Last monthI was asked to write an article of the Miyazaki International Exchange Report. They ask local foreign residents to write about their experiences in Japan and share them with members of the International Association. I wrote a piece about seeing a Sumo tournament last year and thought it would be fun to share it here as well. I’ve included the Japanese translations (provided by Heyne Kim, a Coordinator for International Relations who works in Miyazaki) just for fun. Enjoy!
When you think about Japan, as a non-Japanese, there are a few things that likely come to mind. Sushi, kimono, Kinkaku-Ji, and of course, sumo. So when I arrived in Japan for the first time two years ago, I had big plans to make sure I experienced all of these things. I ate at a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant for my first meal in Miyakonojo. I took a trip to Kyoto and found that Kinkaku-Ji is way shinier than the pictures show, and I spent a weekend in Izumi, Kagoshima, where the organizers helped all participants try on (and keep!) our very own kimono. I did all of these, and more, but by the end of my first year I had still not seen a sumo match.
This wasn’t for lack of trying. Soon after I arrived in August I learned about the official tournament held yearly in Fukuoka. I quickly made plans with some friends to go over a long weekend. We booked the hotels, applied for time off from work, and waited for the tickets to go on sale. Despite our best efforts, by the time we went down to the combini to buy tickets, all of the reasonably-priced options were gone. Someone had bought up all of the tickets, and was reselling them at three times the normal price. We were all terribly disappointed, but we couldn’t afford the inflated price and so we changed our plans. I resolved to try again the next year, and I wrote the 2016 tournament dates on my calendar as a promise to myself.
The start of my second year in Japan marks the end of my first full Japanese summer. Summer is a fantastic time to be in Japan (despite the high temperatures and killer humidity) as it’s the height of festival season. Everywhere in Japan, from tiny towns to major cities, has its own festival, and if I had the energy I could spend every weekend watching fireworks and eating festival food. It’s a nice change from winter, which gets pretty quiet as everyone hides inside under their kotatsu.
Bonchi Matsuri 2016
Bonchi Matsuri 2015
Since I’ve only done this once, I’m no expert, but in my experience I’ve learned there are a few key aspects to having a great summer in Japan. Below I’ll walk you through my list of things to do for summer.
Taiyaki, one of my favorite festival foods. It’s a pastry shaped like a fish, usually filled with something sweet like custard or red bean paste
Lanterns at Okage Matsuri
Taiko Drum Performance
After dancing at Bonchi Matsuri
Procession at Okage Matsuri
A night scene at Okage Matsuri
First and foremost the above-mentioned festivals, known in Japanese as “matsuri.” They’re everywhere, and most of them follow the same format of performance, street food, fireworks. But with a bit of digging you can find some really interesting matsuri, since they often celebrate a specific event, product, holiday or crop. In Miyakonojo we kicked off the matsuri season with the Okage Matsuri – giant lanterns were lit and carried in procession, taiko performances were held at a local shrine, and it was generally just good fun. Lanterns are always a good bet for a pretty night out, and you can find lots of lantern festivals, going into fall as well. There’s also the Takanabe lantern festival in October, where local kids decorate paper lanterns, and if you show up early you can help light them. The highlight of the Takanabe festival is their “river of light,” with bamboo lanterns set up to look like a flowing river down the hill. It’s gorgeous.
Wear a Yukata
If you get a chance, wearing a yukata to a summer festival is a cool way to engage in the local culture. While there has been a lot of discussion in the US about cultural appropriation when it comes to clothing, while in Japan it’s a bit of a different story. My Japanese friends and colleagues were thrilled to hear I had an interest in kimono, and whole events are organized around dressing foreigners up. Of course, you should always be respectful and try to learn about the piece of culture you are participating in.
