Its All So Good

Osaka Travel Blog

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Leg fatigue at the Tea Ceremony in Uji
Its been a great week in Japan. I am now really comfortable with the surroundings and in my ability to survive in a place where I often cannot read signs or understand what is being said to me. English is widely used here, but when you really need it, that tends to be when there is none. We've all figured out the special button on the remote control that will broadcast the station in English if available, we get the news and really bad American movies pretty much every night -- I watched all of Toy Soldiers the other day, that is how desperate I was for entertainment. This week has been filled with interesting sights and experiences. When I last left you, I had spent a quiet day in Kyoto walking around. This past Monday, I went with one of the professors and 3 of the students to a village on the outskirts of town for the fire festival at the temple there. We really didn't know what to expect, but we knew it started at 8pm, so we got there around 6 so we could look around. It was like a carnival, there were food stalls and games set up all around the temple and then, of course, 3 20 foot tall cones of branches and a 10 x 10 x 5 box made of logs and branches. We looked around and ate Japanese Carnival food, fried octopus balls, a cracker with puffed rice, a fried egg, and mayonaise on it, meat on a stick, a sweet bean and sugar candy. I bought a mask of a really popular Japanese superhero whose name translates to Sandwich Bread Boy -- its basically a smiling piece of toast mask. There were traditional puppet shows going on, I didn't understand it, but it had a great beat. The temple was open to the public and all of the treasures inside were free to view. Around 7:15 we positioned ourselves around 10 feet from the giant cones of kindling and waited. We noticed that there were no police there and jsut a rope marking off the area around the pyre -- the tops of the cones were directly over our heads. The area filled pretty quickly, until there were about 500 people around us. At 8, the monks started coming from the temple and were chanting and carrying paper lanterns and circled and circled and circled. Soon after they lit the box and it went up really fast. It was a cool night and the warmth was nice. The monks started throwing in prayers that people had written on really thin pieces of wood -- hundreds and hundreds of them, some of them in Gap bags -- sort of sacred and profane.™@Most of them would burn, but occasionally one would light and then get caught in an updraft and land in the crowd. At one point, a pretty massive chunk of fiery embers landed on a 5 year old in front of us -- he had the look of sheer terror in his face, but his mom just sort of patted him out and laughed -- definitely not like America. There was lots of patting out of tiny fires on our clothes. One of our students has some nice burn marks in his fleece, I managed to escape with jsut a lot of ash in my hair. After the prayers were all burnt, the priest took long bamboo poles with straw on the end and set the cones on fire. It all happened so fast and the heat was so intense -- I thought my camera would melt. The crowd moved back as a unit about 10 feet and being at the front, I never really got away from the heat. That was about it for the fire ceremony, one of the coolest things I've seen so far. Tuesday was the day to head into Osaka for sumo wrestling. This first part is for my friend, Paul. We were heading into osaka at 8 in the morning and the train was pretty crowded. As we got into the city, the doors opened on the train and all of the sudden my face was mashed into the window of the door I was next to. There was also a woman pressed into the glass under my arm while my whole body was sort of in a half twist -- it was impossible to move. There were about 12 of us scattered through the train -- I couldn't see much, but I could just hear them laughing -- it was surreal and sort of painful, but only lasted 2 stops on the train. We got to the sumo event around 9:30 and bought standing room tickets. Sumo events go on for days and this was early on, so we were pretty much the only ones there, so Walked down to the first level and had a great view. Sumo is really easy to understand and is all about the Shinto ritual that goes on with it. The referee is actually sort of a priest and the ring is blessed between each match, so there is more chanting than fighting. It was actully a lot of fun. I left the group there, as they had free time in Osaka after they decided to leave the sumo event. I had lunch at a vertical mall and saw my first blooming cherry tree. Osaka is sort of over the top. I've been trying to explain it in terms of Christmas. A couple of flashy lights on a bush outside your house is tacky, but when there are thousands of lights, and light up manger scenes, and reindeer landing on the rooftop, and spotlights, and on and on and on it becomes sort of kitschy and fun. Osaka is so overbuilt and hypermodern (whether thats 50s modern, 60s modern, 70s modern, 80s modern, or whatever it just becomes amazing. Bridges over superhighway flyways, over enormous domed buildings, with a concrete Torii gate thrown in. I was amazed to see a tree at all, there aren't that many there. After lunch I went to the largest aquarium in the world, it has a number of tanks all depicting different regions around the ring of fire. The centerpiece is the enormous Pacific Ocean tank with the star of the aqauarium -- the whale shark. My favorite, though, were the Giant Japanese Spider crabs -- each of their legs were four feet long -- stuff that nightmares are made of. After that it was off to the Umeda Sky Garden on the roof of one of Osaka's newest skyscrapers, it is sort of shaped like the Arc de Triomphe. It involved a ride up a 40 story glass elevator detached from the building and then a 5 story elevator ride through a glass tube from one leg of the building to the other -- I just kept thinking, please don't let there be a big earthquake right now. When I got to the Garden, there was only concrete and a sort of smoggy view -- very fitting for Osaka, much better at street level than from the big picture. Wednesday, the fact that it was St. Patrick's Day totally passed me by, until I saw a gaggle of students heading out in search of green beer around 10pm, they found the Irish Pub. I spent Wednesday in a town called Uji about 15 minutes from here on a dry run for one of the professors. It is famous for its temple, which is pictured on the ™∂10 coin here and for having the best green tea in Japan. I tried out both. The temple was beautiful, but closed for renovation until August 2005, but fortunately most of the artwork had been moved to an airconditioned museum right next door. It was a really warm day and I really noticed the flowers blooming, its starting to be really pretty here. After the temple, I went to the Municipal Tea House and had the tea ceremony performed for me. I was the only one there, so I had kimono clad women whisking the tea jsut for me, it was really neat. There is a Japanese god who is emboddied by a badger like creature -- I think his name is Tanuki. You see likenesses of him in front of bars and restaurants. He is known for his drinking and partying and laid back lifestyle. I had been looking for one to take home and an old woman with a tiny little antique shop sold me one, she also pointed out his enormous testicles -- I had thought they were feet. I had my picture taken with her, she served me tea as well -- Ujians love their tea. I made my first food faux-pas in Uji while trying to eat Udon noodles. I had three waitresses coaching me at one point and an entire restaurant staring at me until I got it right, nothing like pressure when you are eating noodles with chopsticks. Wednesday night a front was coming through and it was really windy, but also still warm. I took the opportunity to take the lantern light tour of the Gion district here in Kyoto. There are 2400 lanterns lining the streets of the old beautiful part of town. It was temple after temple among perfect gardens and geisha. The temples are all specially illuminated for this festival, which was this week only. I walked around for 3 hours and every view was better and better, I would have taken more pictures but sometime around my first hour my camera batteries died, so you will only be able to see a small sampling of a perfect Japanese night. Today it was cold and rainy and I went back to Uji with the students. Its been a quiet day, but I did get my ticket to Tokyo for tomorrow morning, where I will be staying in a capsule hotel tomorrow night -- should make for a good e-mail. I hope everyone is doing well, and I appreciate all the e-mails, its good to hear from home. Some of my friends are having some pretty rough times right now, so know that I am thinking of you guys and can't wait to get home. That's all for now, Super Udon Eater Brett
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Leg fatigue at the Tea Ceremony in…
Leg fatigue at the Tea Ceremony i…
photo by: yasuyo