Valentines Day in Japan, and White Day?

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Valentines Day in Japan is a little different than the flurry of men in America searching for a way to get a girl or couples sweating over what to do for their spouse and worrying if their gifts will match up to their partners.

In Japan, this day of love is celebrated by women doing most of the work. Ladies from all around, crowd stores in the hunt for chocolates to give a crush or even multiple men. These gifts are either handed in person or left to be found by them. The most important part is not to have a secret admirer, so they know how to celebrate the following holiday called White Day.

On White day, any man who received a gift on Valentine’s Day reciprocates by purchasing his admirer a gift, most commonly a box of chocolates. This day falls on the 14th of the following month. The system is simple and does eliminate confusion and running around by both sexes when they scramble to find gifts. Although some could say that it may take away some of the excitement but that’s what makes cultural differences so interesting.

As I was in class in Japan I found a box of chocolates left in my mail box and my dorm was used by female Japanese students who wanted to make their own sweets for people. However, it isn’t just a day to give sweets to crushes as many of the Japanese students made and gave out sweets to new and old friends alike. And likewise, on White Day men would give back sweets to all the women that had given them something.

 

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How convenient are convenience stores in Japan.

Since coming to Japan I have slowly realized that convenience stores are a life line. Among all the convenience stores in Japan two names can be found just about anywhere you go, Lawson’s and 7/11. it took me by surprise at first because you can’t go anywhere without seeing a 7/11 and they aren’t even popular in my hometown.

Without 7/11 here, my life and many of the lives of fellow foreigners would be a headache. At the store, you can buy anything you would find in American stores, except the abundance of stockings and underwear they offer. A dorm-mate of mine had to take advantage of such an offer once.

Beyond that, to the delight of many foreigners, 7/11 is one of the very few places you can use a foreign credit/debit card to withdrawal money. Of course, however, you do get yen when you withdrawal.

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Atm, photo and document printing, scanner, fax machine, bus/train ticket purchases. The rack next to it sells an allotment of point cards for various websites.

The store also offers photo/Microsoft Word printing services.

One of the best things, however, is the fact that you can pay your health insurance there with no fee. I have also purchased bus and train tickets, and you can purchase them to wherever you like. Mine was from Nagoya to Kyoto.

Another little piece of help if you plan on staying in Japan for awhile or making online purchases, you can have your Amazon purchases delivered to the store.

Now then, I haven’t spent as much time in Lawson as I have in 7/11. However, Lawson came in handy when I purchased my last bus ticket from Willer Express to take me from Nagoya to Tokyo. All I had to do was go to the Willer website, chose my route and when they ask for payment you can either pay with a Japanese bank card or have your information sent to any Lawson and go there within a few days to pay it there. They have a machine that lets them pull up your info and ticket with just your name and a confirmation number.

On a smaller note, they also sell corndogs but call them American dogs.

if anyone knows of anything else unusual that a convenience store in Japan offers, feel free to comment.

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Staying in a monastery part 2

Before the forty minutes of Zazen that was the prelude to bedtime, it was time to take a bath. As the time switched from women to men, my friend kindly pointed me in the right direction.

As I entered, a monk had come in also. Through a series of gestures and bad Japanese and English, I still managed to misunderstand that the washroom was designed for two and he meant we would be going in together. This point landed home as I turned around to see a nude man casual enter the room. this wasn’t my first time in a communal bathing situation but it was my first time being surprised by it.

Upon entering the bath we sat only a couple feet apart. Things may have been awkward if we didn’t end up laughing about our inability to speak each other’s language effectively and stumbled over words to explain how we ended up in this monastery.

The second day started much like the first one. We woke up and did Zazen, ate breakfast and performed morning service. This day, however, was a little different as the Abbot asked me to help him and another worker lay down some new grass for the front of the temple. With my limited Japanese my conversation with the worker was very limited to motions informing me that if I saw a caterpillar, to rip it in half.

The Abbott took this chance to express that he didn’t feel my stay there was long enough and that I should not just stay for longer but leave school and live there. That conversation didn’t last very long, but I appreciated the compliment behind it. It’s always nice to have an option to come back regardless.

After I had finished, the day went on just as the others did and during free time I climbed around the old dirty mountain pathways.

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On the final day there, I still continued to avoid seiza as much as possible, and continued to be amazed at how much I was okay with the food. This day there was an event happening and we all headed out to the Abbott’s home monastery, where he grew up.

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The monastery was very nice and as we arrived all the monks and nuns went out to do chanting. as they left I was charged with staying with the only person that lived there, and elderly woman, whom was not to thrilled it seemed in having me there. I suppose this came from my lack of Japanese and the fact that I was supposed to help her in the kitchen. Despite having worked many food-related jobs and cooking back in the states, I let her give me her tutorial on how she likes to wash dishes. I have come to find out that many times in Japan there is a set way to do things and that’s just the way it is.

