minutes at Lake Tazawa. Someday, I hope to return on a nicer day. They offer boat trips, which sound lovely, and I wouldn't mind going to one of the onsen or the ski resort to gaze down at the beautiful, deep blue that Tatsuko calls her home.  

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Blue River and Roaring Waterfall

We have come now to a post that I have been dreaming of and dreading since I first got the idea for this blog. While I treasure nearly every experience I had in Japan, there are a few that rank in my absolute favorites, and the first AIU bus trip is one of them. I have been excited to tell everyone about the beautiful places I visited, but also worried about accurately portraying how amazing it all was. I cannot delay the plunge forever, though, so here it goes.

AIU does something that I wish every university, college, and high school did: they organized field trips. Who doesn’t love a good field trip? Why don’t teachers do this more often? Because AIU was so invested in the international experience, part of our tuition money went towards bus trips during which the school took you to various tourist locations in Akita prefecture. Unfortunately for us, these outings, which were usually numerous, had either been cancelled or squished down to a meager two trips. This was due to fear of the frequent aftershocks from the big earthquake. Still, each trip was filled to the brim with fun, and although they were much too short, I was grateful to be on them at all.

The first trip consisted of three parts. The first of those parts was a visit to a Shinto shrine near a staggeringly beautiful river fed by a roaring waterfall. This excursion was the first thing I had really “seen” in Japan, and it left me with a sublime feeling I have yet to encounter since. The day was starting out perfect, with the first sunny, blue sky since we had landed. When the bus pulled up, we were all let out and set free to roam and explore. Before us lay a stretch of grasses, leading up to a mostly obscured river between two wooded hills, crossed by a bright red suspension bridge. Although the landscape was touched here and there with splashes of bright green, over all the colors were muted browns and pine greens, for it was still early spring. Northern Japan, like Colorado, wakes from winter slowly. Most people headed for the most noticeable landmark, an island-like precipice rising from the bank, topped by a few trees and a shrine marker. Justin and I made our way to the main shrine, into the pine trees toward a trail that wound up the side of the hills.

As we crept through the torii, or the gate of the shrine, a feeling of blissful calm settled over us. Justin and I said little, content to soak in the warmth of the sunlight, and watch as the rays burst through the trees to dapple the ground. Many people went up to the shrine bell to ring it and perform the claps and prayers of Shinto tradition. I wanted to, but we hesitated. We were unsure of whether we should partake for the sake of the experience, or hold back because neither of us actually believed in the Shinto religion. Out of respect, we chose instead to wash our hands with the basin provided, admire the bell, but move on.

(The little basin where you wash your hands and rinse your mouth to purify yourself.)

(A signpost at the shrine).

The path along the hills was actually quite green. Below us, we could finally see the river clearly, and I was startled by its beautiful and rich blue color. At times deep cobalt, at others bright aquamarine, I wondered at the mineral in the water that must turn it such a perfect shade. Understandably, I took many pictures, and some of my best work was found on this walk.

(The beautiful blue of the water. I wonder what makes it so blue, and so milky.)

The path was just as beautiful as the water. Every bend seemed to offer up a new gem of natural beauty. At one turn there was a small cave surrounded by new spring leaves. Justin and I crossed the suspension bridge, delighting in the bounce it gave to our steps. On the other side, there was a natural bowl-like groove in the stone that had filled with water, and someone had put a ladle there for drinking. The water was cold and clean and pure in taste. A cacophony of rapids sang below us. New tree leaves hovered silently in the golden air like sprites. Little springs trickled down the sides, teasing at the great spectacle waiting for us at the end.

(The little cave along the pathway.)

(Turquoise rapids.)

(A little spring falling down the mountain side, bathed in a column of light.)

For the most part, we had meandered down the path at our leisure, but then suddenly people were running past us in the opposite direction. Finally, someone paused to inform us that it was time to go, but that there was an awesome waterfall up ahead. “If you run, you can make it.” Not caring for the odd looks from other visitors, we instantly broke into a run, praying we would find this waterfall before we were dragged back. We made it. Although we were out of breath, it was so worth it.