A beautifully mustachio’d group
Possibly not my best look, but a lot of fun
Our Japanese teacher brought some ridiculous “punishments” for a game, which included these drinking glasses
Spending time outdoors is a summer must, and with the Japanese heat it’s usually best done at night, preferably with a cool drink in hand. Beer gardens abound in Japan, and are usually set up as “nomihoudai” or all-you-can-drink. Make a reservation, and show up with your friends or coworkers prepared to have a good time. One of my favorite summer memories this year was of a night at a beer garden with my Japanese teacher and her other students (my friends and fellow ALTs). The beer garden was on the roof of a hotel, so we had a lovely view of the sunset over town. And our teacher was super prepared – she brought silly games and punishments for losing, such as silly straw glasses and fake mustaches. It was such a fun night!
Japan is all about the fireworks! All festivals will have at least a small fireworks display, and it’s perfectly legal to buy your own. On a few occasions I went out and lit fireworks with friends, and it was always a good time. Plus, it’s a great way to amaze most international friends – fireworks (even sparklers) are illegal in many parts of the world!
Out and about in Ajisai Koen (photo by Meagan)
More flowers! (Photo by Meagan)
See Some Nature
It’s summer, so you have to get outside! Japan, as always, is all about seasonal flowers, and so there are often gardens set up for viewing. Early summer is hydrangeas, and there’s a full hydrangea park in my area. Grab your camera and picnic gear and go enjoy some beautiful scenery.
Camping is also a great option. I haven’t done it yet, but I’m planning a camping trip for next month to tie in with a local fire festival. Last year the festival was rained out, so fingers crossed I get to see it this year!
The buried Torii gate on Sakurajima – these guys usually stand pretty tall, but after the volcano erupted, this one was buried almost to the top
Meeting up with a Pac Rim friend in Kagoshima
Out with some friends in Kushima
Sakurajima, Kagoshima’s most beloved active volcano
One final road trip with Mei and Eddy, who let me tag along on too many adventures to count
Take a Roadtrip
If you have access to a car, Japan is green and gorgeous in the summer, and a roadtrip is a great way to see the countryside. Seriously, Japan has so many vivid shades of green I’d never seen before, it is stunning.
Surfing lessons at Aoshima
Swimming at Sarugajo Gorge
Photo op after a nice swim
A summer classic just about everywhere. Japan being an island, you can usually get to the beach if that’s what you want, but my favorite swimming hole is Sarugajo Gorge, over in Kagoshima. It takes a bit of a hike to get to the swimming area, but the water is clear and the area is gorgeous. I’ve heard from several ALTs that this is their favorite place in all of Japan, and it’s easy to see why.
And that’s about it. With so many great options and only so many weekends, the hardest part of summer is finding the time to do everything. I’ve still got a few weeks left, and I intend to do my best to get out and do as much as I can before the weather turns cold again.
Hello again! Once again my post is waaaay behind schedule. I’ve had almost nothing to do at work for the past few weeks, but somehow I’ve found that it’s hardest to get work done when I have more free time. I also feel more tired and less enthusiastic about my job when there’s nothing to do, so I’m very excited for classes to start back up after exams! If you’re wondering why there’s a long break for me in the middle of spring, it’s because the Japanese school schedule is pretty different from what we use in America. The school year actually starts in April and ends in March, so my school has just started a new year, and we’re already at midterms. Actually, when I told them that my sister was graduating last week the other teachers were a bit surprised… It’s a very different system.
If you’ve ever watched Japanese TV or anime you might have noticed that there’s a particular event related to the start of a new school year, or graduation, and that’s sakura (cherry blossoms). Every year the sakura bloom in spring, and the whole country goes nuts. There’s a national sakura forecast to predict when they will bloom in each part of the country, a litany of sakura-themed/flavored items you can buy, and of course tons of “hanami” parties to go to. Hanami literally means “flower viewing,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. On weekends and in the evenings friends, family or coworkers gather in a park to sit under the sakura and eat a picnic or have a barbecue. Japan’s lack of open container/public drinking laws means alcohol is usually involved, and I’ve frequently heard the whole setup described as “getting drunk in a park season” by fellow foreigners. It’s all good fun.
