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May. 5th, 2014


Japanese Word of the Day: A Lame Excuse

舌足らず (したたらず) shitatarazu—
(lit. an insufficient tongue)
garbled speech; a lame or poor excuse

Mar. 21st, 2014


Ise: Days Eleven & Twelve

The days following the nomikai were to continue the fast pace that had been set by the first half of the program, and Team Ise was well up for the challenge.

We began the first day of the rest of the trip (a Thursday) with a series of morning lectures on Ise's early economic history, including the industries that sprang up around the ceremonial rebuilding of the shrines at Ise (and around the pilgrimages to Ise that eventually began to take place in the medieval period) and the agricultural industries of the region: in particular the salt, alcohol, and fishing industries—all of which remain vital sources of Ise agribusiness today.

Following our morning lectures, we headed out for an extensive walking tour of the Kawasaki (Rivershore) and Furuichi (Old City) areas of Ise. We were led by Chieda-sensei, who had taken T. and I on our weekend tour of the old Ise pilgrimage routes and sūtra burial sites. Chieda-sensei is one of Kogakkan's most personable professors (which is saying quite a lot, as Kogakkan University is blessed with many personable professors)—an educator whose knowledge of the layout of Ise City is truly remarkable. I think his knowledge of the city is honestly only exceeded by his desire to share that knowledge with others. Needless to say, I was beyond delighted to take another walking tour under his guidance.

Our ramble led us first through Kawasaki, where we had the opportunity to view several Edo (1615-1868) period buildings from the outside and in. Gracious shopkeepers allowed us to roam through backrooms, busy craftsmen made time to give us demonstrations of their work, and small local history museums provided intensive guided tours. Then we traveled to Furuichi, where more classic architecture awaited us—this time accompanied by spectacular views of the surrounding landscape. (Furuichi is located on a hill, overlooking the river valley below and providing a line of sight straight to the surrounding mountain ranges that encompass the valley.) In Furuichi we were able to tour the interior of an old Japanese house—including the kitchens and old storage areas, which were absolutely fascinating.

We finished up our tour with a visit to the Ito Shoha Museum—an museum dedicated to the art of local nihonga artist Ito Shoha (1877-1968), whose paintings were evocative of traditional Japan and its continued importance to modern art practice, and then we had a very refreshing walk home in the afternoon sun.

Friday saw us spend a relatively quiet day preparing for our weekend trip to Nara and Kyoto with extensive lectures on the cultural and political relationship between Ise and the ancient capitals of Heijō-kyō (present-day Nara) and Heian-kyō (present-day Kyoto). Our lecturers included the president of the university and a member of the university's board of directors—learned scholars with specialized knowledge of Ise during the Nara (710-794) and Heian (794-1185) periods who took time out of their extremely busy schedules to offer us their insight into Ise's history. I took copious notes and then went back to the dormitory for an early night; we had an early start planned for our weekend trip—which, with multiple stops planned in both Nara and Kyoto, was set to be an intense (though rewarding) experience.

Mar. 18th, 2014


Ise: Day Ten (Part Two)


The Japanese nomikai (drinking party) is the social event to end all social events. It's the place where people who are colleagues, mentors/mentees, or plain old acquaintances become friends. This is because the hierarchical rules for interaction that apply in all other social situations are suspended during the nomikai. It is fundamentally understood that everyone is drinking and therefore no one need bother with the standard rules of behavior that require distance and deference in daily personal interactions.

Having spent the rather rainy day out and about, it was a delight to pile into taxis and head for the Kadoya Brewing Company—where the nomikai was to be held. In addition to being a brewer, Kadoya features a restaurant that specializes in seafood dishes. Their oyster dishes are particularly well-known and with good reason. Over the course of our meal, which was all-you-can-eat to complement the all-you-can-drink beer menu, we ate fried oysters, fresh oysters, and oysters in stir-fry and on pizza! We also had extremely respectable German sausage (the German participants vouched for its authenticity of flavor) and a variety of delicious Chinese dishes and salads brought to us.

