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A Solemn Walk

A Solemn Walk

Yesterday I had the pleasure of capturing this image in Nara, Japan, on Coming of Age Day where women who turn twenty years old wear their kimono, put on their best makeup, and go to the local shrines and temples. While there were many kimonos to be photographed, this was my favorite photograph I took of people during the day.

This is a scene which would be hard to replicate outside of Japan.

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Into the Leaves: Kyoto at its Finest

As someone who grew up in Central Pennsylvania, I was always accustomed to the presence of beautiful foliage when the calendar started to hit November. Even though I was often forced into raking or mowing up the leaves on my yard, I have always had an appreciation for the changing of the seasons. In my youth, I read about the beauty of Kyoto’s leaves, but never thought the changing of the seasons would be very different than that of the interior Northeastern United States. I was about to find out how wrong that assumption was.

Kyoto is always towards the top of all travel destinations in all of the Japan-centric tour books, websites, magazines, etc., and for good reason. The city is truly beautiful. From the temples in far off Arashiyama to the often photographed Kiyomizudera to the shops and bamboo groves in between, Kyoto is a remarkable place for both traveler and Japanese resident, alike. Being this is my second time living in Japan but only my first time here in the autumn, I made sure to venture to one of Kyoto’s most famous events this weekend and take in the spectacle that is leaf viewing (Japanese: 紅葉 Kouyou).

My friends and I hopped into the JR train bound for Kyoto from Sannomiya, Kobe, early in the morning to start this day. After an hour on the fast and comfortable ride, we had arrived at our first stop on the day’s tour: Arashiyama. Arashiyama is west of Kyoto proper and is famous for its shopping streets near the Oi River, the Iwatayama Monkey Park, a host of temples, and a large bamboo grove. We were off to a few of the temples and to take in the view along the water. No monkeys today.

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We started the day off at Tenryuji to see what the famous temple and ponds would have to offer. Nearly as soon as we arrived, we were not disappointed. The grove of trees leading up to the ticket gate already had some trees sporting a full array of autumn colors. Ranging from light green to deep red, these trees were a sign of things to come for our day trip.

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Once we entered the official temple grounds, another iconic Japanese autumn scene was upon us. A room covered with tatami mats set in front of our eyes. As we peered over the tatami and envisioned tea ceremonies past, the foliage at Sogen Pond became visible. This whole scene was classic Japan, as far as I was concerned.

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We continued our way through the temple complex, gawking with hundreds of other tourists at the changing leaves, not knowing what to expect around the next turn. The photos outside showed Sogen Pond in its best state, but what could we possibly expect? There was no way the scene could look as good as presented on the ticket booth, was there? Here’s how the garden looked. Remarkable.

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With gargantuan koi swimming throughout the pond and a perfectly manicured Japanese rock garden in the foreground, we all took a second to take in this beautiful scene. The vibrancy of the red and yellow cast against the permanence of the evergreens helped make this photograph. If we had come here one day earlier or later, the colors would not have been as contrasting as they were today. Lest I forget, kimonos were in full force, as well.

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We continued onward, and upward, traversing more paths filled with vibrant leaves and tourists taking hundreds of pictures. With a mossy undergrowth to our left and right and changing leaves in front of a backdrop of pines and Kyoto, this location offered a unique view.

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After snapping a few more pictures, we continued onward to the river to see the leaves cast against the water and famous rowboats in the region. Little did we know, thousands of other tourists had the same exact idea.

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Amidst the rickshaws, children’s strollers, and masses of people, we ate some homemade karaage on the banks of the river before we continued onward to watch all of the boats on the water. Thee backdrop of boats on the river made the whole scene quite spectacular.

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After a long walk back to Arashiyama Station (and a few sweets and special Japanese drinks along the way), we were back on the train and headed to our next destination on this trip, Tofukuji. Tofukuji is famous for its bridge over a small brook that traverses the temple grounds. surrounding the bridge and an expanse between the other side of the temple are Japanese maples and other trees. These iconic trees were nearing peak color on Sunday and we were in for a real treat even though so many tourists were there at the same time. While monks waked down the stone paths amid the tourists, I stopped to take several photos of the leaves. Here is what I saw:

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Isn’t this a remarkable image? We were all taken back when we saw the leaves and could not believe the wide array of colors right in front of us.

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No trip to Kyoto is complete without visiting the famous Kiyomizudera Temple, so we decided to make this our last stop of the day. To facilitate ore visitors and an unforgettable evening, Kyoto illuminates the temple at night during leaf viewing season and the results are beautiful, to say the least. As soon as you exit the train station in Kiyomizu, there is a strong beam of light that goes straight through the nighttime sky, guiding you towards the temple. Everyone on the train from Western tourists to kimono-wearing Japanese headed towards the beam. Once you get close enough, here is what you see.

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The leaves were illuminated, as well.

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While not in perfect bloom, the colors in Kyoto this weekend made for an interesting and photogenic day trip. The combination of green, red, yellow, and orange is something I never saw before in such vibrancy back on the East Coast of the United States. If people are trying to see these leaves at their peak, I would suggest going to Kyoto as soon as you can. The nights in Kansai have been getting colder and the leaves have been falling off of the trees here in Kobe. You should take advantage of your proximity to Kyoto if you live in Kansai and go see these leaves if you have the opportunity.

I had a great time and recommend a similar day trip in Kyoto to anyone visiting Japan this fall.

