So, the original idea of doing a blog post every 2 months seems to have quite quickly gone out the window...
However, this is not (100%) out of laziness but out of busyness - honest! But still, apologies!
It feels like a lot has happened since the new year; a couple of big trips, new class at school with international students, taking part in a concert and planning future concerts, making some Japanese friends, dipping my toe into Tokyo's dating scene, getting an oven, finding out how to change my living room lightbulb...too many exciting times to write about so this post will be about the trips (with as many pictures as I can cram in!) and I will do a music news post on my composition blog here. Then, I will try not leave it quite so long till the next time!
January: Daiwa Girls trip no.2 to Hokkaido – the most northern of the main islands.
Reaction of most people to our journey plan;
‘Ah, so you want to go to skiing? Hokkaido is great for skiing!’
‘Erm, no actually. We’re not that interested in skiing and are pretty sure at least one of us would sustain a serious injury if we attempted it.’
‘Oh…so what are you are you going to do there?’
‘Look at the snow. Play in the snow. Go to onsen in the snow. Eat potatoes…in the snow. SNOW.’
‘hmmm….you should really ski. The snow is great for skiing’.
Well, perhaps another time – those mountains aren’t going anywhere and it seems it will always be popular to go throw yourself down them at ridiculous speeds with nothing but oversized lollipop sticks to stop you. (Alright, I’m scared – and what?) However, not skiing didn’t stop us hurtling around a mountain as we went snow mobiling! Kudos to Alex-san for her fantastic suggestion; it was a brilliant way to get up high for some amazing views, pratt about in snow up to our thighs and discover a slight need for speed…
Other Hokkaido highlights include (left to right) Canals at Otaru, snow-covered shrine on Tenguyama (Mount Tengu) and red pandas in the snow at Maruyama Zoo, Sapporo. Lake Shikotsu-ko was the most special for me – absolutely breath-taking scenery (and literally breath taking with strong winds and temperatures of -5 degrees!). The onsen at the lake in the snow most certainly did not disappoint!
March-April: When Caroline came to stay
In March, Japan saw the arrival of spring, sakura (cherry blossoms) and CAROLINE FERRY - one of my dearest friends who actually played a big part in me finding my way to Japan. She was the one who heard about the Daiwa Scholarship in passing and told me about. She is also the one who took my passport into the Daiwa office so they could process my visa when I had stupidly left it behind at a friend's house in London and buggered off back to Manchester. So it is only fitting that the friend who helped me come to Japan should come visit me here and see what all the fuss is about. We crammed as much as possible into 2 and a half weeks and it was nothing short of amazing. What was also amazing, is that for 2 and a half weeks we were together 24/7, and by the end we did not want to kill each other. If that's not a sign of true friendship, I don't know what is.
I visited for the Autumn colours last November and came back for the cherry blossom this spring. We were a little early for the blossom as not all the trees were in full bloom, but the mix of full bloom, half bloom and just buds on the trees was still very beautiful I thought! I also started to understand the Japanese obsession with the sakura blossom - it was much more beautiful than I expected (the photos on the brochures use photoshop for sure to turn the blossom into a sickly-sweet, Hello Kitty style pink colour which I thought made them look borderline repulsive!) but in reality, they are a delicately pale shade, far more endearing I felt!
(Top left and clockwise) The lovely Caroline at the Heian Shrine's garden, the bamboo grove at Arashiyama, the first of many tori gates at Fushimi Inari and Kameyama turning a dusty shade of pink with sakura.
Next stop: Nara - 8th Century Japan's capital (before Kyoto became the capital and inevitably, Tokyo did). Home to Virocana Buddha, an enormous bronze statue of Buddha (he's 48.91ft tall - the entrance ticket also proudly states his ear is 8.33ft in length), one of the worlds oldest surviving wooden buildings at Horyu-ji temple complex and a lot of hungry deer, roaming casually around Nara-koen. Following suit, we did a fair bit of casual roaming around ourselves.
