Biyodoin and Kiyomizu Temples

The other night, I spent the evening at Hiroko's house since we were going sightseeing the next day. Her mom made some delicious "homemade" curry as Hiroko likes to say. Her dad was out bowling for the night so we played UNO. I have to admit, it was one of the longest games of UNO I have ever played. I believe that at one point, each of us picked up at least 10 cards in a row trying to find a matching color or number and we also had 20 cards in our hand during the game. After that, Hiroko got out some huge playing cards and we played a couple of games. The next morning, it was off to Kyoto and Hiroko was off to work.
We started off at Uji Bridge. I am not really sure why it is famous but it was a beautiful bridge with a beautiful view. From the bridge we went to Byodoin Temple which houses several national treasures as well as the Phoneix Room. The Phoenix Room was supposed to be a place similiar to Heaven if I understood everything correctly and atop minature wooden clouds sat fifty-two Buddhist statues who are playing different musical instruments or dancing. They are the sole remaining Buddhist statues of the 11th century. There were also two phoenixes as well as a bell housed in the museum but no pictures were permitted.

(Uji Bridge)

(View from Uji Bridge)

(Biyodoin Temple)

(Another view of Biyodoin)

After Byodin it was off to Kiyomizu Temple. I really do not remember much of the information from Kiyomizu but there were several buildings on the property as well as a magnificent view. We had an English audio translation but by the time we figured it out, we were pretty much done with the tour. If the audio guide was returned within 45 minutes it was free so we were on the move. However, there were several spectacluar views. It was snowing during our outing and if you look closely, you can see a few snowflakes in a couple of the pictures. Kiyomizu was also a World Heritage Site - two in one day, not too bad. As we were headed for the car we noticed a couple of young women all decked out in make-up and formal dress so I snapped a few pictures. Hope you enjoy.

(The Entrance to Kiyomizu)

(Beautiful view of the temple)

(With Justin)

(Look up at the temple from the ground. The complex was rather big housing a stable and probably eight or nine buildings.)

(Lucky waterfall)

(Geisha Girls with Mrs. Aochi to the left)

Well, that is all for now. Mom and Aunt June, I really do not have anything else to put up at present. My apologies for the delay, I know how much you guys look forward to checking in on me. If anything exciting comes up, I will be sure to let you know. Only a few more weeks left in Japan so I am trying to make the most of it. Take care! Miss you and hope you are loving life!!!


Well, I got my passport the other day from the Consulate the other day so I can start proceeding with my flight home. I contacted NOVA Personnel and I am waiting to hear back. I am guessing it will be about a month until I can get my flight home so unless something drastic happens, I will be back in the States by the end of March. One of my private lessons is checking with the one of her friends who is the President of a company. Also, my dad is trying to make some contacts. So, we will see what happens. I am almost finished with my Teach for America application and I have a few other job prospects at home. I have been doing as much sightseeing as possible and I am going on a cruise in Kobe on the 3rd of February. Surely, there will be pictures. Also, I am planning on going to Tokyo on the 10th and 11th of February. Other than that, there is not a whole lot going on. I have some pictures from Biyodoin and Kiyomizu Temple. I will try to post some more pictures tomorrow. There isn't really too much else I hope to do in Japan and am content with my stay, even though it has been challenging.

On a side note, another little story. I was at Starbuck's with Hiroko's parents and got a phone call from Joel. He got back to the station and his bike was missing. I guess he forgot to lock it and it was stolen. I just started laughing when I was on the phone with him and he was laughing too. What else could go worse? Such is life in Japan. Anyway, I got home from the station, all ready to ride my bike home and couldn't find mine either. I was looking all around and thought Joel was playing a practical joke on me. I noticed another ticket on one of the bikes. So, I put two and two together - our bikes were impounded! So, the next day Momo did some research and it cost 2500 yen to get my bike back. So, today, I walked to the impound station in Shin Osaka after my lesson and got my bike back. I figure it will come in handy the next month. Well, that is pretty much the most exciting thing as of late. Other than that, just trying to stay busy day to day. Hope everyone is doing well and staying warm! Love you guys!

Tenpozan - Home of Some of the World's Largest...

This past Sunday, Joel, Momo, and I decided to go to Tenpozan, home to one of the world's largest aquariums and Ferris wheels. The aquarium has a "Ring of Fire" theme and has several tanks depicting animals which live in or around the Ring of Fire. Some of the highlights were the penguins, the whale shark, spider crabs, and sea turtle. The tanks were massive, about four stories, and there was a winding walkway so people can get an upclose look at all the different animals. It was a magnificent aquarium but for some reason, I seem to remember the Baltimore aquarium being better. Nevertheless, it was good to get out of the house.

