Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Why I Appreciate Japanese Television More Than American Television

1. Positive Stories- The number of uplifting, positive stories on the news and in prime time outnumber the stories of tragedy. I can't tell you how much better it is to hear and see the good that goes on the world around us rather than the bad. I think it is much more worthwhile to see stories on how individuals overcame hardship from the Tohoku earthquake to debilitating injuries or illness.

2. Politics- It was a great relief to come to Japan and not find any political commercials. It was a bigger relief  to find discussion of politics on the news mainly limited to news reporting at its finest, clear accounts of what was going on with a minimum of spin rather than talking heads, and longer clips and explanations of the actions of politicians rather than sound bites. While Japanese politics is just as convoluted and probably more infuriating than American politics in the actual conduct on the bureaucrats and politicians it is nice to not have a constant reminder of it in the latest campaign advertisement. As an added bonus, political campaigns prior to elections are only a few weeks rather than years long.

3. Commercials- Japanese commercials are generally distinguished by their upbeat and bright nature. Many commercials have a song and dance to go with the advertisement and invariably the music to them gets stuck in my head. I appreciate Japanese commercials for the musical flair, even though hours of agonizing over which melody advertised what product can be mighty frustrating.

4. Game Shows- Japanese game shows have been advertised in the US as generally wild and comedic. From my experience in Japan, they can definitely can be hilarious, but often the amusement plays out alongside a smart, engaging, diverse, and engaging game. A few examples are in order. The first game show that I remember in Japan featured two teams of eight celebrities who answered trivia questions in competition against each other. The game show was composed of a series of rounds (games) that featured different types of questions and setups. Points were accumulated in each round to determine who won. These features are all fairly standard in trivia shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire or Jeopardy. The difference came in the specifics. Each game featured a tic tac toe theme that forced the teams to coordinate who answered the question in the team to get the points. As some of the celebrities were well known comedians by nature this led to some rather hilarious, but endearing results, primarily because even though certain members of the team had more book smarts than others, all team members did their best at answering the questions even if they were making fun of themselves while doing so. Additionally each round featured different challenges, from testing cultural knowledge while a clock counted down, to quizzing about Japan's prefectures while aiming to score three in a row, to competing head to head with the challenging team choosing the subject of the trivia. Another game featured trivia competitions designed around a theme of an ancient Egyptian pyramid. The contestants were tested both physically and mentally as they tried to escape the pyramid or avoid falling into bottomless bits. A third game that stood out was similar to the game show Minute to Win It. It featured contestants attempting to carry a metal bearing ball on a spoon through a series of obstacles with challenges like throwing the ball through rings and catching it. While the impression the game shows made on me might have a lot to do with them being new and different for me, I also felt that the depth and breadth of engagement they required in fresh new circumstances made for great and instructive television entertainment.

5. Celebrities- Most Japanese shows include a host and then a slew of celebrities from various areas of fame that provide commentary, discussion, or competition in many of the shows. Oftentimes the celebrities watch along with the TV audience to the program and then later provide commentary or better amusement. Many of the shows are akin to the American variety shows of old and the celebrities provide recognition, familiarity, and unique flavor to each show. The interaction between celebrities is also great and I feel like I have learned more about the Japanese celebrities than I have about their American counterparts.

6. International Flavor- One of my favorite Japanese shows features Japanese speaking celebrities of various countries talking with a Japanese host and panel of celebrities about various rankings of countries internationally on different questions. Example questions are "at what age do parents first send there children shopping alone" and "what country uses bicycles the most?" The discussions and television clips are often quite enlightening. Featuring different cultures and countries is something I wish American shows would do more of. The international flavor stretches throughout many shows and especially the news. Events in China and America are featured the most due to their global significance. As I type this blog post, the Japanese news is doing a feature on the American election and commenting on the significance for China and Japan. In general, I think the international flavor is something that American shows can feature more than admittedly American news does a fair job of commenting on events abroad.

7. Music- One of the most shocking features of Japanese television is the amount of foreign music featured, in particular American movie music. While it surprised me at first, it is a delight to hear the Indiana Jones theme being played during the game show featuring Japanese celebrities trying to escape from an Egyptian pyramid, or the Imperial March being played while a bicycle with monster truck wheels rolls down the street.  