On to the holy mountain Koya-san for one night, the birthplace and headquarters of Shingon Buddhism. I personally had very mixed views about our experience here. I have spoken to friends since who have also been to Koya-san, saying that they had a very special experience staying in temple lodging, being virtually the only tourists there and meeting many people who were there for religious purposes (as it is a major pilgrimage site). However, when we were there, it was pretty crowded with tourists, the temple lodging we stayed in felt a bit more like a fancy hotel (TV's in the rooms!) and I couldn't help but feel it was as if the Japanese tourist board had decided 'right - foreigners want to see monks and Buddhist traditions and the real Japan - but comfortably. So let's create 'The Koya-san Experience'. This sounds very harsh (and after all, I am a foreign tourist so can't complain about others just like me being there) but it's just honestly, part of how I felt. It seems though that this is due to it being SAKURA season. Those bloody, beautiful flowers. Go off season, and it sounds as though you will get a truer picture of Koya-san. Highlights for me were visiting the cemetery at Oku-no-in in the mist and rain, a very mysterious experience and HAVING NO SURPRISE MEAT.
A brief stop in Osaka as we were flying from here to Okinawa! Right on time for full on sakura (yeah, I could never stay angry at them). Night-time illuminations of the thousands of trees planted in the castle's grounds was a grand way to spend our one night here
The most southern island group of Japan - occasionally referred to as the 'Hawaii of Japan'! I can't explain how excited we were to go and how much it truly did not disappoint!! We flew to Naha, the capital of Okinawa, and stayed there for a night either side of our 2 day camping holiday on the island of Zamami. The culture, food, weather, flowers, general mood all felt totally different to everywhere else we had been in Japan. And no surprise really, Okinawa has a totally separate history and was only formally incorporated into Japan in 1872. (yep, we went to the Okinawan Prefectural Museum. Not just beaches and stuffing our faces with Okinawan purple sweet potato flavoured treats.)
Our stay on Zamami was a truly fantastic experience. We also spent quite a lot of the time feeling smug. Confession time: neither of us have ever put up a tent before. Actually, I think you can easily count our combined camping experiences on one hand. But the desire was there, so we reserved a spot and rented the gear from the island's campsite (over the phone, in Japanese - another reason for me to be a bit smug) and successfully put up a tent that stayed up through one day of glorious sunshine and one day of torrential rain. Even in the rain, Zamami was still gorgeous - my photos don't do it justice. We also had our first go at snorkeling, pretty much walked the length and breadth of the island and went on a glass bottom boat where we saw a SEA TURTLE! This was fortunate, as on arrival, I had declared to Caroline that I wasn't leaving until we saw a turtle.
I didn't want to leave, turtle or no turtle. I will go again for sure. And to as many other islands in Okinawa as possible. And so should you. Why are you sat here reading this still? Book your flights!
It has been roughly 2 months since my last post and it feels like a LOT has happened, mainly within the following fun categories:
As most of you will know, my fascination with various forms of Japanese traditional music is why I so desperately wanted to come here. So, I am over the moon to have begun shakuhachi (尺八) and biwa (琵琶) lessons! A very, very brief introduction: the shakuhachi is a type of bamboo flute, played by Buddhist monks in Japan since around the 12th century, often as part of their spiritual practice. However, as I am a beginner (and not a monk), my shakuhachi is plastic and I am learning tunes such as ‘マリーさんの羊’ , which you may know by its English title: ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ You have to start somewhere. And I’m absolutely loving it.
The Biwa is a kind of lute played with a MASSIVE plectrum and its repertoire features songs drawn from epic texts of Japanese literature. For instance, the piece I’m currently learning describes a battle between two warring clans, so think powerful and dramatic. Well, when my teacher plays it. When I play it, think twangy and clunky. But again, I have patience and I’m a very happy Fran who still can’t quite believe that I am actually having the chance to learn these fantastic instruments!
I’m also going to as many concerts and performances as possible; this Saturday (28th) was particular crammed with a Tokyo Symphony Orchestra concert in the afternoon and a ‘one woman mono-opera’ performance at Tokyo Wonder Site in the evening. This was followed by meeting up with friends in a bar with 180￥beer (so about £1) and then ending up in karaoke till 4am. Love being a student again.