(Roar, baby, roar!)

The photo above does not communicate how big and grand the waterfall was. Its powerful waters broke against the rocks and threw a cool spray over its spectators. Surely this lord of water was the inspiration for the shrine. Its proud turbulence belied the peaceful ascent we had taken to reach it. Thoroughly pleased, we turned back to that tranquil path, before boarding the bus once again, ready for the next stretch of our trip.

It may seem strange that such an uneventful experience could be among my most favorite memories of Japan. After all, we didn’t really do much at this river. But the scene was so picturesque, the shrine was so peaceful, and the waterfall was so amazing, that it has come to embody the essential beauty of Japan in my heart. Although I do not practice Shinto, I can understand why one would find such a perfect place worth worshiping. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

My Host Family

Many people who study abroad, especially high school students, usually do so while staying with a host family. I've always been a little jealous of these people. It sounds so cool to go home every day to a family who is delighted to have you and your foreign-ness there. Plus you have people who are actively invested in your study abroad experience, as opposed to being entirely responsible for your own experience. As you know, I stayed in the dorms during my study abroad. Of course, I had my roommate, Mai, there to hang out with every night, but, being a student herself, she never felt really responsible for the experience I was having.

However, just because I stayed in the dorm does not mean I lacked a host family. In fact, AIU had a host-family system set up, where you signed up and they matched you with a family who had also signed up. I immediately put my name on the list, noting that I didn't mind if they only spoke Japanese. (My Japanese is pretty good.) This program was on a first come first serve basis, but I think because the earthquake had reduced the number of exchange students severely, everyone who signed up got matched up. Justin, being shy, did not sign up, but luckily my host family adopted him with open arms.

The experience of having a host family varied between students. I had one friend who did a lot of fun things with her host family, but she said it was awkward because she spoke no Japanese, and they spoke no English. Sadly, a few people were never even contacted by their host families. Fortunately, I could not have imagined a better host family for me and Justin.

Our host family consisted of an 8 year old girl, Miu, and her parents, whom we called “Miu-Mama” and “Miu-Papa.” On our first visit, merely a preliminary interview-style meeting, they eagerly asked us where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do. They spoke no English, and although my Japanese skills were meager at first, they were patient and easy to talk to, and over our subsequent visits my language abilities increased substantially. Justin and I first just wanted to get to know them, and so we proposed a meal together. It was determined that we should eat the local Akita specialty, a dish called kiritanpo, at their house.

Kiritanpo are rice dumplings made by pounding cooked rice until lightly mashed, and then molding it around a wooden skewer and cooking it over an open flame or grill. These can be served on their own, or are commonly added to a stew along with vegetables like cabbage and carrots, as well as chicken. This country meal is very popular and famous in Akita, and you can find prepackaged kiritanpo to send to your relatives at nearly every tourist attraction in the prefecture. Despite the fact that it was already quite warm in Japan, Miu-Mama happily agreed to make the dish. At my request, she even cut off the chicken skin that seems to plague all supermarket chicken in Japan.

(An assembled kiritanpo hot pot. The white tubes in the middle are the kiritanpo. This is a public use photo.)

On the day of our first real visit, our host family picked us up in the tiny parking lot at AIU. There they met my roommate, and I secretly relished in watching their very Japanese introductions, with all the bowing and the “hajimemashite” (nice to meet you) phrasing that I practiced for hours in first-semester Japanese class. Justin and I got into the backseat of the car with Miu, to discover they had brought along their adorable miniature poodle named Mocha (for his coffee coloring). To my delight, he instantly curled up on my lap.