8. Learning- From game shows to variety shows to news to the rankings show I mentioned earlier almost every prime time Japanese television show gives its viewers an opportunity to learn something new and exciting. I have learned much about both traditions in Japan and abroad from these television shows and they have influenced what I have chosen to do abroad. Segments on Atsuta and Ise Shrines, likely the two most important Shinto shrines in Japan, were a major reason that I visited those two locations. Each show inspires me to learn more and fuels that inquisitive spark that has for many years has been at the center of my being. Television that asks questions of us or enlightens us will always be better than television that is just passively received and garners its viewers through emotions and drama.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Yuta’s Sports Day (Undōkai- 運動会) and Taiko (太鼓)Competition

On the weekend of the 15th and 16th of September I went with my host family to my host nephew’s Sports Day and a Taiko drum competition. My host nephew, Yuta, is a kindergartener in Miyoshi where I am living. Commonly, Japanese schools will host sports days for different grades at different times of the year. These sports days are referred to as undōkai (運動会) meaning essentially athletic meet in English. Races, dances, and various other activities are held at the local athletic fields along with plenty of music and food. The Japanese families brought lunch packed in obentos (おべんとう) and picnicked in the shade next to the race track where the Sports Day was held. My hostmother’s son and wife with their son, age 4, came up from Tokyo along with my hostmother’s younger sister and her husband. The whole family that lives in Miyoshi minus my hostfather, who was umpiring a baseball game, also attended.

Japan to Sept 27 117One of the various group dances performed by the kindergarteners. The sports day was held at the local track field in the sandy area open in the middle of the track.

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A praying mantis that Yuta and Mayu found during our lunch break. Yuta’s head can be seen in the background.

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The start of the relay race. All primary school students in elementary and middle school at the sports day were allowed to compete. They were divided into five different teams and ran in order from youngest to oldest half a lap around the track. The red and orange teams got off to a fast start and stayed ahead most of the race.

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Mayu running for the blue team.

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Action photo! Look at them go!


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Coming into the finish line.

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One of Yuta’s activities at the sports day was saving the day from the Green Goblin. His spiderman skills are excellent, especially when he has a hundred other superhero allies to help him out.

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Yuta is in the center of the picture on the far side, in front of the blue umbrella with his mother next to him in the purple shirt.

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Yuta. After saving the day, he still wants to practice his web slinging skills.

As one of the later activities, all of the fathers of the kindergarteners competed in a race for flags. I thought that the involvement of parents in the sports day was excellent. Not only did it fill their kids with pride and excitement for the day, but it also helped demonstrate how the education system is a community affair. Though there was competition, defeat, and victory, in the end no one really paid any attention to who reached the flag first, finished the race, or danced the routine the best. Both parents and children were too busy watching their counterparts having fun and enjoying life. Most importantly, they found value in supporting each other throughout. I suspect that this day reflects in some way how Japanese parents treat their children in their schooling, at least at a young age.

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Prior to the start

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Whistle, and they push up to their feet

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And they are off…

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The fathers ran in about ten waves of runners across the field to jump and grab the flags on the far end.

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Yuta with his father, Takeshi (the middle one of the pink shirts)

Shortly before the end of the sports day, my okaasan (お母さん), Taeko, her daughter-in-law, and myself climbed the hill behind the track field to look and Miyoshi Lake (三好池). The hill also provided a great view of the concluding activities of the day.

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Miyoshi Lake (三好池). Technically Miyoshi-ike (三好池) translates to Miyoshi Pond, but I think due to its size it deserves lake status.

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Another view of the lake

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The finale from afar!

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They concluded with a return of all the kindergarteners in their Spiderman outfits.

Following the sports day, the family minus my hostmother’s daughter’s family went to a Taiko drum concert (太鼓コンサート) in nearby Toyata City (豊田市). The competitors were divided into adult and junior divisions and eight groups competed in each division. The junior division competitors were primarily middle school age with some high school students. Even at that young age they were excellent performers. I was surprised to find as the groups performed, that playing the taiko drum requires athleticism as much as excellent musicianship. Each performer typically stands while playing and every motion of their body is integrated into the performance. Often they raise their arms high above their heads prior to striking the drum and in several groups they rotated drums, or played two drums at once, or played in closely coordinated patterns with their fellow musicians. The adult division typically featured larger groups and more difficult pieces including the integration of flutes and cymbals.