Kadoya had about twenty beers on tap, ranging from lagers to pale ales to ambers to stouts, and I made it my mission to attempt a tasting of all of them. I begin my series of orders with a tasting flight that allowed me to sample six of their beers and then settled in for the long haul.

Everything was so scrumptious, and the conversation was so much fun. I was seated at a table with a bunch of the student volunteers, and we spent a lot of time talking about linguistics and idiomatic expressions—when we weren't laughing hysterically over the never-ending quantities of food, taking silly pictures, and toasting one anothers' very good health. At one point it was discovered that one of the students, Takahara, and I shared a mutual love of rock-n-roll, and we spent a large portion of the evening talking about bands (he himself is in one), concerts, and what it's been like for me having a roadie for a dad (short version: incredibly awesome).

As the evening wore on, people began to detach themselves from their tables and wander freely—chatting, laughing, toasting, drinking, silly photo-taking. Several of the teachers, normally quite reserved, expressed their hopes that we would all remain close friends of them, of Kogakkan University, and of Ise.

Eventually it was time for last calls, and then suddenly it was time to go. I had ordered a just-in-case glass at last call, as I wasn't sure how much longer we'd be staying, and I hadn't gotten around to finishing it. So, in that time honored tradition of preventing alcohol abuse, I chugged it. In one tremendous, scene-stealing gulp. And everyone erupted into drunken cheers and clapping. It was an extremely proud moment for me. I had drank six flights, four (five?) glasses, and one pint of beer (not to mention various sips from other people's orders) in about a span of two hours, and I was still on my feet and essentially coherent.

I was very, very happy about life, the universe, and everything, but I was coherent in my happiness.

We caught taxis back home to the dormitory. My friend T. and I shared a taxi with the program coordinators, and during the drive back we gave ourselves over to an effusion of "I-love-you-man!" declarations. They were apparently so profuse that they got Tamada-san laughing at their cuteness. But we didn't mind. We were just so happy to be where we were, doing what we were doing.

Back home and in bed, I drifted off to sleep with gratifying rapidity, and I woke up refreshed and ready for the next half of the program to commence. The buzz had faded, but the sense of camaraderie was still very much evident—as it would continue to be for the rest of the trip.

Nomikai. You just can't beat it.

Mar. 7th, 2014


Ise: Day Ten (Part One)

Since Wednesday feels like two separate days—pre-nomikai Wednesday and-post nomikai Wednesday—I'm going to split them up into two separate entries.

We started Wednesday off with a morning lecture on the Toyouke Shrine—often referred to as the Outer Shrine. When thinking about the inner (naikū) and outer shrines (gekū) of Ise, it's easy to imagine that they lie close together, when the reality is that they are actually situated quite distant from one another. The Inner Shrine (also known as the Grand Shrine) is located in a part of the city known as Uji, while the Outer Shrine is in Yamada. In pre-modern times, the Ise pilgrimage involved stops at the Outer and Inner Shrine, as well as time spent in Yamada no machi and a visit to Kongōshōji. Pilgrims first visited the Outer Shrine, then visited the Inner Shrine, and then made their way to Kongōshōji before returning home. They would spend two-to-three days just in the Ise area alone to do this. (And at certain points in Ise history, the Inner and Outer shrines did not get along with each other, and they sometimes fought battles because the Outer shrine—as the first stop—had better control over transit pathways to the Inner shrine and could [and did] restrict people's access!) Anyway, today it is not uncommon for visitors on pilgrimage to Ise to recreate this pilgrimage route and spend the same amount of time on it—even though they now come by car, bus, or train.

It was a pretty intensely rainy day, and cold with it, which limited our mobility. Our trip to Kongōshōji was misty and chill, but somehow the weather for the Outer Shrine trip was a bit more oppressive. Fortunately, however, we have a special return visit scheduled for next week, and I hope for better weather (or that I remember to wear my thick socks) then. We did spend a good amount of time in the Sengū—the museum dedicated to the shrines' history, which contained lots of valuable information about the building techniques and ritual process involved in the rebuilding of the shrines (which takes place every twenty years at both the Inner and Outer shrine complexes). T. and I latched onto Sano-sensei—an Ise shrine expert—early on in the tour and spent the time peppering him with questions, which he kindly and diligently answered.

