Agyo and Ungyo

This next post is inspired by the ignorance of mine in the following video clip. 


There are a lot of things I take notice of that I don't fully understand. Or understand at all for that matter. I'm living in a country with long, deep cultural heritage, but most of the time I don't know the significance of what I am seeing around me. Many of the cultural attributes I can't even name, so I don't know how to research them. However, I came across information about the fearsome and awesome figures I took notice of this the clip. 

Together these two figures are called a Nio. They are two fearsome and aggressive figures that stand on either side of the opening of a Buddhist temple and act as protectors of Buddha. They are both two different deceptions of the Buddhist deity known as Shukongoshin.

The figure called Agyo is the one with his mouth open, which is said to represent birth. The showing of his teeth is a violent expression. To further his terror he is shown with a clenched fist, holding a weapon, or both. 

Ungyo is the figure with the closed mouth that symbolizes death. He bears an open palm. 

In Japanese Buddhist temple these two figures are typically housed inside a Niomon, or a special gate that visitors must walk through to enter. They are said to ward off evil spirits and keep the temple grounds free of demons and thieves. 

For a person like me who enjoys being creeped out once in a while, these figures are scary yet fun. Seeing their sheer height, bulging muscles, and glimmering eyes leaves the nerves slightly on edge, with an unwavering impression of beauty in their power. 

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Visiting the Onsen

Japan's volcanic nature makes for a soothing and healing experience for those of us on the surface. For centuries Japanese have embraced the bubbly, hot, mineral water that lies below them by digging and tapping into the supply for human enjoyment. 

All across Japan there are thousands of onsens or hot springs baths. Some are in beautifully built spas that offer all kinds of additional services. Some are out in the open air, letting the bather be intertwined in nature. Some are just in neighborhoods, enjoyed in the evening by the people living nearby. Wherever the location, the onsen, is a large component of Japanese culture. One that I will GREATLY miss upon my return to the United States. 

For me, I visit my neighborhood onsen, usually on a weekly basis. My visit starts with entering the building and buying a ticket for entry at the machine in the lobby. Each visit costs me ¥440 or just over $4.00. Once I enter the female locker room I choose a locker and begin undressing. Public onsens are of course segregated by gender, but some onsens offer a more private family bathing experience. 

Once completely nude, I take my small basket of personal cleaning products into the onsen itself. When you enter, it is customary to wash your body and hair first, before getting into the mineral water bath. There are small shower stations lining the walls which have a mirror, light, hot and cold tap, and a shower head. You grab yourself one of the plastic stools provided, sit down at your station, and shower yourself. 

Once you are clean you can now enter one of the multiple large baths filled with hot, mineral water from the ground below. The different baths are heated to a bit different temperatures and offer different features such as bubbles for a neck massage or back massage. It's just like being in a large hot tub. The water and my neighborhood onsen is tinted brown, due to its mineral content. There is also one bath that is filled with cold water to cool your body down between dips in different baths.

Different onsens around Japan have different types of water with different mineral components. They vary in color and may provide different health benefits. 

My onsen  also has a sauna inside of it, something that is extremely enjoyable for me. I have a ritual which includes spending a bit of time in each of the baths, dipping in cold to cool down, entering the sauna, dipping in cold, so on. There's not too much rhyme or reason to it, I just try to enjoy the experience of relaxing in the warmth for a good amount of time without over heating. 

Visiting this onsen is a very meditative experience for me. I move slowly around the room partly to not slip on the floor, but also because this environment is very relaxing. This relaxed state allows me me to melt any cares away. Sitting in the sauna, I close my eyes, and get some moments of peace as my body temperature is elevated and my heart rate calm. 

This nearby onsen is by far the best Japan has to offer, but I love the experience that it brings me and the benefits in can bring to my skin and muscles. Japan is full of absolutely gorgeous outdoor bathing experiences that are loved by tourists from all over the world. I hope to one day visit a beautiful outdoor onsen bathing in nature, like the Earth child that I am! 

Humans are not the only ones who love the onsen in Japan. These Japanese Macaques love bathing in the warm water at this wild monkey park in Nagano prefecture. 