(The aquarium and Ferris wheel.)

(This was a walk way you passed through as you entered the aquarium. For some reason I really like this picture.)

(The furry penguins, regular penguin, and little guys. It reminded me of the movie "Happy Feet" since the little guys seemed to have an attitude.)

(Lots of fish.)

(The sea turtle, just making his laps in the aquarium.)

After visiting the aquarium we went on a ride on the Santa Maria. Why there is a ship connected to Columbus in Japan, I am not really sure. Anyway, it was an hour or so cruise around the harbor and I got to see Universal Studios Japan, a giant red bridge, as well as several transport ships. I was amazed by the size of the ships and the amount of cargo they were caple of hauling. The truck crates looked like legos on the massive ships. It was a nice cruise and part of a package deal with the Ferris wheel. It started snowing while we were on the ship but nothing too heavy. After that, it was off to the Ferris wheel which had an amazing view.

(The Santa Maria)

(One of the boats with freight.)

(A view from the Ferris wheel.)

It was quite the busy day and after Tenpozan it was back to Hommachi and we went to an internet cafe. It was 500 yen for an hour but it was unlimited drinks. However, most of the time I slept. I guess you can spend the night at a cafe for about 3,000 yen, not too bad for a night of sleep. It's cheaper than a hotel but the accomadations aren't exactly the best. After the nap, I had a lesson which went well. It was with one of my favorite students so I had a lot of fun. The night ended when we met Hiroko for Mexican food. It was not the Mexican food I was used to it but it was delicious nonetheless. We had a nice meal and a great conversation. Joel and Momo went home and I ended up going with Hiroko to meet her parents. They just got finished watching a show so we met them at Starbucks. I always enjoy spending time with them and they are the kindest people. Her mom bought me some Starbucks bread and snacks to take home. It was a lot of fun and I went to Kyoto with them on Sunday. Hope everyone is doing well and having fun! Take care!

Kyoto Imperial Palace

The other day I was bored and didn't have any private lessons planned for the day so I decided to take a trip to the emperor's house. The one I decided to go to was in Kyoto and from what I understand, he has a couple scattered throughout the country. Furthermore, this was not a palace but a home for aristocracy when it was first built. Whenever the emperor's house burnt down, he would travel from one noble's house to the next until his palace could be rebuilt. This used to be a house belonging to the aristocracy but now is in possession of the emperor.

(The wide roads and a bit of the wall surrounding the emperor's palace.)

The house sits on a compound which is about a mile and a half by a mile wide and there are several parks as well as a State House for foreign officials. The roads, as you can tell by the picture below, are rather wide and the palace is still in use. The emperor can come and go as he pleases and the palace is heavily guarded by officials.

(The building the emperor stays in when he comes to visit.)

The compound used to be broken down in to three parts: one for guests, another for the emperor, and then an area the empress and children. Depending on your social status, there are six gates surrounding the palace which one can enter through. The largest is reserved for the emperor followed by the empress, nobility, and finally an entrance for salves. I entered through the one reserved for slaves. However, I guess foreign dignatires are allowed to enter through the emporer's gate as well these days. Anyway, depending on the rank of the nobility, there were three waiting rooms - the tiger, crane, and cherry blossom rooms.

(The three waiting rooms. The closest is the cherry blossom for the lowest ranking nobles, next is the crane room, and finally, the tiger room reserved for the highest ranking nobility. Those entering the tiger room were allowed to be pulled in by a cart but the others had to walk to their destination.)

(The emperor's gate.)

Some other intesting facts: The emperor's throne is 10% bigger than that of his wives. The same thrones were used when the current emperor was annointed and flown to Tokyo for the ceremony. There is no electric in any of the buildings and fires were not used as heat either. The emperor's of old just had to layer up - sounds familiar. There are three sacred treasures bestowed upon each emperor - a sword, mirror, and some other object which I forget at the moment. One of these objects used to be housed in a building on the grounds but is no longer kept there. Twice a year, in the spring and autumn, visitors can get a closer view of the emperor's throne and are allowed to enter the courtyard. In the courtyard sits an orange tree and cherry blossom. One represents fertility and I am not sure what the other one signifies. If you know any of these pieces of information, please feel free to leave a comment.