After the tour, we had about two hours to kill until dinner at the craft brewer and Tamada-san (our program coordinator) mentioned an akafukumochi place nearby, so T., our friend M., and I—along with Kogakkan students Suzuki, Haruki, and Saki—made our way there for tea, mochi, and conversation. It was warm, and the tea and sweets were delicious and fortifying, and we had a lot of fun chatting about language, and interests, and whatnot. And, in that time-honored tradition of friendship, we made fun of each other for various and sundry things. And we laughed a lot. With the little bit of time left over before we had to meet back up again for the taxi ride, the Kogakkan students took us over to a small bookshop, where I was able to find a copy of a book on Ise that I had been coveting—a book chock-full of excellent photographs and articles that will be a material help to me in future teaching projects. There were exactly two copies of the book, which was awesome because it meant that both T. and I were able to buy one. (Bookstore win!)

Our purchases made, we powered back to the meeting point—pausing to take a few silly pictures along the way—and then it was time to say goodbye to the students, who sadly had decided not to join us for dinner, and make our way to the restaurant for delicious food, excellent beer, and more scrumptious conversation.

But that's another story, and shall be told another time. Stay tuned...

Mar. 6th, 2014


Ise: Days Eight & Nine

I'm definitely starting to get behind on these, and so I'm going to take the liberty of consolidating Monday and Tuesday's adventures into a single post.

Monday began with a lecture on the geography of the area outside the city, followed by an hour of study time—which was greatly appreciated. I was lucky enough to be able to check some very interesting books out of the Kogakkan Library last week, and it was wonderful to have the chance to sit down with them and make some notes for future reference. In the last six months or so, I've begun thinking about life after dissertation, and this trip to Ise has provided a lot of food for thought about where to go next with my research interests.

After lunch, we all piled onto our bus and headed off for Futami, site of the seaside shrine to the kami Okitami-no-ōmikami and the famed meota iwa—the wedded rocks. Our trip to Futami took the form of a lengthy walking tour of the village, with various stops dotted along our route to the Futami Okitami Shrine.

We began our tour at the Futami Study Center, which currently had an exhibition of dolls for the Hinamatsuri (Festival of the Dolls, or Girl's Day Festival)—an annual holiday in celebration of girls that is held on the 3rd of March. During the Hinamatsuri, families that have daughters decorate their homes with a dolls' set that is traditionally arranged in a predetermined manner. The dolls are laid out on five or seven shelves, with dolls of the emperor and empress on the top tier and assorted ladies-in-waiting, courtiers, servants, musicians, and accoutrements laid out on the shelves below. The Futami Study Center had a plethora of dolls on display in honor of this holiday, and everywhere we went in the town we saw signs of the celebration. Futami apparently takes the holiday very seriously and holds a month-long series of related events in honor of the special day. This year marked their tenth such month-long Girls' Day festival, and it was a sight to see.

After leaving the study center, we made our way to the scenic road that led to the Futami Okitami Shrine. This road lay alongside Ise Bay and was windy but beautiful. The day was bright and clear, and it was possible to see Mount Fuji across the water and distant land that lies opposite the Mie Prefecture shore. We were on a tight schedule as usual but managed to linger at the water for a while in spite of that.

We then made a stop at the Hinjitsukan, a late 19th century rest house for important visitors to the Futami Okitami Shrine. There we toured the exquisite building, finding traditional tatami rooms, displays of art objects and historical court attire, and yet more doll tableaux. Several of the arrangements in the Hinjitsukan were quite inventive. I particularly enjoyed the doll chorus with their black-robed conductor, and the dolls climbing a mock-Mount-Fuji were amusing as well. I also had a chance to photograph a full set of robes used to create the jūni hitoe (twelve-layer) court dress style, and that was pretty awesome too.