Following the competition segment came a short break during which the audience members were able to vote for the winners in the lobby. After that a professional Taiko group played before the results were announced. My favorite group in the junior division placed second and my favorite group in the adult division placed first in their respective divisions. Overall it was one of the best concerts I have ever witnessed. It was loud, raucous, and most of all entertaining, all the while these young and old musicians showed off their precision, coordination, and musicianship.

Next up… some pictures from Nagoya Castle and my trip to Kanazawa!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Seto Pottery Festival (とうきのおまつり)

On September 8th, my host family (my hostmother, her daughter, and her daughter’s two children aged 4 and 6) took me to a pottery festival in Seto. Seto is a medium sized town north of where I live in Miyoshi. It took about 45 minutes to drive there. Most of the pottery at the festival was handmade and came from the local pottery industry. Local pottery makers and food vendors set up hundreds of stalls all along the main street of Seto and the surrounding side streets.


Ceramic sandals ( zori- ぞり )

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Many of the pottery pieces featured cats, which are considered a symbol of luck throughout Japan. I will explain a bit more about the importance of cats to pottery later. Much of the pottery at the festival featured different designs or characteristics that make that pottery unique. The Japanese that attended the festival appeared to mainly buy pottery that fit the different characteristics of members of their family rather than pottery that goes in specific sets. Most of the dining ware of my own host family follows this pattern. At the festival, my okaasan (hostmother- お母さん) bought me a rice bowl to use at meals. Additionally, most of the pottery at the festival was competitively priced with most pieces having prices ranging from 100 yen to 2000yen (about $1.20-$24).

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Leaf shaped pottery

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I loved the nature designs on these sets of plates.

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A winter design

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One of the many shrines that pops up everywhere in Japan, this one was located between buildings along the main street that the festival was held on.

The main street in Seto ran along a stream over which several bridges had been built. Each bridge featured ceramic plaques or other forms of pottery built into the bridge construction. Other areas throughout the town also displayed pottery publically.

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Ceramic plates included in the bridge design depicting agricultural work

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Another ceramic plate

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Maneki-neko are cat statues that are symbols of fortune in much of Japan. The Maneki-neko museum contained hundreds of these cat statues, including many that were several decades old. The museum also included a shop where many more cat related items were sold.Summer 2012 through Sept 9 323

Ceramic maneki-neko (まねきねこ)

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Bobble-head cats in the maneki-neko shop


More maneki-neko (まねきねこ)


Within the museum itself, most of the maneki-neko were kept locked in glass cases.


A giant blow-up maneki-neko outside the museum.

After visiting the maneki-neko museum, we went to eat lunch at one of the multitude of small restaurants on an indoor bazaar. The restaurant featured traditional Japanese tables which are built low to the ground. You sit on the floor on cushions. I found that this was one of the most painful parts of being in Japan, because even with the cushions, it very easy for your legs to fall asleep and become numb especially when sitting seiza (せいざ) with your legs tucked under you. We ate yakisoba at the bazaar, but in Seto I also had yakitako (やきたこ), which is octopus wrapped in a ball of fried vegetables along with rice baked on to a stick and dipped in miso sauce.

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Lamps hanging in the bazaar area


Eating yakisoba(やきそば)with my okaasan, Taeko.

Yakisoba is a fried dish made with soba, buckwheat noodles.


Yuta (the grandson) eating yakisoba


Mayu (the granddaughter) eating yakisoba

After eating at the restaurant in the bazaar we walked back through the festival area and then returned home with a brief stop at a cafe. Here are a few more pictures of pottery from the festival.

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I really liked the dragon on this piece of pottery. It was one of several in a glass display.

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I picked this picture because of the extraordinary latticework on the pottery.

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This piece reminded me of autumn colors back home, which unfortunately (or fortunately perhaps) do not come until November here.

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An example of the variety of designs found at a single stall.