(The building in which the two thrones are stored as well as a view of the courtyard. I guess special ceremonies take place within the courtyard throughout the year.)

(The building which use to house one of the three ancient treasures.)

(The emperor's yearly schedule. I believe there are over 300 events listed on the board... he's a busy man.)

(The emperor's pesonal garden. Of course, it was roped off.)

I must admit, I do love visiting all of these places and although they are historical, I wish I could see more of them. There are very few, if any, temples which I have been allowed to enter. From what I can tell, the inside is magnificent and I just would like to see a little more. Oh well... On a final note, the current emperor is of the same lineage of the first emperor (I believe), thus making the Japan the country with the longest continuous ruling family. Hope everyone is doing well, my apologies for not updating sooner but things have been a bit hectic as of late. I will explain more in a future posting. Take care.


The Future

First of all, I just want to say thank you to all of you who offered advice. I have gotten some great words of wisdom over the past few days as well as some wonderful encouragement. I feel a lot better about my situation and I have a new direction. Unless I can find a job within the next month I am planning on heading back to the states around the end of February. So, I am currently in the middle of applying to Teach for America. Additionally, I am looking in to jobs in Harrisburg, something to do with politics. Or, I might work at an ice rink. However, I am also keeping my options open and am planning to apply to some jobs in Korea. I know there are a lot of Asian countries in need of English teachers... either way, I know I will be whereever I am supposed to be.

I had the biggest smile on my face today as I received the best news since arriving in Japan - my best friend got engaged today! Congratulations Michelley, I am so excited for you. The guy is a good guy so I definitely approve. I just could not stop smiling while I was talking to her and felt overwhelmingly happy. I could just see her smile through the phone and could sense how happy she was to be engaged.

Joel and I had a boat/raft race the other day. I do believe that my boat looked better but his raft definitely won all of the races. I am not quite sure what my design flaw was but it just didn't seem to work. The only rules were we could only use chopsticks and tape. I also started fasting two days ago. I saw online some individuals fast for 30 to 40 days - that would be crazy. I am hoping to go about five to seven days. I am hoping it will help me get motivated again, gain some self control, get my life in order, and allow me to make the proper decision in regards to my future. Joel has a new girlfriend - Momo! Other than that, I am just working on my application at the moment. Nothing else is really new but everyday I am feeling better, knowing that things will be getting better, some way or another, in the near future. Well, I hope everyone is doing well. Best of luck, keep smiling, and I love you all and miss you. Take care!


The Fear of the Unknown

Right now, there is a lot in my life I don't know about, my stay in Japan, my job, relationship status or lack there of, Joel's decision to stay or go, etc. And all of these question makrs begin to add up and they have begun to way on my mind. Yesterday, for the first time, I was ready to leave Japan, not the country, but my situation. I am sick and tired of living this lifestyle, of eating rice and noodles every day. I hate the fact that I live in such an amazing country but cannot find the means to explore its culture, its heritage. Most of all, I woke up and hated what I had become. I have completely lost my motivation, my desire to become a better person, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I set my alarm for 8 so that I could go for an early morning run. It went off, I got up, grabbed, hit the sleep button, and laid back in my bed. After the alarm went off three more times I set it for 9. 9 o'clock rolled around and I did the same thing except this time I decided not to set the timer. I ended up waking up at 10:30, two and a a half hours after I had planned. If this were one instance, I think I would let it slide. However, ever since I have gotten back from vacation, this seems to be the norm, not the exception.

To make matters worse, I cannot seem to find my passport. I went to the police today to report it missing. That was an interesting matter all in itself and I spoke with a two different translators on several occasions. They informed me that if it was found they would be sure to give me a call on my cell phone. So, tomorrow it is off to the consulate to attempt to get a new passport.

The first day of training was not exactly the most smooth. I enjoyed teaching the children but the organization and preparation provided to both Joel and I was poor, to say the least. We ended up teaching about 3 lessons total after a twenty minute instruction period and watching an instructor during one class. However, it is back again tonight. I am sure it will get easier with time and nerves had a lot to do with it.

Right now, I am seriously debating whether or not I should go back to the United States. I love Japan but I just do not know how much more of this I can handle. If I go back, what am I going to do next? If I stay here, what am I going to do next? What if Joel wants to go home and I decide to stay? Will I be able to find another roommate? If not, will I be able to pay for rent myself? There are just a million and one different scenarios playing out inside my tiny brain right now and I think it's getting fried.

