I'm living in Kusatsu-shi, Shiga-ken for an undetermined amount of time and teaching English as a second language at a local high school. This journal is to document my experiences, thoughts, and to stay connected with others at home and abroad.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Shiga Pottery

Over the years I've been building up a small collection of pottery. For me it's a pretty recent development; I was never really into ceramics much back at home. Katie's expertise (she focused on ceramics at UGA's School of Art during her undergrad years) has really rubbed off on me, and she's shown me different aspects of pottery making––glazing, clay selection––that I've come to really appreciate.

Speckled egg holder? This is supposed to be for tea ceremony, for mixing/stirring the matcha tea until it frothens (becomes frothy?). I use it for mixing eggs, eating soup, but seems close enough...

My first piece of pottery. A gift from Katie, my pottery muse, and the beginning of a more profound appreciation for the artwork that went into it.

On top of this, Shiga is home of one of the major six pottery towns of medieval Japan: Shigaraki.
Japan's Rokkoyo (in English)
Shigaraki Guide (in English or Japanese)

These sites have some more info about Shigaraki's history and importance in Japanese culture. One of the most significance that I find interesting is how influential pottery has been on Ikebana (Flower Arrangement) and Sado (Tea Ceremony).

A tea pot, unfortunately I didn't buy this directly from the maker, but from a tea shop in the neighborhood where I used to live.
Because the vessels that held flowers and tea in these arts were intrical to the atmosphere a host desired to create, which pieces should be used in a given ceremony was the subject of deep contemplation. Often the subject of conversation during a tea ceremony revolved around the character of the dishes guests used.

Just picked these up from a man who works out of Omi-Maiko (Otsu, Shiga--on the other side of the lake from me). I'm pretty sure he said he gets his clay from Shigaraki though.
Ideas of wabi (austere beauty representing Zen-like solitude) or sabi (elegent simplicity, often refferred to in something that evokes the feeling of passing one's prime into gentle decline, like a waning moon or an untended garden). Artists often attempted to replicate these emotions through their pottery. (If you want to know more about the wabi-sabi relationship...)

Japanese cooking knives are also impressive--these are all hand-cut. Katie originially convinced me that we should buy the top one in Tokyo at the Tsukiji Fish Market. While I didn't think it was worth the $70 at the time, I can humbly say I was wrong. I just bought the bottom three at a flea market in Kyoto last week.
Here I want to take a minute to show some of the pieces in my collection that I'm proud of. Also, I really enjoy looking over and pondering over, talking with the artists who create, and understanding the process by which the pottery I come across in Kyoto and Shiga is made, so if anyone sees anything they like and would be interested in purchasing for their own collection, please email me and I can hopefully help find you something here to ship back home.
A gift from a local restaurant owner. I was talking to him about Shigarakiyaki (Shigaraki pottery) and commenting on the Shigaraki dishes he used to serve food at the restaurant--he gave me these tanuki cups.
As you can see, there is a wide range of possibility, although I do prefer to work exclusively with potters who hand-craft all of their pieces without the assistance of a mold or replicatory pattern. My favorite cups and bowls are actually those with marked distinctions or imperfections, perhaps a blast of red or black, a "schorch" I suppose, due to the filtering of air into the kiln as it's burning.
My most recent addition. This picture is an injustice to the piece's stunning colors and sabi-esque cracks--if you can look closely, it appears as if during a coat of glaze the creator touched up the mug with a cloth or screen to make it appear shattered. Asymmetry is a key distinction I look for in some of my favorites. You can see the finger grooves at the base and handle as well.

One of my favorite finds: a donburi-wan (fairly large bowl for Japanese rice dishes). I found it in Shigaraki last summer, struck by the shape, solidarity, and spots of iron that was naturally mixed in with the clay and baked into it--nutritional, I wonder?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Bridges of the Kusatsugawa are conspiring something nasty

"Improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius." --Bob Blake

In homage to the great Bill Blake, I have produced a photo-documentary of the Kusatsu River's bridges, of which I wrote a recent song--the title of this report: The bridges of the Kusatsugawa are conspiring something nasty.
My reason for choosing such an ominous title is easy...there are about 25 bridges without 2 sq km of my old apartment in Kusatsu, Shiga, Japan. 25 bridges--about 10 of which carried regular traffic. Let me now remind you of the earlier quote by mister Will Blake, and continue it for you:

"Improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius. Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires. Where Man is not, Nature is barren. Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believed."
(Proverbs of Hell--William Blake)

Let me show you the effect of 25 bridges, and see if you understand the truth: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." (Dr. Samuel Johnson, author of the first dictionary, Dictionary of the English Language)

So far I've compiled profiles of just 18, all of the bridges from Lake Biwa to my apartment--mind you I haven't gone in the other direction yet. If you think this is bad, don't forget, these are only the bridges on the Kusatsu-gawa. This grievance doesn't include all of the obscure ones (though they are just as significant in their impact on the surrounding land).

