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My dear Japan,

brush the scrapes from your knees,

get up,

like how you have done over and over before.

you are one big pile of inspiration.

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5 signs winter is coming to Japan

(other than the obvious signs..)

1. Restaurants stop serving cold noodles

2. The vending machines sell hot drinks

3. The toilet seats are automatically warm (see: toilet)

4. Every convenient store sells ‘oden’

5.They light things up

****

**In summer, vending machines (jidouhanbai) sells cold drinks only (blue buttons), in winter, half of them changed to hot drinks (red buttons)geniuses!!

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**Oden; delicious, healthy and warm. Available practically everywhere in winter!

oden(image from wikimedia)

**The Japanese llloove light-ups, in winter you’ll find more of it. From left to right, light up at Kyoto Station, Kiyomizudera, Kobe illumination, Ginza-Tokyo.

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no snow yet in Kyoto, but we know winter is here!

the heat of Gion Matsuri

I am from a  tropical country, but the summer in Kyoto is completely out of my heat threshold. At noon it could reach 36 degrees Celsius and the humidity makes me panting and sweating all the time.

The good technology allows for every building and transportation to have air conditioners (in winter these AC work as a heater). Although, in offices, supermarkets and universities, out of respect to the environment, the AC must be set at minimum 28 degrees.

Despite of the heat, Japanese business men still wear suit and tie and plenty Japanese ladies still wear long sleeves to cover her pretty white skin and god knows how many layers of sunblock lotions.

However, all the long sleepy sweating days are bearable because of all the festivals around.

The first festival which indicate the beginning of summer is Gion Matsuri.

Gion Matsuri (the Festival of Gion) is one of the biggest, most glorious festivals in Japan, which you can only find in the lovely ancient capital, Kyoto.

It started a long time ago in the 9th century when Kyoto was hit by an epidemic.  The priests of Yasaka decided they need to praise the Shinto Gods to stop the spreading of the diseases, hence they lead a parade throughout the city and their prayers were answered. The epidemic stopped. Since then, the tradition is carried out every year to this day.

The festival officially started from the beginning of July, with various preparation steps, such as building and blessing ceremonies of the floats. The chosen people build 32 extravagant floats, which are called Yama (also means mountain) and Hoko.

The morning of 17th of July is the main festival day, where these Yama and Hoko are paraded along the main streets of Kyoto. They chant, sing, play flute and drum instrument, and yell ‘pull’ to keep the spirit of festival.

Yama is paraded through Kyoto streets

Each float weighs around 1 to 12 tons. And since the floats are built in accordance to the traditional ways, there are no machines implanted whatsoever, only old craftmanship of big wheels and human power.

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The best place to stand and wait (there is no need to follow the floats around) would be at the corners of the streets, either at Shiyakusho, Shijo Kawaramachi or Karasuma Kawaramachi, because  turning this huge piece of art left or right requires extra everything. They scream do ‘pull’ and ‘halt’ in amazing spirit, power and coordination.

If you are planning to visit Kyoto for Gion Matsuri, don’t miss the night before this main parade day, which is the night of Yoiyama, at the 16th of July. Again, please check the schedules and book your hotels etc months before, since this is Kyoto’s high season.

The night of Yoiyama is all about strolling, eating and drinking on a hot summer night. The city center is wonderfully decorated, with colorful food and sweets, summer toys, girls and boys in traditional and funky yukata, and chanting musics everywhere. It might seem too crowded but Japanese people have high manners and patience, so there is no pushing around.

Well, unless it is after midnight and they are all drunk.

Goodbye summer, we miss you already.

Red of Autumn

Momiji07aJapan’s trees are flaming up in autumn. Not unlike sakura season, people go to the temples, zen gardens, mountains to gaze at the red maple leaves (momiji).

This color marks a year of my life in Japan.

I did not prepare many materials to write for this post. Instead, I chose to write a free-form Haiku (traditional Japanese poetry) to seal this season.

 

 

memory betrays

why does this heart burn for you ?

remind me, red leaves

 

 

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p.s Momiji season is practically can be enjoyed all over this country, but the best of Japan are: Tofukuji in Kyoto and Miyajima in Hiroshima.

I’ll tell you about the city I live in: Kyoto. The heartland of Japan. The city that was spared from atomic bombing 50 years ago, because of its beauty. Yes, its beauty.

Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, who twice visited Kyoto in the 1920’s, was conscious of its irreplaceable cultural assets and concerned for the postwar reputation of the United States. He committed himself to keeping the city off the target list and stuck to that decision in the face of many who urged its atomic bombing.

source: Who Saved Kyoto?New York Times July 2007, http://www.nytimes.com

Kyoto is an inland city, thus far from tsunami risk, in a valley surrounded by inactive mountains, thus small typhoon and earthquake risk, 600 km from Tokyo (2 hours by shinkansen train). From its valley condition, Kyoto has the coldest winter and the hottest and most humid summer among the Kansai Region.

japan map

Kyoto is the ancient capital of Japan, under the name Heian-Kyo (Heian: Tranquility, Kyo: Capital) in the year 794 – late 1800. This long history is a solid base of what Kyoto is today.