A blooming tree outside of school
A few of the first blooms
Sakura on a gray day
Petals on the ground
At night the parks are often lit up specially for the sakura, and the atmosphere just can’t be beat. The only trick is, the sakura only bloom for a short time, a few days or a week. So everyone tries their best to get out and see them, which can lead to very crowded parks. But my friends took me to a local spot with far fewer people than the “famous” park farther away, and we managed to find a clear spot to enjoy the flowers in peace and eat my friend’s amazing homemade burritos. Not exactly traditional, but certainly delicious.
I brought my Vietnamese kicky game to a park, and we played with some local kids. It was good fun
Sunset over the sakura
Hanging out in a park
I spent almost every evening for a week hanging out in a park, and it was great. But the really fun thing about cherry blossoms is that they’re everywhere. Driving around town I noticed that all of the trees I’d previously thought might be dead were in fact sakura, and for that one week they were gorgeous. Sadly that is the downside of sakura – they’ve pretty much been bred so that they have an abundance of flowers and very few leaves, but everything falls after a week and the trees spend most of the year looking dead. But that’s also part of the Japanese aesthetic appeal. The idea of “aware” (pronounced phonetically, ah-wa-rae), translated sometimes as “fleeting beauty” is epitomized by sakura. It’s hard to describe exactly, but it sort of means that something is more beautiful because we know it’s temporary, and it is at its most beautiful as it disappears. In the case of sakura, this means the falling petals, which look a bit like snow if you catch a nice gust of wind. I remember studying this idea in my Japanese aesthetics course in college, but I feel like I understand it much better after having embraced the Japanese sakura fever.
A more local tradition that I was lucky enough to see this Sakura season was the Miyazaki Jingu Sakura Yabusame. Yabusame is a type of event that’s popular in my part of Kyushu. It’s essentially an archery demonstration on horseback. I’d been to one before in Kagoshima, where they trained a junior high student to race his horse down a track and shoot at three targets. The poor kid fell every time. But at the Miyazaki Yabusame nobody fell, and in fact there were probably about 10 archers of varying ages. They raced their horses down a track lined with cherry blossom trees, which in any other year would have been dropping petals as they raced down the track, but this year they were a bit sparse. Sadly I don’t think I’ll get another shot at this particular event, since it is usually held on a weekday, and this year the calendar just happened to line up so that it was on a Sunday. Seeing everyone in their Yabusame costumes was really cool, and of course the skill involved was amazing. I also loved the people watching.
But now the sakura have all fallen. The bright pink sakura flavored pepsi is gone from stores, the students are back in school, and people have stopped visiting the parks at night. I was told this year was a bit of a sad showing for sakura due to the strange weather we’ve had (an unusually mild winter), but I thought it was lovely. I’m so glad I’ll have another shot at it next year.
Hello everyone! I’m working on a blog update about my trip to Europe over the holidays, but it’s been a busy few weeks since returning. I’ve been planning my next few trips, the Miyazaki ALTs had our mid-year conference, and I’ve otherwise been cold an unmotivated. This past weekend I thought I’d finally get it together and do some writing, but was utterly distracted by SNOW!
Yes, that’s right. Snow. In Miyazaki. To give you an idea of how strange that was, here’s a picture of a palm tree with a nice dusting of snow:
I woke up and saw flurries, which was exciting, but had planned on staying in my moderately warm apartment until a friend invited me to go out and see the snow. My Australian and Arizonan friends were very excited. While the snowfall was not particularly impressive by St. Louis standards, it was downright amazing to them. We spent some time walking around a nearby (completely empty) park and taking photos.
Friends in the snow
We then met up with my friend Noriko for lunch and she said this was the only the second time in her life that she’s seen snow here in Miyakonojo, and the first was thirty years ago. What luck that I got to see it in my first year here!
After lunch Noriko suggested that we go to a temple in the mountains to see more snow, and we thought this sounded great. We made a very snowy (but not particularly icy or crowded) drive to Kanoya, about an hour away, where we stopped by the White Snake Temple. As the name implies, the temple houses a sacred white snake (there’s a Buddhist legend involving a snake) but of course the snake itself was hibernating, and we were much more interested in the scenery. I’ll have to come back in the summer to see the snake, and also the surrounding mountains when they’re green again.