Needless to say, thank god I don't live in this hellhole anymore. Thankfully in my current town (Misono in Ritto City), greenery outweighs concrete.

The freshest face of the Kusatsu-gawa brigade.

How many do you see in this photo??? Some are occluded, but I promise there are 4 bridges hiding here malignantly.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Rice Cutting 稲刈

Just last weekend I had the pleasure of joining in on the rice harvest in my neighborhood. Sad to say it's my third year and yet this is my first time cutting rice, but compared to most Japanese people I'm doing pretty well. I met many Japanese people in their 20s, 30s, even 40s, who were also chaffing their "rice-cutting" virginity. I'm so fortunate to have met so many fellow first-timers; I was worried I would reveal my novicery through some kind of embarrassing act.

Luckily, a couple of the other newbies helped me out with this. One woman mistakenly let go of a rice bundle while she was doing the 脱穀(separating the grain from the chaff). Because the purpose of our experience was to reenact rice-harvesting of the olden-days (oh how our grandparents toiled), we used retro a retro machine from the 1950s to chaff the rice.

I have to say I was a bit worried after seeing the woman before me cog the wheel by accidentally letting go of her rice bundle. But, luckily, I succeeded in keeping a strong hand.

Junko Nagata
I also made some new friends who live in the area, and who share an interest in sustainable living. Making this move to a more remote area has had an incredibly positive impact in my daily life. I now live about 10km from my schools, but the daily ride gives me just about all the aerobic exercise I need, and everyday I meet and talk with a new neighbor/farmer (usually in their 70s--there are few non-retired farmers here) in the area who is more than happy to teach me about what he/she's doing, or just chat about the coming typhoon.

Here's an anecdote to better relate what I mean:
Just the other day I bumped into a woman I had met many times before through the Kusatsu International Friendship Association (KIFA). I was on my way home, and somewhat in a hurry to get home before the rain, casually greeted her in Japanese (as I'm accustomed to greeting my neighbors). She paused, somewhat dumbfounded for a noticeable amount of time, before proceeding to respond in English, only in English, despite the fact that I had greeted her in Japanese. This felt alienating for a number of reasons--if someone begins a conversation in one language, especially if they show confidence in that language, doesn't it seem natural (or at least polite) that the other person would respond in the same language?? I call these people who insist on treating foreigners as outsiders, and do not want to speak Japanese to foreigners Eikaiwa-pimps (english conversation pimps).

"Ace"=he and his wife have literally tavelled the world, but the ironic thing is, even though I learned later on that they understand and spoke English fluently, they never one hinted or assumed that they understood English. Anyone living in Japan know that this is probably one of the most gracious acts a bilingual Japanese person can extend to a foreigner, because it expresses the idea that getting to know a person is more important that the language it's done in, and it accepts the "gaijin=foreigner" and respects them as someone who is competent at speaking Japanese, instead of pitying and patronizing them as someone who is constantly in need of help.
This summarized how I felt in Kusatsu--like an outsider (the literal meaning for foreigner in Japanese). As short of a time as it's been since I've moved to the boonies, I've felt more embraced and accepted in just a few weeks that I have in 2 years in Kusatsu. I know Katie would agree with me, as I heard her say many similar things about this area in Misono (my current home) as she said many times before when she lived here.

I guess the intriguing aspect is--why do Japanese people in cities choose to (or believe they should) treat foreigners as "other worldly". Are we not all humans? Do I not deserve the chance to prove that I can communicate in Japan as an active and willing member, in language as well as member of society, without constantly being treated as an "other"?