Our host-family’s house was gorgeously clean and simply decorated. It was quite big for a Japanese house, but that was to be expected in a country-town like Akita. Miu showed us her room with childish enthusiasm, and then Miu-Mama brought out a plate with cheese and crackers, as well as a platter of expensive cookies. (Japanese people often buy pricey cookies and hors d’oeuvres for the sole purpose of hosting guests). Then, while the kiritanpo cooked, we played Wii bowling and Justin showed Miu a rhythm game on her Nintendo DS called Ouendan (which is very fun and highly recommended). Miu instantly became a wiz at it, and could barely tear herself away to eat.

Joining us to eat was a family friend who quickly became another member of our host family, the beautiful Nepalese Rashmin and her adorable, 2 year old, half-Japanese daughter, Koena. Rashmin was a welcome addition, not only because she was friendly, but also because she spoke English and could help me with phrases I didn’t know how to say in Japanese. Together, we sat down and chatted over our kiritanpo, which was warm and delicious. I loved the texture of the rice dumplings soaked in broth. Miu-Mama and Miu-Papa told us about their jobs, and Miu told us about school. Justin and I talked about AIU, traveling after the earthquake, and the United States. We all cooed over Koena, especially whenever she tried to do the hand-sign for peace, a beloved gesture in Japan and absolutely necessary in any photos. Koena knew to do it whenever a photo was taken, but she could only hold up her thump and first finger. Her utter confidence in the gesture made us giggle every time. The whole scene was simultaneously ordinary and exhilarating. I felt like I lived there, and the day seemed much too short when we finally were driven home, with promises to meet up again soon.
(Me, Justin, Miu, and little Koena. You can see her here trying to make a peace sign. <3 )

In various subsequent posts, you’ll read about more meet-ups I had with my host family. Each visit is a cherished memory, and I feel uncommon warmth whenever I think of them. I hope to stay in touch with them, though I have been quite terrible at it so far. Life gets in the way, but I really want to maintain our friendship. I know that they added richness and delight to my trip abroad, and I hope that Justin and I returned some of it. Japan can seem a very unwelcoming place to foreigners, especially in the countryside where many people have never seen a non-Asian face. However, Miu and her parents proved that there are some who will welcome new people and new cultures with smiles, and believe the exchange to be an act of both giving and receiving. I think that eager openness is at the heart of traveling, and what I think AIU strives to embody and promote. 
(All of us around the delicious kiritanpo. Miu-Mama is holding Koena.)

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Hina Matsuri

Hello, my long awaiting readers (though you may be few). After a terribly long absence, I am finally back, with a new blog post. First, I would like to apologize for the delay. I know that, personally, it drives me crazy when a favorite blogger or comic artist suddenly disappears and doesn’t post anything new for months or sometimes years. I never wanted to be that person, but in the end my personal life just became too overwhelming to maintain posts. Of course there was university, but there was also the stress of a new job, as well as my boyfriend’s hip surgery, which rendered him completely helpless for a long time. A few other incidental stresses worked together with these major ones to sap not only my motivation to write, but also, quite honestly, my happiness. Only recently have I overcome a bout of mild depression, and I am trying my best to keep up my spirits. I really think devoting myself again to this blog will help. Writing has always been a sweet escape from the stresses of daily life, but reminiscing about fun times abroad is also a nice reminder that I have a good life worth appreciating.

So without further ado, I would like to return you to the tales of my trip to Japan, to talk about one of my favorite Japanese cultural traits: matsuri, or festivals. Japan is really a country of festivals. There are so many, that it would be impossible to count. The most common kind of festival is the kind often seen in anime shows. These are local festivals that celebrate some deity or another, and usually include cordoned off streets filled with stalls selling everything from finger foods to masks and fans. There are also often carnival-style games, floats, and street performers. In a later post, I will describe my own experience with such a celebration.

