Monday, June 23, 2014

Making My Way Around Shiga Prefecture

It's been a while, everyone.

What an eventful and worthwhile month it has been! With the transition from May to June came Hikone’s rainy season, and the new school routine into which I have settled. Almost on a whim, I accepted a friend’s invitation to join the tennis circle on campus. Now, I have never played tennis before in my life and it definitely shows.  Despite my ineptness for all racket sports, the time I spend playing is mirthful and carefree.  It gets me active, spending time with a different crowd, and lets me practice and work-through the many kinks in my speaking.
Another pastime which delightfully presented itself was the opportunity to weekly partake in English conversation with interested students, to help them improve on their abilities. I really value this experience, especially since I have spent time as an international student, because textbooks and instructors typically cannot prepare one for the colloquial speech they will encounter. Hey, classroom resources are solid tools, but at the end of the day they lead to a person sounding too rehearsed and formal for daily communication. Besides, I have realized most slang and shortened-speech a person can only learn by experience.

Fortunately, the rainy season has not hampered my adventures.  At the end of May I went to Kyoto with my buddy Daiki.  The first place we hit-up was Fushimi Inari Taisha on Inariyama, my first mountain.  This Shinto shrine is dedicated to the god Inari, known for rice (along with its derivative, sake) and prosperity. Most of you may be familiar with the red Senbon Torii, or “1000 gates”, which line the path connecting the outer and inner portions of the shrine. The trek was peaceful as we slowly meandered along, enjoying the shade cast by the many torii and trees. Several prayer and grave sites were speckled here and there, the smell of burning incense sometimes wafting our way. Many statues of kitsune (foxes) also inhabited important landmarks on the route, as they are believed to be the messengers of Inari. It maybe took us a good 1-1.5 hours to make our way to the top, with many sightseeing detours and rest stops along the way. Of course, after reaching the summit we took a picture of the sign and prayed at the innermost shrine.
In front of the main gate

Some of the Senbon ToriiDaiki is keeping optimistic about our hike
We made it!
Time to pray

         Next, we took the local line to travel into the inner-city where we ate sashimi for lunch and did a little shopping. After our tanks were refueled we set-off by bus to Kinkaku-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple. This is a common spot for foreigners and locals alike to visit, because--as its common name alludes to--Kinkaku-ji is covered in gold (“kin”). Unsurprisingly, the common visitor is not allowed inside the temple.  Actually, the common visitor is not even allowed close to the temple. I can only suspect the reasons. Seeing as the surrounding grounds were not very expansive, it did not take us long to find ourselves back at the entrance, me with a few souvenirs in hand. While waiting for the bus which would take us to Kyoto Station, we grabbed a sweet bite to eat at a café strategically placed within two steps of the bus stop. After getting off at the station, we dropped by Starbucks to see a friend who was working and then had something similar to okonomiyaki at a restaurant on one of the upper floors of the station.  A few hours later I was home and satisfied with how my last weekend in May had been spent.
Kinkaku-ji, I can't confirm if it is real gold ;)

I forget what this specific type of tree is called, forgive me
   The following weekend I found a public event right up my alley.  The Ramen Grand Prix being held near Viva City pit all of the local restaurants against each other.  Meena and I met our good friend Tenshi Kawashima close to where the competition was being held, and then together we agreed to chip-in on the 5-meal ticket package, so we could sample a good portion of the many different ramen stalls.  Looking back it seems crazy we decided to purchase steaming bowls of ramen on the blazing hot day that it was.  But, eating together in the shade with two good friends is always refreshing.  My first ramen had a light-base with plenty of veggies. The second bowl was very heavy with pork, and I liked it best because of the hearty taste. When finished, our crew stuck around to see who was declared champion.  Despite the different stalls we visited, none of us had tried the 1st place dish.  I suppose we didn’t have 5-star taste.
About one week later I went on a Friday school trip to the Shiga Prefectural Police Headquarters in Otsu.  For most people this would seem like a very bland destination, but I was really interested in whether or not they had a forensics lab and how it was managed.  While they do have a lab, we were not permitted to see it or be told too much about it. Some pretty neat facts I did learn was how there were only 8 murders within Shiga prefecture last year—all of them solved—and around 74 motorized vehicle accidents. It is easiest to think of a prefecture as a state, with several cities inside each prefecture.  Hikone, the city inside Shiga Prefecture in which I am living has a population around the size of Columbia. I find these particular rates of occurrence astounding.