On top of that is my situation with a significant other. She is in America right now and busy until the end of July. Deep down, I know I love her. I also know that I want to travel and see the world. So, do I move back to America in an attempt to make things work? What if she doesn't even love me anymore? What if she has other plans that don't include me? What happens if... I know, nobody knows the future but it's difficult when I am trying to plan a way to be with her and I have no idea when I will ever see her again, if in fact at all, for that matter.

Right now, there is so much but so little on my plate. If I could find my will power and get motivated, I don't think I would have any problem staying in Japan. However, if that is not the case I have a feeling I will be departing sometime within the next month or two. I realized today that I have been here for over four months now and until I depart, it will be close to half a year. I just have no idea what is going to happen next so if you have any advice or suggestions - what to do with life, with a job, in regards to the woman, etc. - please feel free to lend me a hand. I hope everyone is doing well. I miss you all and I love you - who knows, I may see you sooner than later.


Shakespeare and Life

The following is one of my favorite quotes from Shakespeare although the character ruins it in the end as he makes the argument in support of his vengenace on a Christian character. However, I believe it says a lot about people of different religions, backgrounds, and ethnicities.

In The Merchant of Venice Shylock elegantly states, "I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?"

Well said Shylock, well said. We are all people regardless of the beliefs we have. I am not condoning violence or those people with violent beliefs; nevertheless, humanity needs to develop its sense of empathy. Too often we don't care about other people, especially those we can not see or those with different beliefs. In the end though, we are all 99.5% the same. It is time to care for other people and think about those who are less fortunate then yourself. I have so much to say on this topic but I will just leave it at that for now.

Another one of my favorite quotes from Shakespeare is in regards to mercy. Portia is attempting to convince Shylock not to take the default on his bond, which is a pound of flesh from the chest. She makes the following speech:

"The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. 'Tis the mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown. His scepter shows the force of temporal power, the attribute to awe and majesty wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; but mercy is above this sceptered sway. It is enthroned in the hearts of kingds; it is an attribute to God Himself; and earthly power doth then show likest God's when mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, though justice by thy plea, consider this: that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation. We do pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy."

Just some food for thought. On a side note, at the current moment, I cannot seem to find my bank book or passport, two very vital items. Today, after my interview and lesson, I am going to tear the apartment apart to see if I can find it. If not, I guess it means a trip down to the embassy to see what my options are. So, keep your fingers crossed, first for the interview and also that I can find my passport. Hope everyone is doing great. Take care. Love you all.

JC's "Beard"

For those of you who do not know, I decided before at the beginning of December that I was growing to let my "beard" grow for a month and see what happened. The following are a few pictures of my "beard" after a month of growth. I touched it up a little and shaved a few parts here and there as well as my moustache. The picture to the right is of my good side because on the right side of my face, there was a patch about one inch in diameter in which my hair did not want to grow. I will admit that it is not a pretty sight but I had to try it at least once. I am planning on giving it another go in about six months or so to see what happens. Hopefully it will come in a little fuller.

(The flash hurt so I kept my eyes closed)

(This is a close up. I look like an outdoor's man, at least that's what I told myself.)

