Ikebana

Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging. Like many Japanese arts, it’s subtle and simple, yet somehow extremely complicated. My friends and I have been practicing Ikebana, to some degree of success, every week since we found classes in our town in February.

Every week we bike twenty minutes to our teacher’s impeccable home.  Her garden has beautiful Japanese plants and a stone path and her house is full of beautifully displayed flowers, sliding paper doors, and tatami mats. As they enter the practice room, all the participants sit seiza – the Japanese formal way to sit, kneeling with your bum on your heels, and say hello.

We pick up our flowers and spend some time cutting and arranging them before the teacher comes and rearranges them, trying to teach us about the proper angles and heights in Japanese. After the flowers are properly placed, we draw them in our notebooks and pack up.

After the flower arranging part of the evening, we have tea and sweets with our teacher. She usually has green tea and some omiyage – treats from a different area of Japan, but sometimes we have matcha and wagashi – sweets made from red bean paste to counter the bitter taste of the tea.

Then we pay, sit seiza again and say thank you, and take our flowers home to arrange them again.

It’s all very formal and ritualistic, and I manage to screw it up at least once a week, especially since I am unable to hold seiza for more than a minute. I love the flowers and the people we meet, and look forward to Ikebana every week Next week is our last Ikebana class before we go home, and I am sad to say goodbye to the sweet people and the calming hobby.

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Happy Hands

It’s the little things that I will miss most about Japan.

For example, my sweet tap penguin. The tap in my bathroom is connected to the toilet, and this little guy waves his arms every time the toilet is flushed.

Good times in the bathroom!

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Daijayama – Fire Spitting Dragon

This weekend, we were lucky enough to get a preview of a float from Omuta’s biggest festival – the Daijayama festival. Kids tell me it means giant snake, but in a less literal translation, it’s fire breathing dragon. It’s next weekend in Omuta, and I can’t wait!

One of my Oba-san (grandmother) friends took me to see her Karaoke teacher, who happens to make these dragons in his garage. It’s made out of Bamboo, paper mâché, and straw.  I am holding the tail and the eye, and Scott has the ear. These parts are saved after the festival and given as good luck charms to people in the community who have babies, get married or retire in the next year. It takes this guy four months to make each dragon and most of the dragon is burned after the festival, and they starts all over again the next year. Craziness!

 

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What’s that on your Fridge?

Purikura, or Print Club, is an extreme photo booth experience popular with high school girls and with me. Almost every girl in my school has purikura photos stuck all over their pencil cases, binders and even their rulers. Arcades, shopping malls, and even the dollar store have purikura booths and I have easily become addicted.

After you enter the booth, and deposit your 400 yen, you are given the option of making your skin darker, your eyes sparklier, and choosing the background. Each of these decisions is stressful, as the screen is in Japanese, and you are given a short time to make your choice. After taking your photos in front of a green screen, you can add writing, pictures, make up, accessories and hilarious english phrases to your pictures.

The pictures are printed off as stickers, and you can also send them to your cellphone, or add them to a display book on the machine.

I love Purikura and often coerce my friends into going with me so I can add to my excellent collection.

While I know there are a few booths in Canada, and it’s popular in other Asian countries, regular Purikura is definitely an activity I will miss when leave Japan.  However, it’s so ridiculous and Japanese, that it doesn’t really belong anywhere else.

 

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Sumo Wrestling in Fukuoka

Every year there are six grand Sumo tournaments in Japan, held in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka. Each tournament lasts for 15 days, and we were lucky enough to see the second last day of the Fukuoka tournament in November.

A quintessentially Japanese experience, the sumo tournament begins at 9 and lasts until around 6, making for a very long day for the spectators. The lower ranked wrestlers compete early in the day, with the matches leading up to the grand champions in the the evening. Many attendees don’t show up until around 4, just in time to see the higher ranked wrestlers compete. We were there around 2, as we wanted to have time to explore and learn a little about Sumo. It gave us a chance to see the Sumo wrestlers walking around outside in their traditional uniforms, and marvel at their sheer size. As well we had plenty of time to buy Hello Kitty’s dressed like Sumo wrestlers, Sumo magnets, Sumo ear cleaners and other hilarious memorabilia.

As the sumo wrestlers enter the ring, they take their place around the circle and are introduced to the crowd. Wrestlers compete in two groups – east and west, and are paired off with someone else in their skill level from the opposite group. Every day they compete against a different opponent, and the scores from the tournament are added up at the end to declare the grand champion.

Each bout lasts only a few seconds, and the first wrestler to touch the ground outside the marked ring loses the match. Thought the matches were often short and anticlimactic, the mental preparation component before the bout could last up to four minutes, with each wrestler stomping his legs, shouting and throwing salt in the ring.

Sumo has faced many problems lately: allegations of match fixing prompted organizers to cancel the spring grand tournament in Osaka and attendance at tournaments is declining, as most of the fans are elderly, with few young people interested in the sport. However, I thoroughly enjoyed our time at the Fukuoka tournament, and would go again if I had a chance. One of my favourite parts was the advertising. Instead of traditional sporting event advertising of billboards or panels, Sumo wrestlers carried out banners advertising many Japanese brands, and of course, McDonalds.

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Sports Day again!

It’s sports day season in Japan!

Every year each high school puts on a day packed with events, songs and ridiculous acrobatics. The students get two weeks of afternoons off classes to practice, and they organize everything themselves. They are split into teams that they stay on throughout their high school years, so a lot of pride and energy is involved.

The day started off with a group warm up. The students followed the radio taiso program, which each Japanese person seems to know by heart. Retirees practice this routine in the courtyard outside my apartment at 7 am, and by now the chants and movements are becoming familiar to me. 

After the warm up, all the of the students marched around the field in formation, saluting at the Judges table, before settling into their bleachers.

One of the most interesting aspects of Sports Day was the group mentality. Even the individual running races are scored as a team. After finishing, the students sat behind a flag indicating their place in the race, and after the last racer, the points were counted up for each place before declaring the winner of that event.

There were some interesting races too, including this obstacle course with potato sacks, a cardboard box which the students had to caterpillar themselves in, spinning around a baseball bat and crawling under a net. The teachers participated in an obstacle course with many of the same elements, but they also had to stick their face in a bucket of cornstarch and find a candy with their mouth.

My favourite race started out as a three legged race and half way around, the students had to pick a scavenger hunt item out of a box and retrieve an item from the audience. Seeing them hobble together with their parents cell phones and purses was amusing to say the least.

There were even events for the parents and friends of students, like this game where you had to get as many balls as you could into the net. The red teams parents trounced the blue teams.

The highlights of the afternoon were elaborate choreographed routines, dancing for the girls, and marching for the boys.

I had a fabulous time at sports day, and took way too many pictures, so there will be another post soon!

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