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.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Sketches of the past and future

These are some recent monstrosities that I dreamed up over the past few months. I'll try my best to give them a context that will help people better understand, but often I think it's better just to enjoy the shapes (or lack their of knowing my untrained hand).

Monday, October 27, 2008

Koya-san 高野山 and a temple stay

根本大塔:Konpondaitou, one of the main temples in Koya-san, built in 887 C.E.

A few weekends ago I went to one of Japan's most sacred places
and UNESCO World Heritage site, Koya-san (Mt. Koya), upon which Shingon Buddhist sect was founded in Japan in 819 C.E., about 1200 years ago. Shingon was Japan's first significant taste of Buddhism, interpreted by Kobo Daishi, who had spent 20 years meditating and studying in China. Shingon Buddhism incorporates many esoteric symbols and practices, such as the painting of mandalas and ritualistic chanting of mantras, which Shingon monks practice repeatedly on their paths to enlightenment.

High up in the Kii mountain range that straddles the borders of Wakayama, Osaka, and Nara prefectures, Koya-san looks out over the the Yamato plains, where modern Japanese society first began. The temples here on Koya-san are some of the oldest in the country, and the 800m high town now consists of over 120 temples, more than 50 at which visitors can stay the night and participate in the morning prayer rituals with the monks. All Shingon monks observe a strict vegetarian diet, known as 精進(shojin).

I went by myself to Koya-san on a spiritual journey to get in touch with myself and contemplate the role I want to play in my relationships, and in the world. I'm still uncertain as to what exactly I discovered, but wandering through the temple grounds and feeling the cool, sunset air surrounded by the tall shrines of cedars, pines, and boddhisattvas brought me somewhat closer to a peace I can live with.

Jizo: the stone dolls who lift the burden of children who die before their parents. Children who die young are said to not have accumulated enough good action in their lives, and therefore cannot pass into the afterlife. the Jizo take the place of that burden, which otherwise the souls of dead children must overcome by piling stones eternally on the bank of the river that separates them from the afterlife.

A wood carving done by the monks at the temple I stayed in.

Inside the temple's shrine.

Inside the temple where I stayed the night

Looking out the window of my room

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Autumn poetry from Basho

Since moving closer to the mountains this past year I've become acutely more aware of the seasons and how the landscape changes from one to the next. And as we drift further into colder mornings and rouging landscapes, I feel as if I'm also morphing with the trees into a different state of being. Maybe it's just a bit of nostalgia, knowing this will be my last fall season in Japan, but for whatever it's worth, I've started, pretty much for the first time in my life, reading Basho's haiku. Like Hokusai, he's probably the most internationally known for his trade--a true vagabond and scrivener of the earth and its shades, its shapes.




Deep autumn—

my neighbor,

how does he live, I wonder?

The autumn breeze
blows something uncanny
over Ise's gaveyards

The first one I got from the following site on Classical Japanese Poetry. The second I read on a Japanese site of Basho's complete works and attempted to translate myself. I don't know how it stands up to other translations, I honestly haven't cared to compare it thus far. I think it stands though as an interpretation, which as most things inspired go, carries a hue of subjectivity. If nothing else it's inspired me to visit Ise again (the city of Japan's highest temple, the temple of Amakudari Oomikami, from whom the Emperor supposedly generated). I hope it inspires others as well.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

An Japanese essay I wrote for my course on Japanese Linguistics & Pedagogy Course

I'm currently taking a correspondence course offered by the JET Program to its participants (we're always referred to as participants, never as employees interestingly) in the area of Japanese Linguistics and Pedagogy. I'm hoping that this training will help give me the opportunity to teach Japanese back home, should I choose that path. Right now, who knows...

Anyway, for the recent test I had to write an essay on the topic of 'Living in a foreign culture,' and they asked us to use examples from experiences in our respective towns. Here's my story in Japanese and English. I guess it will be pretty apparent (if it isn't clear enough already) that I'm out of the 'honeymoon' phase of this relationship, although I care very deeply about Japan and many of its issues, good & bad. Right now art is on a high, hence the recent posts on Hokusai and pottery, but as a whole on foreign diplomacy...needs improvement.