So, today is January 10th and I am sure those of you who have kept up with me know that today was supposed to be my first day of work back at the new NOVA. However, I received an email on the 21st of December informing me that they would not be able to re-hire me due to their current financial situation. Merry Christmas Justin! So, now I am back to square one and starting to look for jobs again. I have an interview on Friday for a company called Greyhound Schools. I believe it is a cram school due to the hours. It would be anywhere from six to sixteen hours a week which would surely help the situation. As of right now, there is a 30% chance that Joel is going to stay in Japan. The company offered to help us find jobs (which was a list of websites, several of which I already knew about) or pay for a plane ticket home. Joel went with the later and his scheduled departure date is somewhere around mid-February. So, that is on the back of my mind at the moment. Things are going to get a lot more difficult if he decides to go home but I don't blame him. This has been one of the most difficult experiences I have ever faced in my life and there appears to be no end in site. It would be easy to go home and find a job in the states, doing something; but, I guess I am just stubborn.
For some reason I have lost my lack of motivation. I am not sure if it is because I have nothing to do or nothing to look forward to or what. I stopped doing my push ups and sit ups and can't seem to find the energy to accomplish any of the goals I have set for myself. I would like to start learning Japanese and studying more. I would like to work on some personal projects. I would like to wake up before 8 am but that seems impossible as of late. I always used to be a morning person but for whatever reason, I can't seem to pull myself out of bed any earlier than 9. I think it is because I have nothing to do or at least that is what I tell myself. What is the point of waking up at 7 am if I am just going to lay around and read? So, I am hoping within the next few days I will be able to shift my mindset and find that motivation. Other than that, there is not a whole lot going on at the moment.
Joel and I went over to Hiroko's house on Saturday and she taught us how to make sushi rolls. Once you know the technique it is not very difficult, you just need the right equipment. I believe that I made two rolls which weren't anything to write home about but they weren't that bad. It was fun to hang out with her parents and enjoy a delicious dinner. Every time I go over to her house I always wind up eating way too much food; however, it is so delicious it is hard to say no.
On a completely different note, I went to the bank the other day and attempted to cash a check from my grandma. I walked in and handed the check to the guy I usually see greeting people. I have gone to him a few other times with some questions so he pointed me upstairs after observing the check for a minute or two. I took a number and waited to be called to the desk. The lady did not speak any English. I handed her my check, bank card, and identification and away she went. She brought back a green form which I began to fill out. I saw her pick up the check and she asked something in Japanese. I had no idea what she said but I responded with an "ok" in Japanese. She came back after a few minutes and I caught na na hiyaku yen. She just said 700 yen which is about 7 dollars. So, I figured that was the charge - boy was I wrong! Next, she grabbed a piece of paper and wrote down 5700 (the check after the exchange) minus 5000 which I shortly came to realize was the bank's fee for an international check and the total was - you guessed it - na na hiyaku yen (700 yen). I said no thanks and grabbed the check. So, mom, you will be getting an extra card soon from Japan!!
Hope everyone is doing well and enjoying life. Not too much to report on here. It is about 8 pm and I think I am going to go for a run to get some of the stress out of my system. I will let you know how the job interview goes tomorrow as soon as I hear something. Please keep your fingers crossed. Take care and have a wonderful day! Love you all!


Christmas Poll Results

Thank you to the 12 of you who voted. An overwhelming percentage of you (66%) determined that your favorite part about the holidays and Christmas was spending time with family. After spending my first Christmas away from family I now realize why. However, I voted for finding the perfect gift (16%) which was tied for second with Santa (16%). There is just something about finding the right gift for that person you love and watching their smile as they open it. If you have a minute, please take the time to vote on the right hand side about making big decisions. In a few days I will probably write a little something about why I chose that as a question. Take care. Hope you are doing well and enjoying life. I am a bit tired at the moment so I think I am going to try and take a little power nap.


Sightseeing in Hiroshima – The Atomic Bomb Museum, Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima, and Kintai-kyo Bridge

Since the museum was closed last time we went to Hiroshima, Momo’s parents decided to takes us back so we could have a tour. I must say, it was an overwhelming experience. Before I walked into the museum I remember laughing and joking around with Joel about something stupid. During my tour I almost cried a few times and afterwards, I was somber and disenchanted. Furthermore, there was a bit of anger which had built up inside of me but I will explain why a little later. It is difficult to describe everything that I saw and I wish I would have taken a few more pictures. Here is what I remember from the museum…

There are only a few things which stand out in mind nearly a week after I have visited the memorial. For starters, the reasons why the United States chose to drop the bomb as well as why it chose to drop it on Hiroshima. From what I gathered, the war in Europe was already over and the United States and the Soviet Union had already begun to claim their territories. Japan had yet to surrender. America had invested a lot of time and money (approximately two billion dollars in 1945) in to developing nuclear weapons and foresaw the Cold War on the horizon. In regards to Japan, there were two viable options available: a land assault with Soviet assistance or the atomic bomb. Since America wanted sole control over Japan in order to give them an advantage in the Cold War, it decided to drop the bomb on August 6th, 1945, killing over 140,000 people in Hiroshima within ten years. As if the bomb in Hiroshima wasn’t enough, the United States dropped another one shortly thereafter in Nagasaki. If there was another solution which involved military targets, I do not understand why innocent civilians had to be burned to death and die from radiation poisoning. Secondly, Hiroshima was chosen because there was believed to be no POW’s as is seen in the classified letters at the museum. Now this tells me that there were other military targets which were perhaps more strategic but were not chosen in order to save American lives. I do not understand how you can justify killing hundreds of thousands of people you do not know but not a single American. It just makes no sense to me.