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Kenrokuen Landscape Garden

Kenrouken  Landscape Garden is one of the prides and joy of the city of Kanazawa. Constantly visited by foreign and domestic tourists alike, I feel happy to be able to enjoy it whenever I please. Due to it's scale and beauty, it is considered one of the three most famous gardens in Japan.

The name of the garden, Kenrokuen, means having six factors.  Those factors are spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and broad view, which according to Chinese landscape theory are essential to the forming the perfect garden. It was originally constructed as an the outer garden of Kanazawa Castle by the then ruling Maeda family over a period of two centuries. It was opened to the public in the 1870s and has been adored for it's different looks in all seasons ever since.

In the month before winter snow threatens to weaken the aging trees, ropes are tied to branches stemming from a bamboo rod. This method assists the branches in bearing the weight of the wet, heavy snow experienced in Kanazawa winters. It assures that these same trees are preserved as long as possible for all to enjoy. This sight has come to be a symbol of Kenrokuen Garden and in turn the city of Kanazawa.

Another famous symbol of Kenrokuen Garden and the city of Kanazawa is this two meter tall Kotojitoro lantern, that stands on the northern bank of the Kasumigaike Pond.  Seen here at the right of the photo.

You can always see young women dressed in traditional kimonos, who are enjoying a cultural experience. There are many establishments that allow you to dress like a geisha for the day, do your hair, makeup, take your photo, and let you strut about town.

I am told one should visit Kenrokuen at least once during the four seasons, as different unique characteristics come out. During this visit, I witnessed some red and orange leaves, but didn't quite see the extent that the leaves change to in fall. I'll be eager to visit in winter to see the trees lightly dusted with white snow and again the the spring to enjoy Japan's famous cherry blossom trees. It is a place that can be explored again and again, getting lost on purpose in it's carefully planned out labyrinth  that is a testament  to nature.

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Election Day in Japan

I spent the historic election of 2016 in Japan. Saddened to not be surrounded by my fellow Americans as this event took place, I clung desperately to my cell phone, which would be my window to experience  this election. My day went like this...

I sported my "I'm with Her" button all day to show my allegiance to Hillary. Throughout the day I got many looks, inquiries, and messages of support for her. Teachers and students all seemed to be on my side. 

I started quickly working in the morning at a pace that was a reflection on my inner feelings. I was nervous, anxious, unable to settle. I had set reminders in my phone to let me know when it was 8 p.m. 10 p.m. and 12 a.m. on the American east coast so I would remember to check the status of the votes. 

After polls began closing in the U.S., I pulled up a live NBC News YouTube stream. I hid away to eat my lunch and take in as much of the continuous talking heads as my free time would allow. This is when I found out where we stood  and I began to get more and more anxious. 

David is the other JET working in my school. He is from Ireland, but on this day he was just as invested in the American election as I was. We both sat at our adjacent desks in disbelief at what we were looking at on our phones. "When will we know for sure," he asked. I told him we had a few more hours to go. 

In a couple of my classes I was able to take the opportunity to tell me students why I was wearing that button and what it meant. Most of the students in my school know about the American election, so their interest was piqued when I gave them the update. Every Japanese person I have talked to could agree. Trump-bad. Clinton-good. I made it clear that this election was historic for us. I saw the girls' faces light up when telling them that Hillary Clinton could be the first female president of the United States, and how huge that was. I wanted so desperately for Hillary to be a role model to young girls all around the world. 

I experienced my only peak of happiness when the entire west coast turned blue on NBC's map. I wanted to personally kiss every person in the entire west coast. But as I'm sure you're aware, my excitement was short lived. As my work day continued, the inevitability of a Trump victory became more and more apparent.  

When my work day finished, I went to see my friend Mari in her office. As we began talking, other teachers in the room began talking about the American election with us. One teachers reached out his hand to me with some chocolate in it. I am not sure of what he said but, I know it was something along the lines of "here you go friend, you're going to need this." Mari and I could agree I needed lots of chocolate and maybe some wine when I got home, to pacify my feelings of depression. 