The woman appeared cold and only concerned with dealing with the Abbott, but we finally finished making the egg salad sandwiches, and other small snacks and waited for everyone to return.

I got another moment with the Abbott in which I used my time to ask him about the moon designs I had been noticing on small pillars around temples. His reply, however, was, “What is ten moons, 1,000 moons, 10,000 moons. Do you understand?” He then walked away and the elderly women simply looked at me with a smile and said, “That’s Zen.”

One moment stood out to me in particular though. I stood outside taking pictures as everyone was returning and we had finished preparing the meal. The elderly woman opened a window and called out my name. As I responded she said, “Will you please come in and eat.” it was the first time she had seemed welcoming all day. that marked a subtle change in the rest of the experiences.

As everyone returned it was the first time we had eaten a meal together where people were smiling and seemed to have a good time with a few laughs.

We arrived back at the monastery just in time for nighttime meditation.

As my experience came to a close, I found myself staring out into the night sky and then reading a book on Zen in the small light of my room. It was a moment I could only describe as serene.

I enjoyed the day to day practice of Zen, however, I was not a fan of Zazen. I did not feel that it was more beneficial than meditating on ideas and the self as opposed to losing the self. However, as I have continued to sit Zazen outside of the monastery. I have come to enjoy it more and more. my blood pressure has even gone down, which has been to the delight of some of my concerned friends.

Buddhism still interests me and I continue to read about it and learn more. I appreciate the life that monks and nuns, who live in monasteries lead but I know that it is not the life for me. perhaps a visit for a few days, but regardless of if I decide to walk a more Buddhist path in life or not, my place is out here in this world.

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When I leave Japan, What I will miss the most.

For those who know about the geography of the U.S., Japan in its entirety is roughly the size of Montana as far as square miles goes. This means a number of different things considering when many people think about Japan, they are filled with ideas of the variety of cultural sites and long existing history.

Because Japan has so much history and a vast array of cultural and tourist oriented sights with its relatively small size compared to the U.S. it gives the feeling that so many of the things in Japan are fairly close together.

Even going from one end to the other is but a day’s flight. This takes me to the title of this article. The thing I will miss the most about Japan is the public transport system. one can not only easily go to many places within a single prefecture but many times major areas like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nara can be visited in a weekend or even a day trip with the famous Shinkansensen.

In fact, I plan on taking a six-hour bus to Tokyo for a few days. The bus trip for round trip will cost 4,000 yen which is about $35. With cheap travel and an abundance of places to visit and things to see, I could almost say I’ve seen more historical and cultural sights in Japan than my home country of America.

The Shinkansen can turn a six-hour trip down to an hour if your willing to drop the extra money. Regardless of what route is chosen, it is efficient.

Even traveling around the Nagoya prefecture there are a ton of places to see and festivals to visit. A day pass for unlimited rides on a weekend is a great investment.

I’ll miss it because back in America everything is so spread out its hard to really see what all America has to offer, and at times is easy to feel stuck if financial situations have you bogged down. Many Americans can’t simply pay $40 or even $20 sometimes to hop on a bus and head to a major location within a day and head back that same night.

If you’re visiting Japan as a tourist please look into the Japan rail pass. It is costly but comes with unlimited rides in many areas and on the shinkansen. A great way to see a lot of places in Japan in a hurry.

There is a special kind of freedom and excitement that comes with the feeling of being able to travel so many places for cheap and with an ease that does not compare with living where I do in America. This air of being connected to so many famous places and events can almost be overwhelming when a person sees what all they can do. That is the feeling that nothing can beat.

 

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Hanami ; Japan’s famous flowers.

Hanami is a special time of the year in Japan where the famous Sakura(cherry blossom) appears for not even a month. There are other flowers in abundance but the real delight is the Sakura as they are a symbol of beauty and impermanence because of their short lifespan.

During this time people flock from all for a chance to view these flowers and sit underneath a warm sky enjoying a gentle breeze surrounded by Sakura trees.

I and my dormmates were not immune to the crazed sickness of hunting sakura flowers as we traveled around Nagoya to see them at the local famous spots.

A river in Okazaki where we took a boat ride to see the flowers.

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Not even the rain could stop the need for sakura viewing.

-Tsurumai Koen in Nagoya

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-Yamazaki river in Nagoya.

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My movie theater experience

As I was curious to see how different all the little things are in Japan, my roommate suggested going to a movie theater. After some searching, he came across a theater that showed English movies with Japanese subtitles and a few of our Japanese and foreign friends were interested also.

Sadly no pictures this time but as we walked down the rainy street in Sakae there was a small cafe. It appeared to be an average small quick stop cafe as we approached and walked in. We were supposed to all meet up at the cafe together but little did I know that the cafe was the entrance to the theater.

they sold all the things you would find at any other cafe, including small trinkets and baked goods, but around a small corner was a large hall with a row of theater rooms.

Of course in Japan, there was a specific structure in getting to your seat. After you have your ticket everyone lines up in the small hall shoulder’s bumping against shoulders. An usher shows up a little before start time and calls out ticket numbers, sending people in to find seats five at a time.