The second thing which still stands out in my mind is the utter as well as everlasting destruction the atomic bomb has left on the city as well as survivors. Within an instant an entire city was destroyed, demolished without any warning. President Truman had given the order not to inform the populace of Hiroshima that the bomb was going to be dropped and several thousand people were outside when the bomb was dropped. There are reports that people were so badly burned that the jumped into the river, which by the end of the day and thousands upon thousands of dead bodies lining its shores and waterways. There were pictures of people with their entire bodies covered in burns. One display showed the skin melting off children and women as it oozed off their faces and dripped down from their fingers. I am not particularly sure about the physics but it seems as though there is a heat wave which is sent out after the bomb is dropped and darker materials are burnt. There was a piece of paper which was still in tact but the letters had been perfectly hollowed out from the paper. One woman was wearing a Kimono and the pattern was permanently imprinted on her skin as the heat wave branded the dark design on her body. A lot of stories and photographs were suppressed immediately after the bombing as British and U.S. troops occupied the city.

In addition to the immediate effects, there is also cancer and leukemia. There was a girl who was two years old when the bomb was dropped and she contracted leukemia. During her struggles with the disease, she believed that if she made 1,000 paper cranes her wish to stay alive would come true. Sadly, she died at the age of ten and a children’s memorial was erected to honor and remember those children who had passed away. Today, the paper crane is still a symbol of peace.

(This is the same statue as the first picture and all the beautiful colored items on the ground are cranes. Hundreds and thousands of cranes are made every year and delivered to Hiroshima.)

(A view of the Atomic Bomb Dome)

(A panaromic view of the city after the bomb was dropped.)

(Another photograph of the destruction. A lot of things I saw in the museum made me sick to my stomach and I could not even take photographs. In the foreground of this picture is the Atomic Bomb Dome so you can clearly see the devestation of the bomb.)

Moving on to a lighter topic, Kintai-kyo bridge was an amazing experience. The bridge is over 193.3 meters in length and 5 meters wide. It is said to be a an engineering feat as well as a national treasure in Japan. The view was beautiful as the mountains arose in the background and along the ridge I could see Iwakuni Castle. In the spring, the banks of the river and area surrounding the castle is besieged with Cherry Blossoms and I assume it is absolutely magnificent. The castle was the first one which I was actually able to enter. The outside was magnificent and the view from the top was amazing; however, the inside left much to be desired. I guess there was a period in Japan when all the castles were destroyed so that many of the castles standing today had to be reconstructed. I forgot to mention, in order to get to the castle we had to take an incline which had an amazing view. There was also a park we passed through as we passed from the bridge to the incline. Overall, it was one of my favorite places in Japan, probably ranking within the top two. There was lots of nature, lots of history, and lots of scenic sights.

(Kintai-kyo bridge - If you look carefully in the upper right hand corner you can see Iwakuni Castle.)

(Me thinking about life atop Kintai-kyo bridge)

(Iwakuni Castle)

(Armor inside the castle)

(One last shot of the castle)

(Justin and Momo with funny faces at the summit of the incline. What a beautiful view in the background.)

After visiting the bridge we went to Momo’s favorite restaurant for dinner. To me, it appeared to be chaotic. We walked in to one room and they sent us to another. There was no hostess to take names. It seemed as though you just walked from room to room until you find a place to eat dinner. The dinner itself was very traditional as we ate at a table which was no higher than a foot and a half. As we entered the place we would be dining for the evening, there was a large open fire directly in front of us and the cook was grilling chicken on a stick. The smoke from the fire was poorly ventilated and the room had a thick haze which made it difficult to see the far wall when standing. The tea hung from a rope above the ashes of the fire which kept it warm. There were no boundaries and I walked right up to the fire. In America, someone would have sued this place already for something or other. Overall, there appeared to be about eight or nine dining structures similar to ours and several places to eat outside (which were also filled with people on January 2nd). The chicken came out on a stick and a mini kettle which held a fire inside was placed on our table. A skinny metal grate sat upon the top and we laid the meat directly on metal. I must say, it was rather an interesting dining performance and I am not sure if Japanese people eat there for the experience or the quality of the food.

The final place we visited on the 3rd was Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima. Momo explained to me that in Japan, this is place is considered to be one of the three most beautiful locations. Needless to say, I was excited to go. Our adventure began the night before as we went to Round One, a sports facility. We played ping pong as well as several other games with Momo and her friends. By the time we were ready to leave it was already 3 am by which point I decided I was going to stay up the entire night since we would not even get home until 4:30 in the morning. On our way back we stopped at the convenience store and picked up some drinks and snacks. Anyway, Momo’s mom served breakfast around eight – French onion soup, tea, and I still had some beer left from the night before. I must say, it felt kind of awkward drinking beer with breakfast but since I had yet to fall asleep I figured why not.