The Futami Okitami Shrine was very beautiful and wind-drenched. I bought some souvenirs for loved ones and made a small offering to Okitami-no-ōmikami, who is a god of the sea (and is thought to dwell within a set of rocks that lie beneath the water on the other side of the wedded rocks). I've always felt a certain tenuous emotional kinship with the ocean, and I like to propitiate its gods when I have the chance.

With the shrine visit behind us, we made our way to the plaza where our bus was waiting to take us back to the Kogakkan dormitory. I was still pretty tired after my massive Sunday tour of Ise City, so I took the opportunity to catch a twenty-minute catnap on the way back.

Tuesday, by contrast, was much more subdued. We started the day off with a morning study session, which was again appreciated (I had a great conversation with a colleague and got a lot done to boot), and then we had a series of fascinating lectures on religion, mythology, and bushidō. The lecture on mythology was particularly interesting to me, and I was delighted to hear about the professor's theories on vision and taboo, sin and shame, and the parallels between Japanese and Greek mythological tales. The quieter day was extremely well-timed, as I really needed the chance to cool down after the whirlwind pace that had been set by week one. Week two was off to a great start.

Mar. 4th, 2014


Ise: Day Seven

Sunday was a free day for the members of Team Ise, and so we broke into various small groups for assorted adventures in different areas. Some people went to Nagoya; some went to Nara; some stayed home; and some spent the day touring Ise. I spent the day with my friend T., who's studying Ise sankei mandara (Ise pilgrimage mandalas), Chieda-sensei, a Kogakkan professor who seems to know everything there is to know about Ise City and its history, and Kirita-kun, one of Chieda-sensei's students (who was super serious, to the point that we couldn't believe he was only nineteen; that boy will become an academic one day... mark our words).

And when I say we spent the day, I mean we spent the day. Chieda-sensei picked us up at 9am for a driving/walking/hiking tour of various spots related to Ise sankei mandara, as well as stops at a number of sūtra burial sites, the Ise City Library, the Ise Shrine museums of art, history, and agriculture, and a wonderful little used book shop. We also had lunch and dinner together, at two delightful and delicious restaurants—the first a washoku (Japanese cuisine) place in Okagemachi (the portion of the Oharaimachi area that is built to recreate the Edo period aesthetic of the city) and the second a little hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant that was run by a friend of Chieda-sensei's. As you can imagine, we had amazing meals and fascinating conversations in both places. And we both found some awesome books in the bookstore.

Throughout the course of the day, as we rambled here and there, we discussed art and history both relevant and irrelevant to our dissertation projects. And of course we talked about our likes and dislikes, varied personal experiences, and travels, and we laughed a whole lot.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable "day off."

Mar. 3rd, 2014


Ise: Day Six

Though there had been some talk of taking us all to Iga Prefecture—a locale famous for its ninjas—on the weekend, we actually wound up touring the museums related to the ruins of the Saikū, the palace complex of the Ise Priestess (saiō). This was intensely preferable. I enjoy ninjas as much as the next girl, but I would much rather learn about the various cultural traditions of Heian (794-1185) period Ise. (Nerd power!)

Learning about the Saikū, and the tradition of sending a daughter of the Emperor (tennō) to it in order to act as the court's liaison to the kami of Ise, was a perfect use of time in my book. I had been peripherally aware of the practice from reading The Tale of Genji (where the selection of the next Ise Priestess is a major plot point during one part of the book), but I hadn't ever really taken time to consider what was involved in the practice: the selection methods, the travel involved, the rituals invoked before, during, and after a priestess's tenure. I was absolutely fascinated by this aspect of Heian history, and I hope to have a chance to learn more about it in the future. As you can imagine, I bought several books related to the site in the museum shops, and someday—when I achieve that legendary semblance of "free time" that people sometimes talk about—I'll turn my attention to it and see what I can make of it all.

