Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Kyoto for Obon

Wow I'm so impressed by how streamlined blogspot/blogger has become with Picasa web albums! This makes uploading photos a BILLION times easier than before. Plus, I can resize images in big batches with Picasa. Look forward to many, many picture-heavy updates to come!

So more than 2 months ago, from the 14th to the 17th of August, I traveled to Kyoto to spend time with my host parents for the Obon weekend. You can read more about Obon HERE, but in short, it is a very important time of year when the Japanese honor the spirits of their departed ancestors, who are believed to return to earth to spend time with their families for these three days or so. The Japanese sweep their family graves, eat certain foods, and in Kyoto, when Obon comes to an end, they send their ancestors spirits back to wherever with 送り火 (okuribi), "send-off fires." There are five mountains in Kyoto with huge Chinese characters gouged into their sides, which are ignited for the last night of Obon. Since I studied abroad in Kyoto from September 2007 to July of 2008, the only month I didn't get to spend in Kyoto was August. Now, August is the single most miserable time of year to be in Kyoto (it's a basin, so the heat and humidity set in and just STAY), but I wanted to see the okuribi, as well as spend some quality time with my host parents (since I somewhat unfilially spent more time with friends when I was in Kyoto in late March).
Of course, the first thing that happened when I got to my host fam's house was, they fed me. This is yuzu-flavored tofu. If you don't know what yuzu is by now, I might not be able to speak to you anymore. A dash of soy sauce on top and it's like eating a creamy dessert! 
Host fam's garden, lush and well-tended as ever. Host dad's three gigantic healthy basil plants were not to be believed (I killed my own single plant much earlier in the summer). 
 Summer in Japan means cold somen noodles.
 Dipping sauce, chopped green onion, ginger, seaweed, wasabi, YUM.
 That afternoon I sat at the Sanjo-ohashi Starbucks overlooking the Kamogawa. One of my favorite locations to people and city watch. Perfect day to sit in the shade with a cold matcha latte!
 That there is Daimonjiyama (大文字山 it literally means "Big Character Mountain"), with the character 大 meaning "big" etched in the side. The next day, they set this puppy ablaze!
Any knitters out there might be familiar with Habu textiles, which creates funky yarn (like silk-wrapped steel wire). In Japan, the company that produces these very Habu yarns has stores called Avril, and it is a Kyoto-based company. This is the Sanjo store, which had relocated to a bigger loft room in the same building as its previous incarnation. Needless to say, knitter's paradise.
My dream is to work for this company and be eternally happy living a life of Japan/yarn.
During Obon, you are supposed to make at least one visit to your family's grave. Since my host mum is from Shimonoseki (quite close to Fukuoka, in fact), her real family grave is way in western Japan. So she, like zillions of other Japanese families, has a sort of satellite grave/shrine where she can go pay respect to her ancestors while in Kyoto. Since there is no room for anything in Japan, these satellite grave/shrines are lined up very efficiently in looong hallways, over several floors. The temple facility we went to is probably one of the biggest in Kyoto.
This looks like a serious picture, but is actually HILARIOUS. Because right before my host mom switched off the electric light and closed the shrine doors, I asked if I could take a picture of the shrine to show my western friends/family. I think she thought, could I take a picture of people doing Obon-type stuff at their family shrine, so without saying anything she and host dad immediately turned and posed in solemn prayer. I nearly laughed out loud, but they were happy for me to be able to share this part of their culture, so I guess they wanted to do it right ^_^
 After shopping at the fancy-pants Takashimaya department store, host mum and I took a stroll through Gion, best known as one of Kyoto's geisha districts.
 The traditional Kyoto architecture is quite well preserved or restored, and many of these buildings (former tea-houses, private residences, etc.) now house very expensive restaurants, cafes, and Kyoto craft stores.
