Teaching In Socks

Light-up situation
December 2, 2009, 5:45 pm
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Two weeks ago I went to (and this verbatim from the ticket stub) “Scarlett Maples Leaves At Night in Eikando Zenrin-Ji” in Kyoto. Eikando Zenrin-Ji temple is famous for its brilliant fall foliage (and a buddha statue with it’s head turned round like an owl).  Apparently, a few years ago someone at the temple got wise to the fact that the Japanese love technology + everything and realized it would be a great idea to charge people 600 JPY to see the autumn foliage lit up at night. I, on the other hand ,was intelligent enough to pick a holiday weekend in right at the height of tree-viewing season (if such a things exists–which it does) to pay 600 JPY to see trees at night, because I also wanted to wait in line outside the temple beforehand.

I also had the great misfortune of going on a cold and rainy night–which only makes the line-waiting better. Inside, the leaves and lighting dynamics were stunning. I was worth the prcie of admission. However, it was hard to appreciate them while dodging umbrellas. For all the emphasis the Japanese place on respect and social protocol, when a large group of people are gathered in a small public space it might as well be a Metallica concert. Elbows are thrown, common decency is tossed out the window.

Also, my height–compared to that of the average Japanese person–doesn’t bode well for me when umbrellas are involved. It somehow always works out that the rusty brim of the $1 umbrella (so that’s unregulated Chinese rust) that the guy in front of me is holding  is sits right at eye-level.  It’s at times like these that I am thankful that I wear glasses but curious about when my last tetanus shot was. The rule of thumb on tetanus shots of course is: if you have to be curious, it’s been too long.

Still, in retrospect, fun and danger go hand in hand.  While I probably appreciated it less at the time, there really is something to leaves in Kyoto. I’m by no means and expert on the quality of autumn foliage, but the mountain air seems to enhance the saturation of the color in the leaves–or it could just be the lighting.

injury free, master of this domain

Animal rescue
October 19, 2009, 1:52 pm
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The Shi Shi; In better circumstances for dancing

The Shi Shi; In better circumstances for dancing

The Shi Shi–a mythical snarling lion–bobbed its head up and down in a series of fluent movements. Occasionally, it would stop and erratically shake its mane, shedding white strips on the floor. The men surrounding it shouted “yanyoi!”(give up?).   Suddenly, in a quick direct movement is thrust its head up, inches from me.  After a momentary pause, it tried to drop its head back towards the ground, but stopped abruptly midway down. The Shi Shi was caught on something. With the light above me shaking, I noticed the pull-chain from the overhead lamp was protruding from the lion’s mouth. The two men operating the suit attempted to shake free. I wanted to yell “stop” but in the panic I had forgotten how. Instead, I thrust my hand into the beast’s mouth yelling “matte, matte!” (wait, wait). It was quite tangled; however, with some clever maneuvering we were able to free the costume and avert electrocuting any mythical creatures for the evening.

Seconds from near tragedy. Don't try this at Home kids.

Seconds from near tragedy. Don't try this at Home kids.

In some sense,  every season is festival season in Japan. Autumn can make its claim to the title as shrines across Japan hold festivals to celebrate the rice harvest. This happens nearly every weekend–and sometimes weekdays–throughout October, as the celebrations are for each shrine or neighborhood and are staggered throughout the month. As they are for different shrines, each festival has it’s own unique imprint on traditions costume and dress, and the festivals depending on where they are located and the size of the shrine can be local affairs or events with national recognition. Last weekend I had the pleasure of  attending my girlfriend’s neighborhood’s festival, which was a small, intimate but extremely lively affair.

In the morning the portable shrine, called a Mikoshi, is carried out of the shrine in a parade like manner with many locals carrying the shrine or playing the role of a fabled character related ot the shrine. The Mikoshi can vary in size and number– some being about the same size as a typical litter (not the cat type) while other can be large, multi-story tall structures that have to be pushed on carts.  The Mikoshi–which houses the temple god– is then taken to a sacred spot in town. Presumably, this is like a day trip vacation for the temple god. Everyone gathers for the day and depending on the shrine, there are usually some sacraments performed involving children and then at night a bigger parade forms when the shrine is taken back to the temple.