Stone lanterns covered in icicles
Walking up to the temple
A brief break in the clouds
The temple was gorgeous, and Japan in the snow is amazing. Of course I’ve seen snow before, and way more than this, but the Japanese landscape is so different from that of St. Louis, or even Colorado, and it was pretty cool to see. I’ve definitely resolved that next year I want to se a bit of the Japanese “snow country” up north, where they get so much snow that they’ve installed heated roads.
The water for cleansing your hands was a bit cold that day
Torii in the snow
Walking into the temple
farms down below
Photo by Meagan
Red shrines are stunning in the snow
Two days later the snow here in Miyakonojo has completely melted, and temperatures are back on the rise. Since Japanese schools and homes don’t have the most efficient heating, that’s fine by me, but I’m really glad to have gotten one lovely day of snow. Now, time to get writing!
Summer and Autumn are the seasons for festivals in Japan, so I’ve been trying to attend as many as possible before the winter cold sets in. According to my friends who’ve been here for a while, once December hits there’s suddenly no events to be found, so it’s best to soak it all up now before it’s too late.
This past weekend I went out with a few friends for a day of cosmos viewing – cosmos being a type of flower.
We drove about an hour to the Ikoma Plateau, where a field had been planted with cosmos flowers. This is pretty common in Japan – seasonal plants are a major draw, and seasons in general are a big deal here. The best example of this is cherry blossoms, which mark the beginning of spring (or end of winter, depending on which part of Japan you’re in). People often go out and “hanami” or look at flowers, and maybe have a picnic or a drink under the trees. The same sort of goes for other seasonal plants, such as the sunflowers I saw a while back, and the momiji (Japanese maples) which will soon be changing colors, and thus drawing massive crowds.
For this particular event, a field was covered in cosmos of varying colors, and for a small fee you could walk through the fields and take photos or just enjoy the scenery. There was also a small stage where musicians played background music and a few tents with food and drinks.
There weren’t too many people, which was really nice, especially since my friends went there specifically to take photos.
After strolling through the fields we stopped by the food tents for a snack, then drove another hour to Kokubu, a beach town in neighboring Kagoshima prefecture. The draw for the evening was a festival advertising 6,000 fireworks, which we could watch from the beach.
One thing about Japan – people here love fireworks. I mean really love them. In the summer you can’t go anywhere on a weekend night and not find at least a few of them, usually as part of a festival. I’m not usually a big fan of fireworks, but this show in particular was pretty amazing. There were just so many of them! And on top of the fireworks, there were also lasers, and the whole show was set to music. The show went on for an hour and the finale lit the sky up with hundreds of gold sparkles. My standards for fireworks have just gone way up!
I’m so so sorry I’ve neglected my blog since arriving in Japan. It’s been a fantastically busy month, and every time I’ve sat down to write, something fun has popped up and I couldn’t say no. So, while I’d love to go into detail on all of my adventures thus far, I’ve decided to at least start with a quick summary and lots of photos!
Before I’d even left St. Louis, I signed up to dance with the Miyakonojo International Association at Bonchi Matsuri, the city’s largest summer festival. I showed up to city hall on Saturday afternoon and was promptly helped into a yukata (a summer kimono). The process was fascinating, and there’s no way I could have done it on my own.
Once we were all dressed it was time to learn the dance! For the festival, lots of different groups around town each learned a different dance to the same song, and we all performed together on the city streets. In what I would learn is typical matsuri fashion, the streets were lined with food stalls, offering all sorts of food on sticks, shaved ice, ice cream, and tons of other tasty treats. These proved to be very distracting during the actual dance, when after 20 minutes we all wanted to take off the tightly-bound yukatas and gorge on yakitori (chicken on a stick) and nikumaki onigiri (fried meat rice balls. These turned out to be delicious). But somehow we made it through the dance without messing up too badly, and were able to change back into our normal clothes for the rest of the night. If you want to see us dancing, click here for the video!