I wanted to go to Kenninji, Kyoto's oldest Zen Buddhism temple, in the heart of Gion as a) I had never been and b) I knew it had some famous historical art that I've seen a zillion times in textbooks, but never in person. This folding screen, showing Fuujin and Raijin, gods of wind and thunder, is quite iconic throughout Japan. I got to sit and contemplate it from mere feet away! 
 The gardens at Kenninji were beautiful, as to be expected.
It was so... Zen. 
The main worship halls of most Zen temples (at least all the ones I've been to in Kyoto, like Tofukuji and Tenryuji) have dragons painted on their ceilings. Here is the info from the Kenninji website about this painting: "This painting commemorates the 800-year anniversary of Kenninji's founding, and a ceremony to mark its installation was given in April of 2002. It measures 11.4m by 15.7m (the size of 108 tatami mats) and is drawn with the finest quality ink on thick traditional Japanese paper. It was created in the gymnasium of an elementary school in Hokkaido and took the artist just under two years to complete."
 Pretty badass twin dragons.
 You just can't compete with Kyoto, man.
Contemplate, you must. 
I've always wondered whose job it is to get up every morning and sweep the rock garden into impeccable order. 
 The inner garden was so perfectly verdant. The trees were planted so that no matter what angle you observe the garden, it is always a beautiful view.
These three stones represent the Buddha and the two monks always flanking him. 
 Five minutes before closing time.
Stairs up to a fancy Kyoto cuisine restaurant. 
View of Yasaka Padoga from Higashioji-dori. This is the magic of Kyoto. 
This flower, crepe myrtle, is known as sarusuberi in Japanese. I will never forget how the shocking pink of these flowers was blooming all over the city when I first arrived in Kyoto in September of 2007. Very dear to my heart. Seeing these, I felt like my Kyoto experience had really come full circle.
 We were camped out on the side of a hill where the Kamogawa branches off into two rivers. The masses just kept emerging from the train station. Not the best place to watch the okuribi.
 At first I couldn't see it very well.
Could see it a bit better when I stood up (everyone had at that point). 
You really had to be there. 
 I mean, they lit the side of the mountain on FIRE.
And it formed a beautiful Chinese character! 
We could see much better the farther away we got. It was photographic madness. 
 I was actually quite overwhelmed by it. I saw this mountain every day biking to class at Kyoto University.
 Love you, Daimonjiyama.
I had to get IN The river to take this picture. Good thing the Kamogawa is never more than a trickle. This was the only other character we could see from where we were (there are five, remember), and it is the ho of myoho (妙法) meaning "wonderful law," aka the Dharma in Buddhism. 
Host parents lounging adorably on the riverbank while I got my fill of photo-taking. 
The fires only burned for about 10-15 minutes each. Maybe someday I will buy one of the overpriced hotel packages that includes dinner and a viewing spot from which you can see all five fires. It was pretty exciting to see them in person, though the crush of the mob was nuts.
The next morning, it was onto the bullet train and back to Fukuoka. Ave atque vale, Kyoto my most beloved! 
Himeji Castle getting a face-lift.  
Hey, Japan is kind of pretty. 
Beautiful summer day in the countryside. 
 Nice air-conditioned train.
Pulling into Hiroshima. 
Quite a lovely hilly city. 
Haven't spent enough time there. 
Must go back someday and explore beyond the bomb dome and peace park. 
 Crossed over from Honshu to Kyushu. Here we are in Kitakyushu.
Host mum's older sister from Tokyo gives super fancy gifts to all her family members. Host mum said she doesn't use perfume, and that she thought I would be the perfect person to appreciate this brand spanking new bottle of Coco Mademoiselle. Oh host mum, you have no idea!!


Bluezy said...

I had to comment because of my childish sense of humor...I am jealous that you can say you went to Fukuoka. All my rednek friends would think that was a trailer park nickname or something.

You have a good looking blog and your pics are clear. I loved your food pics they made me want to have some. I will have to go to the oriental section and hope to find yuzu and somen. Cold hmm?
Domo arigato I found this in a google blog search.

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