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My favorite piece from Seto. It reminds me of Starry Night.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Inuyama- IES Orientation

This blog is meant to cover the time from September 1st 2012 through December 20th 2012. During this time I will be studying at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan through the IES Abroad organization. While in Japan I hope to share many pictures and anecdotes with my friends a family back in the United States and elsewhere.

I arrived in Japan on September 1st after leaving Denver International Airport the morning of the previous day. I flew into Tokyo-Narita airport at around 4pm Japanese time which is about 7am back in Colorado. On the descent to Narita, several things struck me as I first view Japan. First, the landscape was much greener than I was used to, especially compared to Western Colorado. Secondly, the Japanese roads and canal networks have a very crisp appearance, as if they were designed in an ideal manner rather than laid in the haphazard nature so common to America. A third thing that surprised me was the large number of golf courses that our plane flew over. In a short space of time, I counted at least six different golf courses.

Once I landed at Narita, I had to proceed through Customs and Immigration, both of which went far easier than I expected. After that came a long period of waiting as I had to catch a connecting flight to Nagoya. Surprisingly, all of the domestic bound flights were called by the attendants in both Japanese and English and throughout the airport as well as other major travel locations I have been in Japan, there is a surprising amount of English written on signs and in manuals. For that, I have been extremely grateful, considering my limited knowledge of Japanese. By the time I took off from Narita Airport, it was dark and raining off and on. As we flew out of Tokyo, the city shown a pure white, compared to the dull yellow glow of Denver or Grand Junction. This purity was masked by a bank of clouds that swooped in from the west near ground level. Golden lightning also flashed out of the cloud bank.

By the time I landed in Nagoya, I was on the verge of falling to sleep where I stood. I found my orientation group (IES Abroad) led by two Japanese volunteers. We took the Meitetsu train from Chubu International Airport into the heart of Nagoya and stayed at Daiichi Fuji hotel. That night we also met our Program Coordinator, Masae, and Director of Student Services, Satoshi, before turning in.


A picture of myself at the Daiichi Fuji Hotel near Nagoya Station.


Western-style toilet with Japanese additions トイレThe buttons along the side control the bidet and spray that are used to clean the nether regions. The seat also controls the inflow of cold water into the toilet bowl so it was quite a shock to me when I went to brush my teeth, sat on the toilet seat, and jumped off as the water rushed in.

Sunday morning, we received our first orientation at Nagoya station. There we were introduced to using the Nagoya transportation system which includes subways (chikatetsu), various train lines, bullet trains to other major cities (shinkansen), and buses. Nagoya station is huge and the busiest place I have ever seen other than American sports arenas and stadiums on game day. The number of shops and trains to access is overwhelming. It would be very easy to get lost in the station or surrounding areas.

After exploring the station, we traveled to the site of our main orientation. Inuyama (literally Dog Mountain), lies north of Nagoya and is a much more traditional area though the urban environments blend relatively seamlessly together. Inuyama is famous for its Japanese castle, which is the oldest intact castle in Japan. In Inuyama, our orientation group stayed at a traditional Japanese inn, the Geihanrou, which was located on the banks of the Kiso River a short distance away from Inuyama Castle. Our orientation consisted of cultural events, three hours of Japanese practice a day and orientation overviews. For the Japanese practice we divided into three different groups by degree of Japanese study. I was placed in the lowest class, but still found the practice difficult as most of the students had far greater exposure and knowledge of Japanese than I did. By the third day of practice, I felt much better and had a greater understanding of what I still needed to learn in order to be successful studying in Japan.


Geihanrou- a traditional Japanese style Inn


While in Inuyama our orientation group was able to have several experiences unique to Japan. First, we visited Inuyama Castle. Inuyama Castle is the oldest original castle in Japan, though it is not one of the larger castles. It faced plenty of historical battles during the period of the Tokugawa Shogunate due to its central location in Japan. The exterior of the castle is a beautiful combination of blue and white, while the interior is made of primarily dark wood. Up close, the beauty of the castle does not distract from the fact that it is designed for war. The castle walls are protected by cliffs on two sides and a third side features a steep descent to the Kiso river. The lower foundations are stone and the interior stairs are extremely steep which made it quite nerve-wracking to climb up and down them.

clip_image008Inuyama Castle 犬山城


View of the Kiso River きそ川 from Inuyama Castle犬山城


Distant view of Monkey Park from Inuyama Castle

Monkey Park is a amusement park in Inuyama that many of the IES students wanted to go and visit. I really do not know much about it, but apparently it is overrun by monkeys.