The evening wrapped up with a fireworks show, because Japan loves fireworks.
Fish on a stick! I decided against this particular festival food…
Another group dancing
Himawari Matsuri (Sunflower festival)
The following weekend I set out with some friends to check out the Takanabe Himawari Matsuri. The entire event was essentially a giant field (usually used for farming squash, I think) was covered in thousands (possibly millions) of sunflowers, and somewhere in the middle they set up observation decks and food stalls. That’s basically all it was, but it was pretty stunning to look at. We also quickly discovered that one of the stalls sold authentic Chinese food (the owners were from Taiwan) which was amazing. While I have yet to grow tired of Japanese food, my companions were entering into their 4th and 5th years in Japan, and were overjoyed.
Continuing the foreign food trend, we joined up with another group of festival-going JETs and stopped by a Thai restaurant in Miyazaki City on the way home. It was delicious, and it was nice to learn that Miyazaki has a decent selection of foreign foods, since I know come winter I’ll be missing certain foods.
While not quite as exciting as the previously mentioned festivals, the official orientation in Miyazaki City was a big part of my first month, and it gave me a chance to see a bit of the capital of Miyazaki. As with Tokyo Orientation it was three days of lectures and seminars, but this time much smaller, and with a bit more focus on what we will actually face here in Miyazaki. I enjoyed trying out local restaurants during lunch time and spent one night in the city with friends, which was a lot of fun. It was also my first time using trains in Japan, and the experience proved to be very easy and comfortable. Sadly, trains aren’t as convenient here on Kyushu as they are in other parts of Japan, but I’m sure I’ll use them at least a little in the coming year.
Kumamoto Day trip
The weekend following orientation I went to Kumamoto City with two friends who were meeting up with someone visiting from Tokyo. Kumamoto isn’t too far away, and turned out to be a much bigger city than Miyakonojo. We went to a temple with 500 Buddhas, which was apparently known as the location where a famous book was written. We didn’t really know much about that, but it was pretty.
Then it was on to Kumamoto Castle. It was hot and muggy and there were tons of people around, so we decided against going into the actual castle and instead went to the nearby shrine. Turns out that’s the best place to get photos of the castle anyway, and far less crowded.
We wrapped up the evening by walking around the city center, and I had my first experience with “purikura” photo booths. I gotta say, I think these things are kinda scary. The idea is that they take photos and automatically make them glamour shots by whitening your skin, enlarging and brightening your eyes, and generally making you look like an alien. But it was a lot of fun, and I’m sure it won’t be my last time.
Day Trip to Aya
For the last weekend of the month I had planned on going to the Cape Toi Fire Festival, but sadly the event was rained out. Instead a group of friends took the day to drive up to Aya, a mountain town nearby. It’s famous for a massive suspension bridge between two mountains, and a castle.
Selfie on a bridge
Check out that bridge!
I made it across the bridge! (photo by Meagan)
Scary owl leading the way to a museum. We decided not to visit…
Clouds over the parking lot
First up we visited the bridge, and it was amazing to look at. I’m proud to say I walked all the way across and back, and rewarded myself for the feat with mango soft serve on the way out. One thing I’ve recently discovered is that Japan has pretty fantastic soft serve ice cream, and I foresee this becoming a bit of a problem…
After the bridge we went to Aya Castle, which had a small museum inside and offered a nice view of the town from the top.
We ended the day with burgers back in Miyakonojo, at this adorable diner. The owner is apparently obsessed with American diner culture, and makes a mean burger. I’ll definitely be back!
That’s about what I did for my first month in Japan. I’ll write more about where I live, what it’s like getting around, and what the food is like in a later post. A quick word about my school though, because I have been asked about this recently. Student privacy is taken very seriously in Japan, and as such I will not be posting photos of my students, school, or anything else that could be viewed as an invasion of privacy by the school. Toto, we’re not in Vietnam anymore.