We left the house shortly thereafter and went to Momo’s uncle’s house. We followed him to the pier and hopped on a boat. The uncle’s friend owns a boat which he uses to transport people to and fro as the shrine is on an island. Once again, my motion sickness got the best of me so I sat outside. I had already had three cups of coffee and it was probably 30 degrees with the wind chill factored in on the back of the boat; but, I still think I fell asleep for a minute or two. We got to the island and did some sightseeing for a few hours. There were a lot of different temples and shrines as well as a few pagodas. I must say, this place was extremely beautiful as well, especially after the enjoyable boat ride. It was another beautiful location in Japan and the picture from the top of the blog comes from Miyajima.

(The view from the boat as we approached the island.)

(Itsukushima Shrine. It was pretty interesting because it is the first shrine I have seen actually in the water.)

(Itsukushima Shrine)

(A view of a few of the temples nestled in to the foothills of the mountain on the island. The island was created for the gods; therefore, there are no human graveyards permitted on the island.)

(The lucky creature. Not exactly sure what it is, all that I know is that it is lucky! So, I put some money in its mouth.)

(The five storied pagoda)

(To the right you can see the five storied pagoda and on the left is a huge shrine. Hiroshima is known for its paddles which are used in some sort of spiritual way to pray. Inside the temple to the left there were hundreds of paddles ranging in size as well as lots of pictures.)

(Inside the aforementioned temple)
Well everybody, as far as I can tell, that concludes my New Year's trip to Hiroshima. If you have any questions about anything feel free to send me an email. Hope everyone is doing great and I know I forgot to mention it before so...
Hope everyone is doing well and had a very enjoyable New Year. Also, I hope you kept the pounds off over the holiday, I know I didn't. Take care, miss you all, and love you.


My First Japanese New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Celebration

In Japan, as far as I can tell, New Years is the biggest holiday. Almost everyone has off work for a few days, if not a week and most people return to their home town to spend time with their families. I am not really sure why there is such an emphasis on New Years other than the fact that it is a fresh start; furthermore, it does not seem to be linked to any religious tradition or belief. The following is my account of my New Year celebration:

New Year’s Eve was nothing special and I hung out at the house with Joel and Momo for the whole day. The night before there was a party and a couple of people spent the night. Both of her friends that spent the night did not end up going home until around three in the afternoon. So, I gather there is nothing special that happens in the morning. The festivities did not start until dinner time at which point I had my first bowl of toshikoshi soba (noodles and fish in a soup is the best way I can describe it) which is meant to bridge the gap between the old year and new and upcoming year. I also ate some sushi with the soba.

(Toshikoshi soba and sushi)

After dinner, the whole family went in to the family room and we hung out for a couple of hours. We watched the Red/White show on television and enjoyed each others company. For those of you who do not know, the Red/White show is a singing competition between the best female and male singers; the teams are divided by sex and the women represent the Red team. There is also a pink team which is comprised of three members – I’ll let you guess their sexuality. Anyway, after watching television, we headed to the temple which was close to Momo’s house.

(Mariko and Momo and in the background is the Red/White show. Of course, the White team won!)
Her grandma stopped by the house at about ten minutes till. In the background, I could hear the temple bell as it gave its first chime. We quickly headed to the temple and climbed the temple steps. Inside there were three rows of chairs and a few heaters. Our first order of business was to pray. With the prayer beads in hand I knelt down and placed my 15 yen into the slot, picked up a pinch of spices and threw them in to the pot, and said my prayer. After the prayer I had some special New Year’s alcohol which tasted like a sweet oatmeal soup. Not exactly sure what the point of the alcohol was but Momo said it was to keep us warm.

(The Temple entrance)

(The location where they serve the oatmeal alcohol)

(My New Year's Prayer - wonder what it was...)
(Still praying but from this angle you can see a bit more of the temple.)

After drinking the alcohol I headed outside with the others and filed into line. There was a line to strike the bell. From the little bit that I know, the bell is stricken 108 times which represents all the human desires. I believe it is a Buddhist belief but I am not sure. Anyway, I waited in line for about 30 minutes and eventually got to ring the bell. I was number 81. I climbed over the fence and it was back to Momo’s house to hang out. We stayed up until about three or so just chit chatting and hanging out. I guess a lot of younger people just hang out and drink, similar to what they do in the United States.
(Bell ring number 81 with monk in the background. You can see the people in the far background inching their way along the outside of the wooden fence.)