Imagine, the 827.90 km² area of Kyoto is filled with over 2000 temples and shrines, big and small. The MUST see are:

kinkakuji

Kinkakuji (the golden pavillion)
a breathtaking gold-covered pavillion, built in 1393 as Shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga’s retirement villa.

Kiyomizu Temple
kiyo = pure, mizu = water.
Drink the water for health, longetivity and success in study. Walk from stone to stone with your eyes closed to find love. Even when you don’t believe any of those, kiyomizu temple is still worth visiting. The pure water temple was built in 780 AD and know worldwide for its great architecture and serenity. Although due to the vast number of tourists visiting this place, to find the true serenity, I recommend you to go on early mornings.
Heian Jingu Shrine
Heian is built 1895, the main shrine during Kyoto’s role as Japan’s capital. Hence, it represents so much more than just a place to worship. You’ll be welcomed with large orange gate, beautiful calming gardens with lotus flowers in the ponds. It is also a home for the festival of ages (Jidai Matsuri), celebrated around October, to commemorate Emperor Kammu’s decision of Kyoto as the capital 1,200 years ago.

Ryoanji Temple
Ryoanji Temple is located near Kinkakuji, so pair both visits together. It is famous for its zen garden, you know…, the white marbles garden with some big stones in the middle…. Anyway, just sit there. Just sit. sit. and sit.

Ginkakuji (the silver pavillion)
Don’t be fooled by the name, unlike golden pavillion, silver pavillion is not actually silver….

Yoshida Jinja Shrine
Yoshida Shrine is dedicated to drive evil spirits away, thus the home of Setsubun festival.

Fushimi Inari Shrine
Built in 711 AD and dedicated to the god of rice. I am running out of words, just walk under ten thousands orange gates (torii) preferrably on sunset or sunrise and see how you feel.

The fact that there are endless temples in Kyoto affect so many aspects of Kyoto life. Kyoto, for me, is the perfect combination of modern and traditional sense. The perfect combination of serenity and excitements. I would walk out from the glorious steel building of my university, look to the left, and there it is, the protector of Kyoto University, the Yoshida Shrine, ancient and surrounded by hundreds years old trees, as though hugging and preserving the shrine.

redkyotocs2 serenity

Unlike other big cities of Japan like Tokyo, Osaka and Kobe; in Kyoto, you can only find tall buildings downtown, such as the new modern-contemporary building of Kyoto Central Station, since there are certain rules concerning the natural surrounding of the temples.

oldkyoto housekyoto

Small streets of Kyoto and a typical Japanese family house

The temples remember that this world is not for humans only. Because sadly, how many of us actually remember that? The areas surrounding the temples must be filled with trees for the birds and rivers for the fishes.

 

monkkyototowernihonjinnihonjin

Kyoto is fast yet not furious. The kamogawa river – an energetic river that cuts through Kyoto – is one of the places where we would have lunches with the birds, where we have our morning joggings, where we have the sunday afternoon coffees, where we drink beers while watching street performers, before we hit the bars and karaokes.

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The main transportation is still bicycles and very few subway lines are available.

 

Kyoto is also the home of some of the most important festivals in Japan, like Obon and Gion Matsuri. They will start in mid-July and surely I will show you what I see and learn through this blog.

One result of moving too much is I hold on to one place that I call home, my hometown Makassar in Indonesia. Anywhere I move, I know I will go back to that place and simultaneously I try hard not to fall in love with my ‘temporary’ place.

But as hard as I try, I can’t deny it; Kyoto, I am in love.

.

.

miyakoodori

Miyako Odori : Geisha & Maiko Theater which can only be seen in Kyoto

 

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*Kansai Region: Perfecturs of Nara, Mie, Kyoto, Wakayama, Osaka, Hyougo and Shiga. Populace speak in Kansai accents (Kansai-ben).
For example : “wakarimasen” (i.e: I don’t know) becomes “wakarahen” in kansai-ben.

Baby Drop Box

Living for a short time in this country can teach you so many things. Although I believe in the theory of “It’s not about what they teach you, it’s about what you learn”. Have I told you that Japan does things differently? Yep, this fact will cause a rush of different ideas every single day, every single time you see new things here. You’ll come out from your shell and start thinking how do they do this and that, is it applicable in other space and time, is it really a good thing?

One of these ideas from Japan is the baby drop box. (nodding with eyes widely opened).. you may drop your baby in this box.

Abortion is legal here and unfortunately people are making use of this opportunity. There were around 300,000 abortions in 2005. Cases of abandoned babies are also often heard. Babies in the parks, babies at the side of the streets, at the supermarkets.

You can not judge, really.

You are not in their shoes and do not know what is going on in their lives. And in a way, giving up your baby to someone else is an act of love.

The most unbelievable case is when I heard about a mother locked her two toddlers in the house for a month, with the hope that they would die starving because she could not take care of them anymore. And one of the toddlers did die.

Compared to that (!!), I find the parents who left the babies out in the open (at least someone eventually finds the abandoned baby) are far more responsible.