The role of the Ise Priestess in ritual practices at the shrines of Ise is very interesting, both in and of itself and because of the priestess's duty as a representative of the court. Japanese emperors since Meiji have made pilgrimage trips to the shrines at Ise, but emperors before that time did not—a factoid that adds an interesting dimension to the formation of State Shinto and the redeployment of the shrines at Ise as the heart of that new religious practice after the Meiji Restoration. This is yet another point where taught lectures on these shrines can sometimes be quite vague, so I'm glad to have this information to factor into future classes.

After a morning at the Saikū, we made our way to a famous kamaboko (fish cake) shop, where we were treated to a hands-on class on how to make kamaboko! Of course, we weren't provided with recipes, but we were able to smoosh, mix, flatten, scrape, press, and sculpt our very own fish cake rolls, which was a lot of fun. (Although, man do I have serious respect for people who make fish cakes for a living—all that smooshing, and mixing, and flattening, and scraping, and pressing, and sculpting is HARD!) Once we were finished, they took our rolls for quick steaming in the cooker, and then let us fashion hand-shaped kamaboko for grilling and eating on the spot. I made my kamaboko look like a fish. (I named him Peko, and he was delicious.) At the end of the class, we were all presented with special kamaboko pilgrimage tokens—available only to those who have taken the kamaboko challenge. We also got to keep our steamed fish cakes.

One of my favorite things about traveling in Japan is that it's always an awesome food tour, and Ise is no different. I've eaten so many good things since I got here that I think I'm going to be entirely spoiled by the time I get back to Tokyo.

Mar. 1st, 2014


Ise: Day Five

Friday afternoon found the members of Team Ise participating in an extensive and complex tea ceremony, but once again I'm a little ahead of myself.

The tea ceremony was preceded by a lengthy lecture on the history of tea and tea usage in Japan, and it included a ton of useful information on present-day tea terminology and practice. Additionally, the tea master had selected a number of exquisitely beautiful tea objects for us to view during the lecture break. These included a hand-painted lacquerware water box, a gold-embossed lacquer tea caddy, and several beautiful tea bowls. Most of the objects featured imagery related to the famous sights of Ise—the Grand Shrine in Uji no Machi, the Toyouke Shrine in Yamada no Machi, and the Wedded Rocks located near the Futami Okitama Shrine. In terms of their quality, these tea objects were extremely luxurious and valuable, but in terms of their appropriateness to the season and location, they were without price. It was really lovely of the tea master to share these objects with us, to allow us to photograph them and hold them in our hands.

The tea ceremony itself was, as it often is, a grueling affair. I've learned shortened versions of the tea ceremony before, but never have I learned such a complicated version. This was not a tea ceremony lecture for beginners, and I felt rather like I had graduated. The extensive practice we did before the actual ceremony extended the amount of time we spent sitting in seiza (on the soles of the feet), but I appreciated that the master did not dumb the ceremony down for us. I felt it as a mark of respect. And I somewhat enjoy sitting in seiza, even when it becomes painful. There is something profound about pushing yourself beyond the physical sensations to fully savor the totality of the experience.

The tea, which was as excellent as expected, was served with a delicious sweet potato wagashi (Japanese-style sweet)—yet another Ise meibutsu (famous product) from the delicious food tour of Ise—that was chosen especially for us. The sweet was fashioned into a the shape of an ume (plum blossom), which is sometimes known by the more poetic name of harutsugekusa (lit. the blossom that announces the spring), another deeply appropriate choice for the season.

The tea ceremony is always a wonderful experience, and this particular tea ceremony—with its abundance of explanation and example—was no exception.

Feb. 28th, 2014


Japanese Word of the Day: Ise Edition

Today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, the day after the day after tomorrow. If you're in Japan and making a date with destiny, better make absolutely sure you know the regional dialect when confirming your plans because otherwise you might just show up on the wrong day of the week.