I find that the people who are most considerate and understanding are those who've lived abroad for a significant amount of time or who at least strives to look beyond easy conceptions, while the average person, who knows little of foreigners but believes what cultural myths and stereotypes egregiously misinform, their assurance in ignorance sometimes hurts to watch and experience first hand. (Notice I didn't use any nation-modifiers in the above sentence; I believe it applies to all countries, all people.)



***In my article I’ve kept the word meaning foreigner as the Japanese ‘gaijin’, because I think it’s vital for people to understand how significant the literal meaning “person from the outside” is ingrained into Japanese language and thought***

Internationalization and Humanity

The number of Japanese people who want to travel abroad is enormous. When those people see a gaijin, their eyes sparkle with a mix of admiration and awe. This large group generally strives to achieve internationalization within Japan. Thanks to this attitude, I and many other gaijin English speakers are able to come and experience Japan’s unique culture while teaching our native language.
During my stay in Japan I’ve met many interesting and kind people and have been able to spend some great times with them. I’ve traveled from everywhere from Tokyo, to Nara, Aomori, and even Yakushima, all while learning much about Japan and its culture. At school I’m happy to have reached the point where students some can communicate naturally with me in English, using words like ‘gotcha.’ Being able to build this kind of relationship with new people, regardless or race or nationality (or language for that matter), is my ideal for humanity.
But to tell the truth, for a gaijin living in a monoculture like Japan, it can be quite difficult at times. Japan’s population consists of 99% Japanese people, and because gaijin stand out so starkly, Japanese people often accidentally discriminate against us. Sometimes I get the feeling that I’m viewed as an English tool rather than a human being. If I try to start a conversation with someone in Japanese, they will (seldom, but frequently enough) respond with, “I don’t know English” (as if that has anything to do with speaking Japanese). Other times, people will look at my exterior, and will begin a conversation with me in English (a common misconception of Japanese is that all gaijin, especially Caucasians, speak English--how do they know I’m not German or Italian and do not speak English?). Many times I get no reply at all to my overtures. I’m extremely shocked and disappointed by these occasions, mainly because I enjoy my life in Japan and I wish to be treated the same as everyone else. Times when I’m separated based on my appearance, I don’t want to stay in Japan another minute. It’s lonely and I feel isolated.
I think internationalization and international exchange are important things. While enjoying each others’ company, we can form a new rapport and learn more about ourselves as well. But above this (internationalization), I believe we must always keep our partner’s feelings in mind.
The other day in my neighborhood I took part in a rice cutting community event. Even though I was the only gaijin, I felt entirely accepted and treated equally as everyone else in the group, so much so that I even forgot for a while that I was a gaijin. That’s the humanity I’m talking about.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Pottery update--Shigaraki Pottery Festival and a few additions to my collection

Teapot (急須=kyusu). This is some great Shigaraki clay, rich with iron and other metals (I don't know) abudant in the soil. The metal creates the dark streaks and brownish/blackish band around the top. The cool white glaze adds a nice contrast.
So as I maybe mentioned before, the Shigaraki Pottry Festival is this holiday weekend. I went with a couple of friends to the festival and then crashed at the Shigaraki Pottery School where another ex-JET buddy is studying (an amazing place where students and professionals from around the world come to throw/work/study).

This is the coarse, tan earthtone typical of Shigaraki pottery. This and the teapot above were created by the same artist, a Shigaraki native.
I got to talk with about of different artists about their styles, soils, glazes--all of which I know little about but am keen to know more about. One big thing a lot of the local Shigarakians were saying is that there's little Shigaraki clay--famous its rough, coarse earthtones, speckled with iron flecks--left in the area. Apparently the mountain hamlet has attracted not only pottery and tea conniseurs in pursuit of their asthetic passions, but golf courses dot the hillsides and take up quite a bit of land with minable (is that word appropriate here) clay.