And since I am a student again, I go to school every day, do my homework and revise for weekly tests like a good girl. Though, since some of the sentences I have learnt at Naganuma from the teachers include ‘If he is a good person, even if he is not handsome, I would still give him my number’ and ‘At my house, it is OK to have a party and drink lots of alcohol’, I feel less like a good girl! I am enjoying learning Japanese – the lessons are pretty intense with a lot crammed in but the teachers are lovely and we still manage to have a laugh. It certainly takes a lot of my brain power; even though we finish at 12.30pm every day, I’m still knackered and ravenous afterwards! It’s interesting to see what elements stick relatively easily and what takes a lot of work to understand. I think I find speaking the most difficult so I have found a conversation partner to practice with, I ask questions in shops even if I know the answer just to practice, I try talking to (incredibly patient) Japanese people when possible even if just to say 'that's nice!' and my music lessons are all in Japanese too - so I’ll get there...!
There are weekends for a reason! So far I’ve been out to Nikko and Kyoto. Nikko, a mountainous area north of Tokyo, was a bit of a whim! We went for a day trip but then we saw there was Kabuki on at the Toshogu temple …so Alex and I managed to beg the tourist office to find us a bed for the night so we could go (everything books up soooo early here.) Totally worth it. Amazing performance, which we followed with an onsen and then a walk to a waterfall the following morning.
Since we had a 3 day weekend right at apparently the best time to see 紅葉 (Kouyou – autumn leaves, maple leaves changing to red), we took the bullet train and made a girls trip to Kyoto! A jam-packed, fantastic and breath-takingly beautiful weekend spent visiting temples, walking through the bamboo grove and monkey park at Arashiyama, driving up Mount Hiei, watching Nō theatre, spotting Geisha in Gion and gorging on Shojin Ryori (Buddhist vegan cusine – made me SO happy, not a fish in sight!). There is still so much in Kyoto that we didn’t get to see so I can’t wait to go again, next time in cherry blossom season!
So, yeah, it's been pretty busy! And I reckon the next month will be similarly hectic, though it will also include buying more and more jumpers from the hundreds of great vintage shops around (it’s getting much colder now…) and finding good, reasonably priced cheese. There is a real cheese deficit in Tokyo...
And so, 2015's six lucky and determined Daiwa Scholars have arrived in Tokyo, complete with more luggage than a rubgy team (the Tokyo Unviersity Rugby team on the same flight were certainly travelling lighter than us), enough Yorkshire Tea to cause a shortage back home and enough Japanese to get into a taxi to the hotel. We had hoped he would ask us 'what is on the table?' as we are really good at answering that one, thanks to Lesson 4 of 'Japanese for Busy People'. Sadly, that one will have to wait.
I've been here 12 days now and am really enjoying this 'I'm in Tokyo!!!' realization time before the mission of actually LEARNING JAPANESE kicks off on Friday 2nd October at Naganuma School. Very excited, little bit nervous...
So highlights so far: Watching a Gagaku performance (court music) at a shrine for the Autumn equinox, going to a cat cafe, stumbling across festivals, going to an onsen (natural spa heated by geothermal activity where you bathe naked - hence inhibitions lost!) eating lots of tempura, going to a massive craft fair, speaking to incredibly patient people in Japanese, getting dressed up as schoolgirls and taking 'kawaii' photos, finding out what food is actually veggie and what contains 'surprise meat', wandering around and generally gawking at everything (Godzilla!)....and getting lost, in a good way.
Oh and importantly, finding a flat! A beautiful flat at that - traditional tatami flooring and a paper 'shoji' sliding door - yes! However the next list of things to do include buying a washing machine...which sounds less fun than exploring Tokyo, but pretty darn necessary.
Till next post - which will be after starting school! So it may possibly contain some Japanese - be prepared.
Thanks to the Daiwa Scholarship 2015 programme, Fran is in Japan! This blog is for anyone who is interested but especially for all my wonderful friends and family who want to share these new experiences with me.