 Some festivals are celebrated nation-wide, such as Obon, a festival for one’s ancestors, Tanabata, a wish-making festival, or kodomo no hi, a celebration of children. In some regions the dates and various traditions of these festivals vary, but they are all observed with at least a few similar customs. During Obon, family gets together to share in a feast and remember relatives, as well as visit family graves and place food before the stones, which are often pretty sculptures made of sugar. There is also usually a dance, which varies by region, to honor the dead. At the end, paper lanterns are floated down rivers to carry the spirits back to the realm of the dead. (

Tanabata is a festival which celebrates the meeting of two lover deities, Orihime and Hikoboshi, embodied in two constellations, which are, in the West, Vega and Altair, respectively ( These two lovers are only able to meet once a year because of the distance separating them in the sky. During this meeting, people write wishes to the gods on pieces of paper and then hang them from a strip of bamboo (

Kodomo no hi, or children’s day, is exactly what it sounds like: a day to celebrate children. The tradition is to raising carp-shaped flags called koi no bori, one for each child. The different colors and sizes designate age. Originally, this day was only for boys, and only the male children were celebrated, but it was changed in 1948 and was deemed to celebrate all children. However, the festival remains mostly geared towards boys (

Luckily, girls get their festival, as well. This festival, called hina matsuri, was the first festival I encountered in Japan. Hina matsuri translates into “doll festival.” The origins behind this festival stem from the belief that dolls contained real spirits, which could turn malignant if not respected ( To this day, many Japanese people carry the suspicion that dolls having feelings and must not be insulted.  However, the main purpose of the holiday is to display a specific set of dolls and admire their beauty. The dolls depict an emperor and empress, as well as their entourage, including ladies-in-waiting, guards, musicians, and even their luggage and pack animal. These dolls are set out in a specific order on a stepped platform covered in red cloth. A complete set is often very expensive, and is usually a family heirloom, passed on from mother to daughter. (If any of you have seen the original seasons of Pokemon, these dolls are the dolls that Misty and Jesse compete to win in a particular battle competition.)

AIU had a set of dolls displayed in a special tatami room. People were welcome to come and look at it, though at the time I was still new to the school and too timid to inspect the dolls closely. Fortunately, when I went to go look with a friend, some school officials and the lady who had generously lent AIU the dolls were preparing to pack them up (the festival was at an end). They invited me and my friend to help put them away, and allowed me to take a few pictures before they went back to sleep in their boxes.

I was most struck by the amazing attention to detail that went into the dolls. As you can see in the photos, the clothes are absolutely gorgeous, with tiny details that seem like whispers from a bygone age of craftsmanship. The tea-set is so detailed that the whisk for the matcha powder looks practically usable. I wasn’t sure what I expected the dolls to be made of (perhaps porcelain) but they were actually made of high quality plastic, which made them feel so light and delicate in my hands. The set even included two trees, as well as two cherry blossom-print lanterns which would turn on if plugged in. I felt so lucky to have the chance to handle the dolls and appreciate them up close, and I have since become determined to own a set myself someday. I will celebrate this beautiful matsuri with my future daughter.

(The Emperor in his regal kimono. I love the pattern on his kimono and also his hat.)

(The Empress with her delicately painted fan. This fan was only a bit bigger than a quarter, and yet not a line on that heron is misplaced.)

(One of the royal attendants. This one is in a sitting pose, cradling a small stand with two tea cups.)

(The royal tea set, complete with hot water in the center, a ladle on the right, and a tiny whisk on the left.)

I was delighted to have experienced this festival, as well as a few others, during my stay in Japan. If you are interested in catching a few festivals yourself, I recommend traveling to Japan during the summer months, when festival saturation is at its highest. It seems like you cannot go a single week without a local festival breaking out (often as local as individual neighborhoods), and many of the major, national ones occur in the summer, as well. Hina matsuri is in March, Kodomo no hi is in May, Tanabata is in July, and Obon is in August. Of course, there are many other festivals during every part of the year, but summertime is like one big celebration, when hard-working students and salary-men and women escape the pressures of responsibility to don a yukata and watch fireworks.