Though today (kyō 今日), tomorrow (ashita 明日), and the day after tomorrow (asatte 明後日) are stable terms, the word for the day after the day after tomorrow (or "three days from now") is fluid. In the Ise dialect, the term used is sasatte (ささって), while in parts of the Kanto region it's shiasatte (明々後日). But wait a minute... in other parts of Kanto it's actually yanasatte (やなさって). And in some places, shiasatte actually means "the day after the day after the day after tomorrow" (or "four days from now") and in some other places so does yanasatte!

Bottom line, if it's Monday and you want to make a date for Thursday, steer clear of euphemistic terms and just state the day of the week outright. And if you hear shiasatte or yanasatte mentioned as possible options, be sure to clarify with your friend about what exactly it is that they mean. The Ise dialect uses number terms in a fairly straightforward way (sasatte = san = 3 = three days from now; shiasatte = shi = 4 = four days from now; jūasatte = jū = 10 = ten days from now...), but the same can't be said for other parts of the Japanese archipelago, so a modicum of caution is advised.

Happy date planning!

Feb. 27th, 2014


Ise: Day Four

Today found Team Ise exploring the precincts of the Kongōshōji—a temple located on Mount Asama (not the one that's a volcano), just above the city of Ise. It was a rainy day that started off at a drizzle but ultimately developed into a bit of a downpour, but for all that it was another wonderful trip.

Rainy days can be annoying when you want to be out and about, but I've often thought there's no better way to see a temple or shrine (and particularly one located in the mountains) than when it's cold, and misty, and atmospheric. Kongōshōji, with its majestic gates and gardens and graves, really delivered on the otherworldly atmosphere, and though I spent the hike huddled under my umbrella, I couldn't help being struck by the pure, unadulterated drama of the scenery. A sunny day, though easier in terms of comfort, simply would not have been the same. Sometimes you have to suffer for beauty.

Our tour begun with a thorough lecture on the treasures of the temple and their role in the syncretic fusion of Shinto and Buddhism. Kongōshōji is famed for being an alternate dwelling of the sun goddess, Amaterasu-o-mi-kami, who dwells primarily at the Inner Shrine of Ise's Grand Shrine complex, and there are a number of objects housed there that are related to her presence there. In particular, Kongōshōji holds a number of bronze sutra burial canisters, dating from the Heian period, which were unearthed after a typhoon leveled several buildings in the City of Ise. These canisters were actually buried by the priests associated with the Inner Shrine rather than Buddhist priests, and are important artifacts of Shinto and Buddhism's early syncretic ties.

After the lecture, we were privileged to be invited into the inner sanctum of the main temple building to stand before the primary object of veneration, a hibutsu (hidden Buddha) of the bodhisattva Kokūzō (Ākāśagarbha) who represents the great void and the boundless knowledge contained within that void, and to pay our respects. Behind the altar, was the shrine to Amaterasu-o-mi-kami, which we were also allowed to approach and pay our respects to. Generally, casual visitors are not allowed to pass beyond the public space into the inner sanctum of a temple building, and it was a great honor to be allowed to do so at Kongōshōji.

We took a walk along the cremation grounds of the temple, which lay on the other side of the Gokuraku-mon (the Gate to Paradise), to the Oku-no-in, a temple dedicated to the souls of the dead. The cremation grounds were lined with sotoba (wooden memorial tablets that symbolize the stupa) of varying sizes that had been made in honor of deceased loved ones. In many cases, the tributes were accompanied by the placement of personal or comfort items, and cans of beer dotted the ground—as common as flowers. The Oku-no-in was dominated by a sotoba-filled open-space that featured a collection of statues of the bodhisattva Jizō (Ksitigarbha), who is particularly revered as a savior of children. It was another beautiful sight, but one tinged with sadness, as I knew that the sotoba there were memorials to dead, beloved children—left in the care of Jizō by their bereaved parents.

With the visit to the Oku-no-in completed, we made our way back to the bus and wound our way back down a mist-covered mountain to the city below. I think there were plans on the drawing board to go to a scenic view spot, but the rain's increasing ferocity made such plans impractical. Still, I didn't feel as if I had missed out on anything. The day was beautiful in its way, and I wouldn't have traded it for the world.

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