I am sure the Jikei Catholic Hospital had the same opinion when they installed this baby drop box. Rather than leaving the baby you-think-you-can-not-take-care-anymore out in the cold, you may anonymously drop your baby by this box (an incubator) and an alarm will notify the hospital staff that a baby has arrived. So immediate care can be carried out.

The hospital described it as the parents’ last resort. The hospital started the baby drop box service but hoped that it would never be used, hoping the service to be seen as a symbol that they are there for the parents to share their difficulties (CNN Asia, May 2006)

TIME magazine was right, certainly ever since the service was out in the news, Japanese did some soul searching. Contemplating whether or not they want to drop their babies there. Now they have an option.

My appraisals to those who are in stress yet decided to try their best.

Shamefully, a father dropped a 3 years old child there. (Other drops are not reported in the news, they are suppose to be confidential).Yet, Japan was shocked. Experts condemned this act since dropping a toddler may cause trauma later on in his life.

Probably Japan is rethinking this baby drop box idea.

But I strongly support it. Surely it might cause some negative effects, but then again, what isn’t? Isn’t any idea that risen from good thoughts will end up good?

***love.***

 

 

p.s. rather than supporting random act of kindness, better support the organized act of kindness.

Japan reveals another vibe when spring season (haru) comes. This rapid-moving country seems to slow down a bit. You’ll find a Japanese in a full-black business suit stops under a sakura tree, sipping his can of Wonda coffee, taking pictures of the first blossoms with his mobile phone. You’ll find people “oooh-ing” and “aaah-ing” at the sight of sakura, and most probably you’ll do the same.

One of the things I’ve always wanted to experience about Japan is to do hanami (sakura viewing). Hanami is the term used when you go to a park, a temple, a side of the river, basically any place where you find a sakura tree, and sit under those trees for hours, drinking and dining, with your friends. The more the merrier.

The city I live in, Kyoto, is one of the most famous cities in Japan to do hanami. Some recommended places are:

  • Maruyama Park. The entrance is free and is best visited at night during the light-up of the ‘sakura weeping-tree’, the center piece of this park. Plenty of food-stands and drunk youngsters all around. Not a calm place to watch sakura, yet it is the place for a fun night out.

maruyama koen hanamiweeping sakura

 

  • Kiyomizudera (Pure Water Temple). Kiyomizudera is located next to Maruyama Park, so it would be nice to pair both visits together. Although this old temple (built around 780 AD) is more well-known as a place to see the red leaves during autumn, basically this temple is worth visited on any season. Entrance fee is 400 yen (US$ 3.5 )

From Higashiyama (one of Kyoto’s main streets) , visitors must walk up hill around 20 minutes, passing colorful souvenir shops and food stands (make sure to try the sakura tea and ice cream!). There is always a long line to enter the shrine if you want to pray and drink the sacred water, but I found my God – and I am sure many others also- just by standing there on the balcony looking up to the sky and down to the view of Kyoto.

kiyomizu sakura lightupkiyomizusakura1

Kiyomizudera is one of UNESCO’s world heritage sites and now campaigning for the new 7 wonders of the world

 

  • Philosopher’s Path. On the way to Ginkakuji (silver) Temple, you’ll come a across a narrow long path, tunneled by sakura trees. Japan, particularly Tokyo and Kyoto University have produced a number of Nobel Prize winners, one of them : philosopher Prof. Kitaro Nishida. While Archimedes yelled “Eureka!!” in his bath tub, Prof. Kitaro Nishida found his inspiration along this path.

He probably yelled “Mitsuketa!!”.

ginkakuji michi sakura

 

  • Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle). Nijo castle was built in 1603 as the official Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu. It was completed in 1626 by the third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu, with the addition of some structures transferred from Fushimi Castle. Nijo Castle is another National Heritage, a fine rare example of Momoyama architecture period, with a large beautiful garden of flowers. Entrance fee is 600 yen (US$ 5).

nijo-josakura3

Unfortunately, photography is strictly forbidden in the palace, while if you are interested in the history of Japan, each room in this palace has so much to tell.

  • Ohiroma Ichi-no-ma (First Grand Room) is where the 15th Tokugawa Shogun, Yoshinobu, summoned the country’s feudal lords this room and declared that sovereignity would be restored to the emperor. That was the time where 270 years of Tokugawa military rule came to an end.
  • Uguisu-Bari (Nightingale Floor) is the design of the floors in the palace, where it squeaks when you walk. It was used to alert the residents when intruders, such as ninjas, sneaked into the palace.

Arashiyama, Hirano Shrine, Kamogawa River, Heian Shrine and even the smallest most hidden streets are other places in Kyoto to find sakura trees.

Most likely, you’ll open your window and there it is in front of you.

sakurarainbow

If you are planning to visit Japan during sakura season (usually around March), you must do a very careful weather & prediction check, since the blossoming season is different on every area, different from year to year, and the duration for a full blossom is only around 2 weeks.

But as graceful as they bloom, they also wither and fall gracefully.

Just like how all of us should be.

sakura snow

*be the love generation.