I got out of school as quickly as I could because I needed to be alone to let the events of the day fully sink in on me. I sat on my couch and consumed no less than 10 mini candy bars (thanks Christopher) to drowned my feelings in chocolate. I decided to visit the onsen, thinking sitting in the hot water would soothe and relax me after a day full of tension. Even there I couldn't get away from the inevitable. TVs were playing U.S. election coverage on Japanese news programs. 

I walked home in a daze, feeling disappointed, defeated, and confused. Say what you want about Hillary Clinton, but when people lumped her into the question "is this the best we can do?" I never agreed. I believe she absolutely IS the best we can do. She worked hard for decades, shattering glass ceilings, blazing trails, and dedicating herself to the service of others. She DESERVED this, more than anyone. Donald Trump does not deserve to be given the gift to represent us. 

For women like me this hurt especially bad because we were so close. So incredibly close to achieving this long over due opportunity for equality. I believe she was our woman. She was supposed to be our first female president. I wanted so bad to be given the opportunity to experience what our country and the world could be like with a woman in charge. 

At the end of the night we all knew there would be some happy people and some disappointed people. I unfortunately had to be on the side of the latter. My disappointment will loom over me for some time as I try to make sense of our America. But, in a spirit of optimism I quote  Michelle Obama. "Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on Earth!"

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Japan's Political Structure

The current governmental structure of Japan has only been in place since just after its defeat in World War II and much restructuring had to be done. Japan is a Constitutional Monarchy similar to that of the United Kingdom. The components are:
The Emperor: At this point in history, Emperor acts mostly as a figurehead, which represents Japan in a ceremonial way. His political authority is mostly outweighed by elected officials. Japan's current emperor, Akihito, has been in position since 1989. He is the 125th in a continuous line of succession comprising the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world. He is well liked around the world an in Japan alike. However, due to his increasing age (82) and decreasing health, Akihito has expressed interest in abdicating, that is relinquishing control willingly before a transition is required because of death. In this case, power would be transferred to his eldest son and has not been done in Japan since 1817.

The Prime Minister- Currently in power since late 2012, Japan's prime minister is Shinzo Abe. This position is voted on by the National Diet and officially appointed by the Emperor. Minimum age required to hold this office is 25, the person must be a Japanese national, and be civilian, that is not in the military in most cases. Terms are limited at 4 years. Some of the roles of the prime minister include: supervision and control over the entire executive branch, appointing cabinet members, signing laws and other cabinet orders. They are the commander-in-chief of the Japan Self-Defense Forces.

This position seems to be a revolving door in Japan, which experiences high turnover, with very few prime ministers remaining in their post for a 4 year term. Some say the reason for this is because of low approval rating of politicians among the Japanese public. Taking responsibility of actions as well as the actions of subordinates is taken very seriously in Japan. Many choose to right their wrongs by resignation. Often minor issues lead to resignation, which has led many prime ministers to serving between 1-2 years.

The Diet- Pronounced dee-et, this is the assembly of people who make and pass Japanese law and policy. It is composed of two houses, first is the lower house known as the House of Representatives. It has 400 members, with 300 elected by small local areas and the others elected by 11 different electoral blocs that the nation is divided into.

The upper house is known as the House of Councillors. It is comprised of 242 members who serve a six year term. 73 of the members are voted in by the 43 prefectures (or states) that Japan is broken into and 48 by the nationwide list of proportional representation.

The Cabinet- Cabinet members are appointed by the Prime Minister and may be released by them at any time. They are also vacated whenever a new prime minister takes office. It can contain up to 19 other ministers, who are known as Ministers of State. Some ministers oversee multiple areas of policy. Some include: Minister of Overcoming Deflation, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, or Minister of in charge of the Response to the Economic Impact caused by the Nuclear Accident. Seems like heavy responsibility!

Interesting facts:
-Japan's voting age was just changed in 2016 from 20 to 18, which adds 2.4 million new voters.
-The present system of government in Japan has only existed since just past World War II,  after Japan's defeat and subsequent U.S. occupation.
-Japan's current constitution was written in a matter of days and has remained relatively unchanged since.  
-One political party has held power for over 50 years in Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party. In a future post, I will introduce political parties in Japan.

Stay tuned as I try to delve deeper into Japan's politics by writing about political parties and voting.

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