Try Yoshino in the winter?

We ended up going to Yoshino by complete chance. We received a message from a good friend earlier this month after she realized she had double booked some events of her own. The opportunity to get a tour going to Yoshino got scooted over to us and we took her up on it right away.
We had been to Yoshino on a previous trip, but that was only during the peak season, known for its incredibly pink cherry blossoms and many eager beavers wanting to try the sakura mochi under the trees.

This time, however, it would be in the middle of winter, which we soon realized was not even as half as popular during the blooming spring.

Although we were informed on the basics, the exact purpose for us being there were still unclear.

The journey to Yoshino was not as long as the distance our friends warned us about. After a couple of transfers and naps in the train, we were there.
We arrived first and found our tour guide waiting for us in front of the ticket gates of the station.
I remembered this place filled with lines upon lines of backpackers, all wearing hiking uniforms and carrying gear that seemed to come from the exact same store.

We were greeted by a pleasant smile and a brief rundown of what the next two days would be like.
The rest of the group slowly started to trickle in with the exception of one that would join later.

What they explained to us is that we were part of a trial tour, with the group promoting it called the Working Group. Those in the group were all business owners from different shops, restaurants, and other professions from the area. All of them had been born and raised in Yoshino and were school mates from elementary school. They all came to greet us at the station, eager to begin the day. It was quite the welcome. What would be was to give feedback, so they can get more people interested in what Yoshino has to offer outside of Spring.

After putting all the luggage in the car, we started the trek up the mountain. Along the way we got more acquainted with the guides and the area. They gave us random tidbits of information about the scenery along the way.

-The cable car there is the oldest in Japan.
-The elementary school is no longer standing, but all students that graduated would plant a cherry blossom tree.
-The tradition of planting started years ago and now you are able to see roughly 20,000 cherry trees from the top.

We would do our best to stick to the schedule, with a nice lunch awaiting us after a bit of talking at the gates in front of the temple.
We found the founder of Shugendo, En no Gyoja, right before the metal torii gate at the start of the tour. He was an ascetic and mystic, banished and banned because of the power he was said to have had.
His statue was everywhere, greeting us and guiding at each corner throughout the trip.

We walked up slowly to the main road that had shops filled with various sakura knickknacks and foods that also continued the theme.
We were able to taste test some sake that was being sold in the shop. The older gentleman seemed to be pleasantly taken aback by the sudden group that invaded his shop.

The weather was gorgeous and a godsend. It was supposed to snow that day but mother nature seemed to postpone the bad weather until we would leave the mountain.
In the warm sun we walked to the first shop to have lunch.

The restaurants name was Yako Sushi.
It is a soba restaurant that offers various meals with Saba or Salmon. The restaurant also accommodated to the diet my sister and I both share: vegetarian. They prepared a special plate for the both of us: switching the sushi wrapped in kaki leaves to delicious inarizushi.

We have not eaten such a hearty meal in a while, and left the shop in good spirits, ready to take on the rest of the day.

The first temple we found ourselves approaching sat majestically on the edge of the hill: Kinpusen-ji, founded by En no Gyoja.
It seemed so different from when we came two years ago in April when it was filled with tourists and energy. This time, quiet and people-less, we were able to see the temple clearly.
We would be coming here again at 6:30 the following morning for prayers.

The next thing that was awaiting us was the Kuzukiri experience at one of the local shops that sold it in different shapes and forms.
For those that are reading, I would love to explain all that we learned over the two-hour workshop, but would love it even more for you to go and experience it yourself.
In a nutshell, we got a science lesson, a cooking demonstration, with the cherry on top being us having a go at being the chef. We were able to learn about the Kuzu plant and then eat all of the delicious sweets throughout.

This particular shop can be found online at : http://nakasyun.com/

After the deliciously educational experience, we hopped back into the car to our accommodation for the night.

Dinner was at seven, so we had time to check out the bath area and our rooms. The sitting room was upstairs and we relaxed and drank roughly 100 cups of tea until the van picked us up to go to dinner.

