In addition to writing, and writing about writing, I volunteer with an emergency preparedness and cultural exchange group in Tokyo called WaNavi Japan. Two of the recent projects I was really happy to help with were a book survival business Japanese for refugees and an etiquette book written by the wife of the current head of the Ogasawara family.
Back in March the famous department store Mitsukoshi hosted a number of old Japanese artisan/cultural families from across the country, who for hundreds of years have specialized in some kind of craft or art. For example making incense, or blown glass works, or horseback archery (!). Turns out you weren’t supposed to take photos in the exhibit, but I didn’t notice the tiny “No Photos” sign and no one said a word to me until the very last room. Well that worked out.
Last fall you’ll recall I had the pleasure of helping out with ICS’s newly revamped Japanese Culture Class. I’d missed out on the class when I was a student, myself, because there’s nothing like a rigorous academic schedule in a foreign country to really discourage a woman from also giving up sleeping in on Saturdays. I’d always regretted not signing up though (as I should), and I was really happy when my friends Motoko and Mina, fellow board members in WaNavi Japan, asked me to help out with some of the presentations and logistics when they took over the class.
Mina and Motoko reworked the class around what they saw as the key concepts of Japanese culture, and did seven pairs of lectures and outings to illustrate each concept.
After a lecture on the historic origins of tea ceremony (there is a LOT more drama, betrayal, and death than you’d figure), the culture class gathered at Mejiro Station for a jaunt over to Mejiro Teien. Motoko had snagged us not only the in-demand tatami room, but also the services of her tea ceremony organization for an abbreviated version of the tradition.
If you’re an incoming student, I can’t recommend signing up for the culture class highly enough. Either way, you can swing by Mejiro Teien any time and check out their gorgeous Japanese-style garden.
Hi new ICS students, I’ve got a favor to ask: help me help you.
As you’re preparing to begin student life in Tokyo, what do you want to know about living in Japan?
I’m helping with ICS’s Japanese Culture course, the first session of which is essentially “Japan Life Skills 101.” Though your two instructors are native Japanese and thus have all the info on all the things, they don’t necessarily know what you all, as foreign students possibly living in Japan for the first time, want to know.
So! Leave a comment, let me know what you’d like to see in that first session, and I will pass it along.
Keep in mind a) this session is on September 20, so you may have already taken care of a lot of stuff like buying a train pass, opening a bank account, getting a cellphone, etc, and b) you only get to join this awesome class, and the many even more awesome culture classes they have planned (a kabuki performance, a trip to Kamakura, an in-depth look at Japan’s culture of cute and the business behind exporting Japanese pop culture…) if you sign up for Japanese Culture. It’s first come first serve limited to 20 people, so be sure to jump on it as soon as course registration opens.
Thanks for your help!
Sakura season is almost on us, but the plum blossoms are already here. Last weekend a friend and I went to Yushima Temple, near Okachimachi Station and Ueno, to see the blooming plum trees. When we arrived, I also noticed those walls where one hangs little wood placards with wishes for the gods to fulfill was almost overflowing. My friend told me that not only is Yushima temple famous for plum blossoms, it’s the temple of a “Study God.” We read some of the placards, and it looked like grateful students were thanking the god for their successful school admissions.
My finals for the last term are already done, but I’ll have to pay a visit to Yushima next term…
My friend Reiko, who works for the Bunkyo City* government here in Tokyo, invited me to a culture festival they were holding around mid-February. It was, overall, a blast: “free” is very much the right price for me and my fellow students; Bunkyo is a super swank city where Tokyo University (Todai) is located, lots of richy rich Todai graduates live, and where I can only guess their taxes help pay for the very impressive government building the festival was hosted in. The entire festival was very well thought out and accommodating to foreigners, sharing different parts of traditional Japanese culture via displays and knowledgeable on-hand experts.
At Reiko’s recommendation, we arrived before noon to beat the crowds and went first to the Ikebana (flower arrangement) station. There an ikebana teacher showed us how to place the flowers following some basics of the craft’s aesthetics. This amounted to making a sort of triangle shape with the height/placement of the flowers. We were then given our flowers to wrap up and take home. Mine were tragically crushed by the end of the day, and I had to toss them – but don’t they look lovely?
EDIT: I can’t believe I forgot! While we were working on our ikebana, a reporter from a local cable channel heard we were foreigners who spoke Japanese and came to our table to chat with us. She gave me her card and said the video would be on Youtube in a week or two. I am keeping an eye out and will post as soon as it’s up.
Next we wandered downstairs and practiced some calligraphy, eventually painting our kanji of choice on our own uchiwa (a circle-shaped fan on a stick). Reema, who’s from Saudi Arabia, picked “suna” (砂／sand) for her kanji at our instructor’s recommendation, and I asked for something like sun (“hi”／日) but more complicated: so the instructor suggested the “you” （陽）from “taiyou” (太陽、also “sun”). I also recently learned from a friend that the same “you” is part of “youki” (陽気）which, when referring to a person, means she’s sparkling or energetic. Good choice, calligraphy teacher. I’m quite fond of my fan.
Later we went to the bonsai tree station, some very advanced examples which you can see above. These are all fake trees, crafted from plastic and paint, not real bonsai. We made our own mini versions by wrapping some bendy sticks in tissue and tape, painting them with brown gritty paint, and putting some green colored moss in the base. My little bonsai made it home in one piece, too, and is now keeping my fan company on my desk.
All in all a fantastic day courtesy of the Bunkyo City office. Thanks Reiko and thanks Bunkyo!
*For Japan know-it-alls: I’m aware “Bunkyo-ku” doesn’t translate neatly to “Bunkyo City” but since Japan and my point of reference, America, treat the governmental divisions of land mass quite differently, let’s just roll with it.