Ancient tree at Inuyama Castle. The tree is older than the castle itself.


Window of Inuyama Castle


Replica of Inuyama Castle


Pictures of the forty some intact castles in Japan. Many of these are reconstructions. Only 12 original castles still stand. Of these, Inuyama Castle is the oldest.clip_image022

Frame model of Inuyama Castele. The model demonstrates the use of straight beams to create a lexible structure that bend with the seismic forces of earthquakes. Many temples, shrines, and castles of Japan are built with this style of architecture underlying the basic structure.clip_image024

A view of the courtyard and roof tiles at Inuyama Castle.



A view of Inuyama and Monkey Park from Inuyama Castle


A peach (momo) atop Inuyama Castle. The peach is a symbol of longevity and happiness.clip_image034

Some of the former lords of Inuyama


Another view of Inuyama Castle


A sacred rock at the shrine below Inuyama Castle


Part of the shrine at Inuyama, the central rope is connected to a bell (not visible) that is rung as part of a ceremony to ask for blessings. The ceremony includes two bows, followed by two claps, a silent request for the blessing, another bow, and a ring of the bell/gong. Also notice the presence of foxes and the twisted paper which are both common elements at Shinto shrines.


Part of the Shinto Shrine at Inuyama. The red gate (torii) is a common sight at such shrines.


A cat sleeping below a fox statue.


Part of the shrine at Inuyama

After leaving the castle and the shrine just below it we walked through Inuyama to a Bunraku museum. Bunraku is a traditional form of puppet theater. At the theater we were treated to a short show demonstrating how the puppets worked and then given an opportunity to try out the puppets and accompanying musical instruments ourselves. I tried out one of the drums, which I was terrible at, as it required hitting the head of the drum while most of my fingers were relaxed. I could not manage that particular trick even when several of our guides provided multiple demonstrations. The puppets used require as many as four people to operate them, using 28 different lines and levers.


A cormorant (u) outside the building where the puppet show occurred.


Shojō, a Japanese alcohol spirit that was the star of the short Bunraku performance. In the middle of the show, his face changes from white to red, corresponding to him becoming intoxicated.

Following the Bunraku performance, we were treated to a calligraphy lesson from a famous local calligrapher, Itoh Orson. The calligraphy lesson was given at a house in Inuyama that had originally been lived in by samurai. The arms and armor of the samurai was on display throughout the house.


On the road in Inuyama, heading towards our first calligraphy (Shodō 書道) lesson.


A suit of samurai armor. Notice the prominent crest on the helmet. This was used to distinguish between different samurai.


Some samurai swords (katanas)


More weaponry and armor at the samurai house


A shrine at the samurai house including cucumber, salt, fish, sake, mushroom, and one other item that I cannot recall at the moment.

That evening we at our dinner on the Kiso river in a small boat. Afterwards we viewed ukai fishing. Ukai is a traditional method of fishing using trained cormorants (a water fowl) in groups of ten. Each boat has a large flame suspended above the water to attract fish. The lead fisherman handles lines attached to each cormorant while two other fisherman work to maneuver the boat. When a cormorant catches a fish the rope attached to its throat prevents it from swallowing the fish. Then the lead fisherman pulls in the cormorant and forces it to expell the fish.


A boat similar to the ones by which we viewed ukai or cormorant fishing


Kiso River


Aboard the boat


The obento for our meal on the Kiso River


A view of the Kiso river from the boat


Ukai, cormorant fishing




Three boats engaged in ukai

On the last night of our orientation, after dinner, a karaoke machine was brought out and we were serenaded to by our fellow students in both English and Japanese. Popular songs included Justin Bieber’s Baby, Baby and Bohemian Rhapsody. It was a great way to end our orientation before we returned to Nagoya and school registration at Nanzan the next day.

I hope to provide an update on living with a host family and cultural differences between Japan and the United States soon, but for now I am just happy to have finished the post! Enjoy and feel free to ask any questions!