中井さん:Mrs. Nakai. She sells great homemade bread every Saturday at the morning market down the street from my apartment. Katie introduced me months ago, and I try to go now every week if I'm in town, not only because I can by organic, loca vegetables cheap, but because I can see and talk with Nakai-san.
The main thing that should be considered and questioned here, is the breakdown of communication and humanity as cities, communities, societies grow in size. In Misono--a town of a few hundred--I can treated practically as an equal. In Kusatsu, where people's mode's of daily life are much more, to say it lightly, selfish, and driven by capital and productivitiy, the end result is personal gain. The mode of communication demeans the person and glorified the hollow fear that perpetuates differences based on appearance, value based on easily-manipulated shadows.

I know for many people it just intrinsically feels better to meet and make friends with someone who genuity reciprocates one's one earnestness for kindness and compassion. Why don't we caring few make a stand against soullessness as portrayed in mundane, suicide-inducive society and band together to make this world better for ourselves, if not eventually for everyone who catches on to the trend?

The BEE Event

Left to right: Ryan (Maibara ALT--he hosted the male riders on Sept 10th; Fun--a Chinese exchange student from Hiroshima, currently riding with BEE; Colin--former Jet from Fukui, native Scotsman; Kyle--Hikone Jet and fellow AJET leader; Amiena--another former Fukui JET and BEE rider, American I believe; Katie P--Hikone JET ALT and host of the lady BEEs.

As I've been promising for months, the long awaited BEE Japan Team came to Hikone, Shiga as a stop on their ride across the country. We welcomed them in proper BEE fashion--vegetarian meals (non-veggie meals for non-veggie guests), an all-local and I believe organic dinner. Several environmentally conscious people from the Hikone community came out to show their support, one woman even has a son who travels the world spreading the idea of sustainable living as he goes. He's traveled to India, the Middle East, and many other places, learning and teaching about how to harmonize one's life with nature and society--as he is also an advocate of world peace. (Once I remember his name I will surely add it here.)

Many JET ALTs also attended the event, which I believe was successful because it showed us how important it is to think about ourselves as contributors to a natural system, rather than top-honcho's at the end of the food chain. If the human race is going to survive, we must begin live daily with humility, and remember that our actions significantly contribute the earth and each other.

All in all, we raised a little money for the group's final donation (to an environmental NPO TBA), and gave them a safe, warm hearth for the eve to rest their weary bones. I hope next year when I'm riding I can find such welcomes places as this. Hopefully with the relationships I'm making now with people like Nakamura-san at Moku (the restaurant where we had this event), this kind of thing will be possible in the future as well. It's amazing how much so a small group of aspiring individuals can accomplish!

Enough preaching, on with the photos:
Mike and I played a few tunes for the group, hopefully a little encouragement on the jouney.

They either really enjoyed it, our it bored them to death. I'll let you be the judge (mind you, they'd been riding for 5 weeks, ~100km/day by this point!!)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Nebuta Matsuri and other Tokoku Adventures: ねぶた祭と東北巡り

For Katie's and my last around Japan together before she returned home to Athens, we took a ferry ride up to the Northern Honshu region. It was both of our first times to the area, so we had an action-packed week of trains, festivals, trains, onsen (hot springs), and yes, trains. Thanks to the Seishun 18-kippu (青春18切符 a 5-day, all-you-can-ride pass)we could take the trains all the way home from Aomori for only about $100 (usually it would cost between $250~500, depending on the type of train).

August 5th: We arrived on a ferry at 6am, and after some coffee and breakfast, we immediately started out on the trains. We went up and around the western coast of Akita and Aomori, to the Shirakami National Forest.
Few people realize that most of Japan's native forests remain, as most were stripped for lumber during the industrializing transition, probably because it's a subject people would rather avoid. (On a similar note, basically has no native, "primeval" forests left.) Japanese native flora include a vibrant mixture of beech, birch, bamboo, some cedar, pine, Japanese maple (momiji)--of course, now most people would only notice the predominant sugi (cedar). The replacement of a lush balance of plant life with a lumber-industry-driven monoculture has lead to a severe increase in hay fever (花粉症=kafunsho) among the population.
But Shirakami is still a natural sanctuary, as beautiful as fellow UNESCO World Heritage site Yakushima Island, where Katie, Mike, Efrem, and I went back at the first of May. In Shirakami we saw some of the most pristine forests and ponds, such as Blue Pond (青池)below.