I have always had a soft spot for golf as well, but recently I've been wondering--the excessive amount of fertilizer that runs off into the surrounding watershed, invading into pristene forests for sports and mangling the ecosystem, and the country club snobbery...golf made a lot of sense in the low grasslands of Scotland where maintainance wasn't necessary, but exporting it to other habitats is starting to appear more and more irresponsible. This clay shortage is strike two in my book against golf courses.
All tangents aside, I acquired a few new pieces that I want to show off. I'll go ahead and do that before I get sidetracked again.

This last one here is of a variety called Shino. I'm not 100% sure about what Shino means, but I know it's referring to the type of heavy white glaze, applied in a way that leaves cracks and gaps so that the color of the underlying glaze (here the red) shines through.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

葛飾北斎(Katsushika Hokusai) 1760-1849

I'll be many of you are quite familiar with the woodblock paintings (浮世絵)paintings of probably Japan's most internationally-known artists, Hokusai. Images from his "36 views of Fuji" are probably iconolized in many people's minds and mislabeled "Japan" (just like lacquerware was called "Japan" by the Dutch for a long time because it was so associated with the country of it's origin).

But beyond the revered, towering Hokusai waves, cresting above us like the slopes of Fuji over old Edo, there are magnificent scroll paintings and sketches seldom experienced. I just want to share a few of the ones that most impressed me from the exhibit I recently saw at the Shiga Modern Museum of Art.

http://www.kokusho.co.jp/cover/hokusainakami.jpg http://www.sanjo.co.jp/hum/hokusai/kohada.jpgYokai (妖怪), hobgoblins, were some of my favorites. What strikes me most in these is the way that he blends the ordinary with the grotesque. I see these laterns everyday, but Hokusai sparks the hope in me that one day I will do a double-take and something like this will be staring back at me. Life is so dull without the desire for insanity.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/44/Dream_of_the_fishermans_wife_hokusai.jpg I've never understood the strange octopus fetish--maybe that's the beauty behind his craft--but it's a theme that recurs throughout Japanese art, not just in Hokusai's era, but currently in 'hentai' (Japanese animation porn--don't make that face, who hasn't seen it by now...and if you haven't, you're probably looking it up right now). I don't know know where this whole thing started, but when you have an abundance of 8-tentacled sea creatures it was bound to happen sooner or later.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/53/Katsushika_Hokusai_001.jpg"The Boddhisattva's (Amida) Waterfall" actually didn't get the chance to see this one up close, but I found it when browsing through Hokusai works online, and I found it captivating.

That's all for now. It's important to note that some of Europe's greatest Impressionist/Post-Impressionist painters were influenced by Hokusai's style. I'm not an expert on the matter, but I think his paintings were a brilliant mixture of a fine-tuned hand and other-worldly visions--something I think every artist strives for yet few acheieve.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Then again, who are we to judge


I guess we're not all that good at cultural understand/sensitivity either.
Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) I believe in the relativity of gods and humans, money and status, and I don't really believe that anything is beyond reproach or humor. Let's keep the doors open, 'don't block up the halls'. (I hope I don't get bombed for my non-threatening, non-violent beliefs; I hope I get torched for my true crimes ;-)

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Almighty

Thank god today I ain't a Christian...
because if I were, I'd be crying fouls of blasphemy while my high school students innocently play their game of Bingo. This is because in many Japanese games, the wild card/joker is called "The Almighty".

I am not kidding. I'm actually quite embarrassed that it's taken me over 2 years to learn this--but in Japan, wild cards, free spots, anything ubiquitously fortunate in board or card games is called "The Almighty". The Ace of Spades. The center "FREE" square in Bingo. Sacré bleu, mon dieu.

In a sense, this means that our Christian God (who I incidentally worship to the same extent that I worship Maroon 5 or GW = not at all), is nothing more than a happy-go-lucky advantage point in cards to the Japanese. Makes you really consider what's important. If God is an Ace of Spades, what does that make the Buddha or Muhammad?