At the particular festival I attended, the night parade involved traditional dances by men dressed as both the aforementioned Shi Shi–which is the rather iconic looking lion figure as well Tengu–a half-bird, half-human demon (although not necessarily evil). Both of these creatures are major characters in Japanese folklore– from what I have read, the Tengu was traditionally a conniving villan of sorts until about two centuries ago when it started appearing as an aid to monks or travelers in certain stories.   Either way, I wasn’t able to discern what their roles where in this particular story, nor their affiliation to the shrine, but I did like their moves.

With the roadside fires lit, I knew they would be dancing through the street on their way back to the shrine–a route which passed just in front of my girlfriend’s house. What I did not know was that they would be doing a dinner performance as well. I heard them in the distance  as we ate, I was a little surprised to suddenly find myself dodging the jaws of the Shi Shi–and then ultimately rescuing from the danger of modern life.

Apparently, it is local custom for children of one year of age to place their hand in the Shi Shi’s mouth to receive good luck. I’m about 25 years too late for that(although I may act that age at times), but as I am one year Japanese I’m hoping I deceive the gods into the same result.

Trick or Treat. Tengu and Shi Shi

Trick or Treat. Tengu and Shi Shi

a Christmas Torii
December 4, 2008, 2:37 pm
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torii, torii, torii

torii, torii, torii

I spent the last weekend in Kyoto, praying to various pagan deities, taking in the charismatic tail end of Autumn’s arbor-explosion and finishing my Christmas shopping. One of the dieties must have been listening, because the weather was phenomenal–a little cool, and optimum for putting your hands in your pockets and scowling like young Bob Dylan, and my present hunting was consistently fortuitous.

Unlike my last tiem in Kytot, this trip had a more eccentric feel to it. Upon arrival I immediately took a train to the  the Fushimi Inari shrine, two stops on the local line from Kyoto Station.

I have wanted ot go to this shrine for a while. It’s a small, but relatively famous shrine known for having a substantial number of Torii–the large orange gates you often seen at shrines, that line hiking trails inot the mountains. Churches and Cathedrals are nice, but this layout seems a but more elegant and impressive to me. Also, the cornucopia and ferquency of these Torii makes the whole “Gates” project in Central Park a few years ago look rather amateur.The God Inari uses foxes as his messengers, so there were also a lot of badass Fox statues which really any modern installation art project, let alone the Gates, could use more of.

As I entered the shrine, young British girl in front of me undertook the task of counting all of the torii as she passed them.  I walked patiently behind her until she got to “67” then I squeezed my way past her family to move ahead the trail at a more reasonable pace.  After I stopped a particular shrine for a while, I started back on the trail to find myself behind this girl and her fmaily yet again. I was greeted by the sound of her choice, “ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one thousand one hundred”. I forgot how ignorantly perservering young children are. As I attempted to move past this entrourage a second time an American father with his son passed the family in the oppostie direction and coyly mentioned, “you know I think there’s some more ahead for her to count. The British parents ignored him. I guess it was hard to have a sense of humor when there was still another six or seven kilometers of torii to be counted.

Fox gods at work in Arashiyama

Fox gods at work in Arashiyama

I also took my first ride on the Shinkansen (bullet train) on the way home. From Ako to Kyoto it’s a bit of an extravagance: twice the price, but only thirty minutes quicker. Therefore, I coneventiantly rationalized the extra cost on the basis that I didn’t want to see my friends and family over the break and not be able to brag about riding a bullet train (yes, I’m that petty)  and I also didn’t want to ruin a good trip fighting for a seat amongst the plebes. On my last trip to Kyoto, I had to stand for a large portion of the ride home, and the woman in the seat next to me decided to eat something that smelled absolutely rancid in the middle of a crowded train. The Shinkansen seperates the wheat form the chaf, and assigns seats, because you can’t be standing when traveling at bullet-like speeds, that’s juts madness. While not riding on the fastest line of Bullet trains, the ride was as smooth as butter we were home within two episodes of Fawlty Towers.

The only let down is that finishing my Christmas shopping in record time is not as a great a relief as I imagined it would be. Instead of feeling a weight off my shoulders, I’m just imagining that I haven’t bought enough or have forgotten something. This in spite of the fact that I went crazy this year and made a bleeping excel spreadsheet this year to sort it out. I might as well do a TPS report for Santa while I’m at it. Oh well, getting all this on a plane should be a good story.