After we were all seated, the usher returned to give a speech about the theater and what I assume to be etiquette and rules. Once again my minimal Japanese comprehension leaves me in the dark.

perhaps this wasn’t worth a blog but it was interesting to see the structure of going to a movie theater compared to the gaggle that is going to one in the states.

The movie we saw was Birdman, they also recently had fifty shades of gray in theaters here, but from what I’ve heard and read it didn’t do so well.

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Living in a monastery for three days (part 1)

Since coming to Japan I have been perpetually surrounded by Buddhist temples and have taken an interest in diving more into it and learning about it. Classes went on a week vacation and I was giving the opportunity to spend three nights at a Buddhist temple atop a mountain.

One of the friends I have made here has lived a monastic life for over four years and recently come out of it. After lending me some books to read she invited me to one of the temples she lived at over the break.

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The temple is Soto Zen and has only been accepting people for about six years and is very open to foreigners. There were around three nuns and six monks, including my friend and out of them there were four foreigners.

I packed light for the seven-hour overnight bus ride from Nagoya to Okayama. I was informed to pack warm clothes but as we arrived and rode in a taxi up the warm mountain side, it wouldn’t be until later that I would understand the gravity of that statement.

As we arrived and walked across the rain drenched muddy ground, we were greeted by a monk who showed me the personal room they had set up for me.

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Waiting for me on the table was a daily schedule and a chant book. They were also nice enough to give me a space heater for sleeping.

This was an unusual time for the monastery as there was only one monk there as the others were out chanting for people at their homes. The event lasted for the duration of my stay so there were periods were there was only me and one other person at the monastery.

The day began as soon as we got there, my friend was assigned to cook and as I dropped my things off I was tasked with heading out to do what I love most… manual labor. They gave me an ax and a handsaw to chop and saw wood in half for the next 1.5 hours. I really do enjoy manual labor, it beats sweeping a floor or cooking for ten people. Although I was lucky not to injure myself with my history of clumsiness involving sharp objects.

As lunch time came and then dinner I realized that although the food was basic it was pretty good. There was always some sort of soup and either rice or rice gruel. Lots of vegetables were prepared and sometimes tofu but never meat.

Meals are eaten in silence and exceptionally fast. My stomach was even in a little pain on the last day from trying to keep up with their pace. There is also a specific process to follow for eating. Bowls and food are passed through a series of bows and very few words if any. At the end of the meal, one of the bowls is filled with a little tea and you clean it using chopsticks to move around a slice of pickle to get all the leftover food. Once all the food is collected in the tea you just drink all of it.

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Dining area. sit on the floor in seiza or cross leg

Following the meal was something far different than my dormitory life. Almost in unison everyone finished the chant and fell into a rhythm of cleaning. They all moved into place from washing and drying to sweeping the floor without words except for me asking what to do of course.

The daily routine was waking up at 4 am and practicing zazen at 4:20 for forty minutes. Zazen is meditation done in half lotus while staring at a wall and thinking of nothing or rather thinking of not thinking. after the forty minutes there is a ten-minute slow walk and then a ten-minute break. Once the break is over there is another forty minutes of zazen. It was here that I realized why I needed warm clothes. 4 am on a mountain in a monastery without insulation, built in an old wooden style is pretty cold.

the area for zazen is a hall you walk into with an area for laypeople and anyone that has to leave early. The main room is for the nuns and monks to practice and is called a Sodo. There is a series of drum beats and bell ringing to indicate that it’s over.

Zazen was difficult and painful on my knees from sitting half lotus but it was an overall enjoyable experience. As the session came towards an end and the pain started to set in, I was distracted by the early morning sunlight that shined in through the large windows behind everyone. In that moment the sound of birds chirping and knowing that I was up before them and seeing the sunlight slowly feel the room occupied my mind.

It is important to note that this monastery was not about teaching scripture. Zen is about doing and living. Staying at a monastery is simply about practicing Zen and thus the act of Zazen is vital, along with accomplishing daily responsibilities.

Where I sat

Where I sat

Place for monks and nuns

Place for monks and nuns

After Zazen, there was morning service, where they included me in performing the chanting despite getting off rhythm more than a few times. During the chanting everyone seats in Seiza, which was vastly more painful than half-lotus.

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Sitting seiza

 

After morning service there was a quick breakfast and then an hour break before work tasks were delegated, a.k.a, I went to chop more wood and they went out to perform their chanting duties for the event except for one or two.

It was good to get out of not just the college life but of the routine of life in the city. It never crossed my mind that I was in another country on a mountain, it was just about the moment and enjoying the quiet that was around me.

Only worrying about simple tasks like chopping wood and making dinner on time was a refresher from pouring over homework day after day. I left my phone behind and wifi so I could truly get away and wouldn’t be tempted.

more about the rest of my experience coming soon, including my first time using a Japanese style group bath.

 

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