Somewhere around 7pm, after arriving about 200 kilometers away in Akita at 6am that morning, we finally arrived at our destination, Kawayo "Green" Farm, about an hour outside of Aomori.
I'd like to stay again another time when I can explore more of what the farm and ranch have to offer, but we were pretty busy sightseeing, and didn't get a chance to look around much. Maybe another time...

August 6th:
We got up early to head up to Osore-zan (Mt. Osore, on of the most sacred places in Japan) up on the 下北半島, the Shimokita Peninsula, the apex of Honshu (the main island). Here are some photos form Osore-zan.

High up in what appears to be a previously active volcano, now the valley surrounding Osore-zan seems barren and resembling Pergatory. For that reason, the land surrounding is believed to be where all souls journey upon leaving the mortal world. A sulfurous lake belies the valley, next to Osore-zan and the Osore temple--a free onsen (hot spring), right?

Actually, this lake, Lake Usouri (I think that's how you say it =宇曽利湖), is sacred due to it being the gate to hell. Though not intended as an act of blatant blasphemy, Katie and I went
swimming in the Lake Usouri. Just look at how crystal it was!!

Can you really blame us? Besides, is anything so sacred that it cannot be enjoyed by a pure heart? I'm sure the spirits could see that our intention was pure, just to enjoy the marvelous scene surrounding us.

For the main event, we went into Aomori City for Nebuta Matsuri, the whole reason we decided to take this trip in the first place. I'll let the pictures do most of the talking, but a few details: all 24 floats were displayed the night we went. Also, people who rent (or make their own costumes) are allowed to join in the dancing and whatnot as they please. People without costumes are kept off the streets, where the floats are being carried around. Basically, if you pay the 3000 yen to rent a costume, you get a VIP pass that allows you to practically walk right up and touch any of the floats (and take all of the awesome pictures we were able to get).

August 7th
We weren't really sure what this day would hold for us, but we ended up taking half-a-day's train ride down to Naruko Onsen, one of Kanto's (Easten Japan's) most famous hot spring towns. Good place, that Naruko Onsen. Many local craftsmen specialize in the art of Kokeshi, a Japanese traditional wooden doll.

Kokeshi??? or Katie???

Naruko Onsen has it's own local beer, always a plus, as well as a several public baths (only about 1~200 yen), and free footbaths throughout the town. If you want, of couse, you can stay at one of the famous onsen hotels (around 7000~20,000 yen a night!), or you can do what Katie and I did; we waited until dark, after having a couple of tantalizing Naruko Onsen beers and dinner, and we made the 2 km walk/hike up to Lake Katanumaz––our second sulfurous, hot spring/lake in as many days––where we camped lakeside for free. Of course waiting until past dark is a bit frustrating when trying to set-up camp, but it wasn't that difficult (agreeing on the place was more-so).

August 8th

Waking up next to an turquoise blue lake in the middle of the mountains, with a beautiful blond mess of hair next to me to share it.

Later we visited Matsushima, as it claimed to be among the top 3 views of Japan.

I don't what your opinion is of these photos (I did my best of cut out the ugliness of the city and focus on the islands), but I honestly wouldn't rank Matsushima among the top 3 places we saw on this trip, let alone in Japan. Basho, probably Japan's most revered poets, was struck breathless by the site of Matsushima's pine-covered island upon his first sight of them––he was clearly a product of aristocratic-sponsored class of artists (as all are) in pre-industrial times, and he luckily expired before the coming of prostitution of natural beauty for money.

The next stop on our tour was infinitely more captivating and deserving of praise: Yamadera. A major temple in Japanese Tendai Buddhism, the flame that still burns was passed from Hiei-zan in Shiga (where Tendai Buddhism blossomed in Japan), and when Hiei-zan's temples were destroyed in 1571 by Nobunaga (a real roadblocker to human evolution who needed to destroy other people's faith in order to demonstrate his power), the flame in Yamadera was used in turn to re-ignite Enraku-ji's (Enraku Temple's) flame.

From Yamadera in Yamagata prefecture, Katie and I basically made a bee-line by train back home in Kusatsu. Given that we only had only 4 days of real exploring, I feel like we really made the most of it, of course there's so much that's been difficult to include for the sake of cogency. Hope you enjoyed the photos.

I realized in writing this that I haven't finished my journal entries from Katie and my Cambodia & Laos trip. Expect to find more on that soon.