At night the area seemed even more Spirited Away-esque with only the lights peeking out of the little shops and houses along the way to light our path.
Sakanaya was a cozy shop with the main options of dishes being either fish or freshly hunted boar meat from the area.
Both fantastically prepared I’m sure, but not choices for us.
Thanks to the wonderful cooks, however, a gorgeous vegetarian meal was prepared for us.
One thing we were very surprised by was how much they were able to cater to our food restrictions, and did it with complete flair.

After a lot of laughs, discussion, and jokes at the dinner table, we headed back to the hotel.
We had an early day the next morning, so we topped off the evening with Reylia leading a small yoga session with the people in our group.

One by one we all took our baths in the nice private ofuro. With our bodies all warmed up, we tucked ourselves into the futons they prepared for us. We had a great day behind us and only hoped we would wake up tomorrow at 6:00 on time.
———

Thankfully we did manage to hear the alarm. The sun had not yet risen. The chill air and silence in the room made an eerie pair, but slowly there was ruffling from the rooms across from ours — the others were emerging as well.

The morning prayers at Kimpusen-ji temple are held every morning, rain or shine at 6:30 in the morning.
They warned us ahead of time that the old wooden floors would be freezing, so bringing an extra pair of socks would be best to protect your feet from the cold. Sadly, we did not heed the advice and were left to putting Kairo(カイロ)in our socks.

The service was fascinating and like no other prayer service.
It started with a session of mantras with meanings that could not be made out by just listening. Sandwiched in between were more personal prayers for the people that were effected by the disasters in the past and for the people that are visiting the temple.
They gave us prayer books that we fumbled with and tried to follow along to what was being chanted. Quite tasking on the brain.
After a walk around the inside of the temple accompanied by more chanting and bowing to the deities, we said our thank yous to the monks. We were hungry and ready to scarf down our breakfast.

Nothing was better for that chilly morning than the ocyazuke they served. Warm porridge-like texture along with rice, tsukemono, and miso soup. A nice well-rounded Japanese breakfast right in front of us to dive into.

After picking up our bags from the hotel, we were informed that there would be a three hour hike in front of us.

We would go through various temples and then do a small purification ceremony to get any evil spirits out of us.

We visited various temples in the area with explanations on how many aspects of Shugendo were handed down from India. Although there are different parts that aren’t similar anymore, some offerings and ways of worship are identical.

Before heading to the last temple of the trip, we visited a small hut that monks come to purify themselves at. The ritual goes that you have to take your right hand and lay it on the thing in the middle and with everyone circling it in the dark while chanting. They closed the doors behind us and before we knew it it was pitch black. The man started and had us repeat what he had said. We circled it three times with people in the group poking each other and trying to give the other a scare. The ceremony ended with a loud gong that almost made us shit our pants. That was when the evil spirits are said to flee from your body. I wouldn’t be surprised. The sudden sharpness of the gong would shock anything out of anyone.
We made our way out of the hut and down the snowy path.

The second temple we visited apparently helps in aiding those prayers that hope for children and women that are infertile. We all laughed when one of us piped up with the line, “Yup! Sounds good to me! Let’s all get pregnant!”
One of those you-had-to-be-there hilarious moments.

We were thankful that the weather held up throughout the trip. Although it was still cold, the lunch that we had helped with that immensely. We popped into a tofu shop, famous in the area for having tofu in all their meals and foods. We received a little nabe on our tray so that we can slowly heat up the tofu ourselves. With a little dip in some ponzu sauce, you got a surprisingly filling meal. We topped it off with – of course – tofu ice-cream. Just plain heaven in the mountains of Yoshino.

The day was slowly coming to an end. We would have a conversation over coffee and cake for feedback.
Before that, however, they suggested one last treat to top off the experience: a dip in the one and only onsen in town. The guys decided to be squares, so it was just us girls who got in and soaked up the water from the rotenburo.
Sitting in the ofuro relaxes, refreshes, and brings about interesting conversation.
We had limited time before we would have to head back for the feedback session, but we managed to fit in some discussion about how a certain temple still doesn’t allow women up to the top. There is naturally a lot of debate around the topic and we went back and forth shooting down the reasons that the people in charge stand by.