(The bell during the day time. There are a set of steps behind the left side wall which you walk up. Then, you walk around all four sides, climb over the wooden beam, ring the bell, climb back over the beam and then go back down the steps.)

On New Year’s Day I awoke to brunch which was served around 10:30 am – just keep that in mind when I describe some of the food I ate. We ended up eating a special meal for lunch which Momo’s mother and father made. First, a beautiful black tray which was beautifully decorated with food was placed in front of us. Next, her mom cooked some oysters which Hiroshima is famous for. I must admit, I do believe they were the most delicious oysters I have ever eaten in my entire life; they just melted in your mouth. The oysters were followed by homemade sushi which her mother prepared right in front of us. There were several different kinds of fish as well as some other delicacies. Shortly after Momo’s mother placed something in front of me, Momo grabbed her translator and I realized I was going to be eating something special. Before I ate it I was informed that I would be dining on sea urchin. Shortly before the sea urchin it was shark eggs. Like I said, I ate some interesting foods on this trip. Momo’s mother went and made some more oysters for us so I decided to try my hand at making sushi, not the roll but a different kind. I must say that although it looks easy, it is rather difficult to get the proper amount and form the rice in to the correct shape. You will be able to tell which sushi is mine in the picture.

(The serving tray with Hiroshima oysters right in the center.)

(Momo, her youngest sister Sare, and Mariko the middle sister)

(Sea urchin on the left and salmon on the right. The sea urchin was different and I would probably eat it again at some point.)

(Me making sushi)

(Guess which one is the American made one... yep, the one on the left as you look at the picture. I should have thrown another piece of fish on it to super size it!)

After lunch it was time for otoshiodama which is an envelope that is given on New Year’s Day to all the children. Often, grandparents give their grandchildren envelopes as well. I am sure you have already guessed what is inside the envelope – money. I do not know how much each child receives and I am sure it varies greatly between families, but it is usually the only gift given throughout the entire year. So, I am sure it is a hefty amount. Of course, Momo’s kindhearted parents had an envelope for both Joel and I. I was very grateful for the gift I received and let me tell you, it was a lot more than I expected from people I had just met three days earlier.

(New Year's envelope)

Shortly after we finished eating we packed into the car and headed for a shrine. We arrived at the location and Momo’s father dropped us off. We stepped in to line with hundreds of other Japanese people and slowly made our way up the hill, past the booths of food and good luck charms, up a couple of flights of steps, and finally found ourselves at the front of the shrine after 30 minutes or so. This time, I threw in 10 yen and while I was making my wish, a woman brushed a white good luck thingy (sorry, that is the best description I can come up with – see the picture) on my head while I prayed. After my short New Year’s prayer I went and got my fortune for the year. Momo ended up getting the best one possible, Joel the fourth best, and I was second to the bottom. That’s okay with me because I don’t need a lot of luck, just a little bit that isn’t bad and I should be okay. Anyway, after Momo translated my fortune, which said something along the lines of help other people and you will be happy as well as she will come, I tied it to a tree with hundreds of others. And that folks, was my first New Years in Japan.

(The line to the shrine. This is about 1/8th of the line as it stretched up to the shrine and also down a hill and around a corner down the sidewalk. On the left hand side you can see some of the booths. The two people in front of me are Momo's parents on the right side.)

(The good luck white thing which touched my head.)

(The tree which held the fortunes. Momo got the best fortune and was supposed to keep it but instead she tied it to the tree. At the time, she did not know she was supposed to keep it. Momo Momo Momo...)
On a side note, many of you know that I do not believe in the whole idea of New Year’s Resolutions. This year, although there are several aspects of my life which I want to improve, I have decided to adopt a slogan, a personal motto. The inspiration for the motto came from a friend who had too much to drink one night and then went to see his girlfriend. The girlfriend asked what he was doing with his life and he simply replied – “Whatever I would like.” This is now my slogan for 2008. There is a second part but it plays a minor role (number two – Stay Positive!) I am tired of denying myself pleasures or feeling bad for eating meat. I am tired of being so hard on myself for not going for a run or taking a nap. So, this year, I am going to do whatever I would like and not feel bad about. If I would like to have a smoke, I am going to smoke. If I would like to nap, I am going to. If I would like to eat meat, I am going to. I have a feeling that this is going to be the best or possibly worst year of my life and I am looking forward to living by the new motto.