All photos and content in this post (c) Erik Jacobs, November 18, 2013, erikabroad.com. All rights reserved. 

Sights and Sounds from Elementary School Sports Day

Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in my Japanese junior high school’s sports day, or in Japanese, 体育会 (taiikukai). It was an unforgettable experience where I took part in the teachers relay against the ninth grade students, joined the teachers for a game of tug of war, and even participated in the traditional Japanese game called kibasen (騎馬戦) where four three people hoist another person above them and engage in mock horse battles. The sights and sounds from this day were remarkable, but my elementary school sports day was even more remarkable. 

On Satuday, I arrived at my school around 9:00AM for the start of my elementary school’s undokai (運動会)and quickly realized how it would be a much different affair than the junior high school sports day in several ways. First and foremost, the size of the crowd was much larger and the sports yard was much smaller than at the junior high school. The subsequent effect was a feeling of more energy and excitement packed into the school yard for all of the day’s festivities. The other main difference was that boys and girls participated in the same events and there was less of the segregation that was present in the junior high sports day. I observed this almost immediately when the elementary sports day started. 

Following an interesting and memorable march into the athletic field under different Western marching songs and the presentation of colors to the head principle at the school, the students took charge and the sports festival was underway. 

Each grade participated in different games and dances/activities that were highly scripted and extensively practiced for the last several weeks. For those of you that went to school in America, you know how lackadaisical people were about field day (if your school even had one), so I was so impressed by the intricacies of the dances and the techniques therein. The second graders did dances and all had different colored gloves. The third graders did a special set of paired dances with hoola-hoops. Fourth graders did synchronized dances with jump ropes and the fifth graders had an amazing synchronized dance to traditional Japanese music. The whole spectacle, much like the junior high school day, was very impressive. After watching both sports days, I wish we had a similar day in the United States. The kids took such great pride in their school, themselves, and their class. 

Sixth graders took part in kumitaiso (組体操), which consists of several calisthenic  exercises which eventually build up to human pyramids and human towers at the end of the event. It was impressive to watch sixth grade boys and girls form pyramids that were six or seven rows high! 

From there, several competitions amongst the students took place. Relay races, games played with throwing balls through hoops, and knocking over targets all were featured prominently. During this time of the day, I mingled with some of my junior high students who have siblings at the elementary school and also chatted with some of my coworkers. It was a great bonding and relationship building experience. 

The final event, and most memorable one for me, was a game in which the students rushed to pass a massive ball over their heads around the 200-meter track with the goal of seeing which team could rest it in place first at the end. Following several failed attempts (and one that almost led to one of the tents being flipped), the white team was able to put their ball into the final position and win the day’s last event. All of the kids were so excited; their screaming, yelling, and frantic jumping to make sure the ball never hit the ground was the highlight of elementary sports day for me. The below photo captures the excitement of the final game. 

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 Next on the horizon for both junior high and elementary school is the culture festival, happening towards the end of November. 

Please leave your comments below the article! 

Japanese Sports Day (体育会)

This weekend, my junior high school in Kobe had its sports day festival (体育会 in Japanese), which is something unlike any event that I have ever seen or witnessed in the United States. For those of you who went to school in the US, imagine something along the lines of field day and combine that with pomp and circumstance and traditional games and activities. The whole day is something I will never forget. 

For the past three weeks, my school and my students had tirelessly practiced, rehearsed, and reviewed for Saturday’s festivities. I did not understand why so much preparation was going into the event, but after witnessing it all unfold, I have such a great appreciation for all of the sacrifices that were made in the weeks prior to the sports festival. 

The whole day started very early on Saturday as I joined other teachers in setting up the seating for parents and neighbors out on the dirt school yard. Once that was finished, the opening ceremony and other festivities finally began. All of the homerooms made their own flags and marched in formation around the “track” on our school yard. As the students marched, Western-style military marches were played to help the students keep in step. It was a remarkable thing to see. Everyone was in step and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. 

Once the opening ceremony was finished, the games began. From relay races to traditional dances, I enjoyed watching the games even though I did not understand what was happening at all times throughout the day. Prior to lunch, our students did some amazing human formations during what is called kumitaiso 組体操。The students made certain synchronized body movements with their hands and arms and then continued on to make human pyramids and towers. No one fell and no one complained about being on the bottom of the pyramids; I will not forget watching it all unfold. 

Following a traditional Japanese bento lunch, I returned to the school ground and was asked to participate in the traditional game they call kibasen (騎馬戦). I was thrilled to be asked by some of the students to participate and willingly joined along for this game. Kibasen is a game where three people hoist a fourth person into the air and walk around the school yard, with the actions and movements mimicking those of a person riding a horse. Once all teams have one of their members atop the “horse,” the teams charge towards each other, with the end goal of removing the hats from opposing teams. I will never forget being a part of such a traditional and enjoyable activity like this. I spoke with many other people who are teaching English in similar situations across Japan and none of them had the opportunity to participate in games outside of the relay, let alone kibasen! I am grateful for this opportunity and will never forget taking part in the game!

My experience with kibasen and being a part of sports day was memorable and is something I will never forget. Everything from the perfect weather the synchronized marches and the traditional games made this an unreal experience on all levels. It was also great to meet many of my students’ parents, as well. 

Below is a photo of me taking part in the kibasen game with some of my students. とても楽しかったです!

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