After getting out of our birthday suits we headed back to the car. It seemed it had rained while we were enjoying the bath, and as soon as we step foot in the coffee shop, it started to rain once again.

It was hard to think of very good advice or talk about things we wish had been done differently because we had such a pleasant time. Nevertheless, we all took our turns in expressing our ideas and our newfound view of the area.
The delicious cake and coffee at the log cabin on top of Yoshino mountain wrapped up the day nicely. Everything had gone smoothly, and we got on the 5:07 train going back home. We shook hands, took pictures, and bid our farewells to the wonderful Working Group that let us experience such a fantastic weekend.

We got to know lovely people that we probably wouldn’t have met otherwise and shared this memorable trip together.

Gradually our new friends took their separate ways, and we made the hike back to our house.
We came home, made a green smoothie, and went on and about how cold it was.

The Burning Mountain

1036b68471670aad64d79247ccee84a1Yesterday, the Yamayaki. Once a year people gather in the city of Nara under Wakakusaiyama to watch the mountain burn up in great flames. The reason why the festival started in the beginning is uncertain, but some think that it was to drive the boars away from the city. Those boars just came back every year and kept terrorizing the people I guess.

Being only the second year watching the Yamayaki, I was uncertain of where the best viewing spot would be. Last year I watched from my friends attic with heaters and warm tea, not exactly up for experiencing the elements. What I learned from being in the midst of the people and the atmosphere is this: try to get up the mountain, as high as possible. Not only will you be able to warm yourself up slightly by being close-ish to the flames, but they have a Taiko, the Japanese drum, performance on the edge of the mountain. For those hoping to attend the festival in the future, abide by this.

I went with an Australian friend and a new friend from Malaysia. Unfortunately because of my limited knowledge, we missed out on the the drums by a minute or two, but we were able to watch the mountain burn from afar, also having a good view of the preceding fireworks.

Our hard work of standing in the cold for about an hour paid off with a hot bowl of Oden and the sweet sweet taste of Amazake.96_image

I’d say it was a good night for more than a few reasons, but there are two that stand out. The first one was the lovely pleasure of being in the company of a couple of fantastic humans. The second is that every time I go to these kinds of places I realize and am amazed at how little I know about the area that I live in. I love this place and I find it extremely difficult to talk about its history or even some random facts for even a few minutes. One of my new resolutions (Not New Years resolutions, mind you. Those I managed not to keep within the first week.) is to be able to give tours of my area and be able to know and explain to my friends that are traveling. Cheers to that, and Happy New Years!

He wrote a poem

photo-179In my last post, I talked about my first encounter with the artist, Mitsushita. Each time we met up until now has been conversations over two hours, the kinds of talks where you happen to glance at a watch and you jump out of your seat, surprised at how fast the time had gone by.

In the beginning, because I am a cheapskate, I had no intention of buying his art. After speaking to him however, I decided that I wanted a piece of this fantastic person.

He drew me —blue wig and all— but he also wrote me a poem. It was not what I had expected, and I was beaming.. As I read, I knew that during our marathon talks he had been listening with ears as well as heart. It was an amazing feeling to be heard.

I will write the Japanese and try my best to translate it into English.

たくさん泣いてきたね。
涙をこらえて頑張ってきたね。
涙を流せる優しいあなたへ。。。
あなたがもしも恐がってほうならボクはあなたの笑顔になりたい。
もしもあなたが涙を流すなら、ボクはあなたの涙を幸せに変えたい。
あなたの笑顔世界で一番キレイでも。ボクはあなたのキズも愛したい。。。
あなたの笑顔がボクの幸せなんだ。信じたい。。。
You cried a lot coming here didn’t you.
You did your best and held in your tears.
These words I will write are to the kind one that lets her tears fall.
If you are scared, I want to change your fear into smile.
I want to change your tears of sadness into ones of joy.
Because your smile is the most beautiful. I will love all of your faults.
Your smile is my smile. I will always believe this.

The Snake Handler, Mr. Matsushita and a Blue Wig.