Shiga's police mascotOld police bike.  This thing is a beast in size up-closeOne picture to sum up where we went

 That same weekend I went to the Hikone’s old Ginza district with Tenshi to check-out an extensive craft bazaar being held.  We arrived right as everyone was packing up, so after walking around for 30 minutes to peruse the wares still around, we decided to grab dinner.  I suggested the nearby takoyaki restaurant I had been to before close to Hikone Castle.  While our meal was tasty, it was not enough.  So, it was mutually agreed upon to visit the okonomiyaki restaurant we had passed on the way. Tenshi and I share a love of food, so two meals seemed more than appropriate. To finish the evening, a little extra excitement was added to our bike ride home when we were greeted by one of the first summer showers of the rainy-season.
 Two weeks ago was USP’s Spring Kofūsai.  In front of the campus many people from the community held garage sales which provided quality thrift shopping. Also, within the court space outside of the library there were many carnival-type activities for little ones.  The main action was found on and around the central quad, which had food stalls and a performance stage.  Foremost, I enjoyed several new dishes along with music and dance shows from the different campus groups.  There were even two highly amusing contests, one being similar to a most eligible bachelor competition, and the other for most believable male impersonating a female (attire, make-up, speaking—the whole shebang).  I also took my chances traversing a haunted classroom maze.  I ended the day by participating in a traditional dance and gazing at fireworks.
The following day, Meena and I were taken to Tenshi’s house where we spent the day cooking, eating and playing games with her family.  I somewhat learned how to make temakizushi, though to confirm I will need to practice on my own. Playing the game of LIFE was also a first for me, and I faired pretty well for not taking a job at the beginning of the game. Before we went home, Tenshi’s mother let us borrow a few children books for reading practice and had even prepared take home meals for us. I earnestly hope to one day be as gracious a host as both my family and Japan have taught me.
Finally, this past Friday I joined another school sponsored trip--this time, to Shigaraki inside Shiga Prefecture.  We started with a village which used to be inhabited by real ninjas! The grounds now contain a museum, buildings with many clever secrets, and several ninja challenge courses. Of course, the museum we started with had many artifacts to include mysterious scrolls and writings, various armors, and an assortment of weapons. After, we were ushered to the ninja-equipped house by means of walking and optional underground tunnel. Inside the house is when I learned I would not make a very good ninja (at least back in the day) because of my height. The ceilings were kept especially low, to prevent sword fighting inside.  Numerous traps and tricks would plague any uninvited guests. Right inside the entrance there was a leg trap meant to bust one’s shins when they rushed in. In compliment, there was a concealed ledge above this trap where a ninja could hide and unleash his swift fury down upon anyone caught in said trap. Next, a trick wall was demonstrated to show how a 180-degree rotation of the wall would immediately deter and confuse any pursuers. After, a trick door which actually opens from a side panel and not the two fake central panels was also demonstrated. Inside the kitchen/dining room there was a hiding spot underneath the ground fire pit which could be accessed even if a fire was burning. The ground fire pit was actually contained inside a tray structure would could be slid to the side to grant access to the hole underneath. Following the house tour, we were able to do many of the ninja challenges around the village. This included scaling a rock wall, moving against a fake wall on a narrow plank, and traveling along a log wall with small notches cut-out for gripping. Oh!  Not to forget the pond course we had to cross by balancing on floaters and pulling ourselves along a rope.  Lastly, some of us tried our hand at throwing shuriken (ninja throwing stars), and I am proud to say I got a bulls eye.

Ninja wall challenge

Tricksy ninjasWell-preserved structure.  The building materials and methods are so neatI could be an assassin

Some of the crew at the throwing range
Ninja climbing challenge
 After receiving our official ninja certification scrolls and eating lunch, we traveled to the nearby ruins of what used to be the Shigaraki Imperial Palace.  All that remains are a small shrine, a few informational displays, and the gigantic rocks which acted as the foundation for the pillars supporting the many building structures. The emperor at the time, Emperor Shomu, had moved the capital at least three-times within a five year period and Shigaraki was one of the locations. It was an ideal place for a summer getaway because of its higher elevation and seclusion, definitely a good place to retreat. When we were done rummaging around the ruins, the bus took us to our last activity of the day, pottery.  Though I have to wait a month to see the final results, I am pleased with how my first attempt went.  Pottery may seem really random and out-of-place in the day’s activities, but really Shigaraki is most famous for the ninja village and the many pottery shops.

What is left of Shigaraki no Miya
Pottery depiciting different Kami
 OWL POTTERY!  I had to contain myself
 Phew, that was a lot!  I apologize for the word-dump, but hope you enjoyed reading none-the-less.  Until next time, all.
1 Response
  1. Anonymous Says:

    It's always great to read your posts, Michael! Glad to hear your time in Japan is going so well. Looking forward to visiting Shiga.

    Brian Kessel

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