These days I have been getting into a funny new habit – selling postcards on the street after work. I haven’t been out this past week because I couldn’t find a place to sleep in the city, but I will get out again next week if the timing works out.

photo-178It all started when I finished a Chai tea and a sandwich at the coffee shop near Shinsaibashi-suji. One by one the shops in the area closed down for the night, leaving only the footsteps of those coming home from the office, or the ones on the way to their questionable midnight jobs. By this time it was around 11:00 PM and against the shutters of the medicine shop, I see the artist Matsushita on the street open for business. There hasn’t been a night that I haven’t seen him sitting there, yet I had never approached him. I didn’t like the idea of making small talk when I had no intention of making a purchase. This particular evening was different however, and I decided to go and ask if it would be okay for myself to start selling postcards along this road. He explained to me that it would be no problem as long as the shops around were not open. I was excited to start laying out my small postcard collection. I admired this artist and the stand that he started packing up after his long day. Matsushita and his snake-handler sidekick Daisuke were about to leave. With a few words of advice about selling and pricing, they reminded me to watch out for old drunk men, and left shortly after.
I was alone and some people actually came up and started a conversation, commenting on my art and the blue wig that I wore, which was an attempt to hide myself from any potential acquaintances that could walk by. I enjoyed meeting these new people of the night, feeling very incognito.
One man who spoke English came up and introduced himself. We talked for a good twenty minutes, and he decided that it was his job to help me get more customers. His business strategy began with trying to lure people to my little chair by practically harassing them in English. His theory was that people walking by would be more interested if I started speaking in English to them and leave out the Japanese. In my experience however, that is 100% not the case. In Japan, people are afraid of things that they are not interested in. I wish I could be as confident as he was, but I don’t think I could fall into that way of selling.photo-177
After a while, and a few postcards lighter, Matsushita comes riding back on his bike. He was worried about me and came back to check on how I was doing. It was so thoughtful of him to go out of his way.
No other customers came to buy postcards after that, but we talked for hours about his life, what I do for a living, and our opinions of the conventional way of approaching work in Japanese society. His family had different expectations of him, but he choose to be a full-time artist. Now around 30, he questions his choices in a positive way and doesn’t regret them. He told me that he loves what he does and is glad even though he struggles doing it sometimes.
He has lead an interesting life, one very much opposite to the usual briefcase carrying salary-man you see all the time.  I admired his relaxed disposition, and desired his lifestyle.
What would your mind be like after meeting different personalities and observing the world all day?
I hope to go back to the shopping street and see my artist friend and his funky art very soon.

Mr. Morita brought potatoes

The first week of June is almost ready to bid us farewell. I woke up early this morning and grabbed my laptop first thing to check my messages and Facebook. Although I have a number of goals from here on end, I would say that killing my reflex of immediately reaching for my electronics would be high on the list.

Because we have been having lovely hot weather recently, I decided to take up a new challenge: Planting potatoes! I have been told that even if you have never worked with vegetables, the potato plant is a great place to begin. I bought healthy soil, followed the instructions I found on the internet, and after a month I was pleasantly surprised to find actual plants coming out of the ground. I showed them off to whoever stepped in the door and talked with neighbors to see if they could give me some tips. I was hoping to harvest my first crop this year, but after a trip to Korea I came back home to my house to find potatoes that had been long neglected while I was away. There was absolutely no rain while I was gone, and the potatoes started to rise out of the dirt, exposing themselves to the hot sun.

I was sad at the possibility of my potato planting efforts being in vain. However, as I was walking back home from the station this past week, I saw mypotato neighbor Morita-san walking up the mountain ahead of me. He lives two minutes down the hill and he loves to talk about gardening.  I ran up the mountain to catch up to him. In the beginning of my potato planting adventure, I mentioned often to him that I started making use of the big plot of land that I have. He would give me loads of advice and was excited about my new hobby. I was sad to have to let him know this time about the bad news. He immediately invited himself over to the house and told me he would check on them and give me a diagnosis.

He jumped right in and started covering the potatoes with dirt. He instructed me that no matter what you do, you have to hide them from the sun unless you want to eat very bitter vegetables. After a few minutes, he bid his farewell with a, “帰るわ! Kaeruwa!”, and left as quickly as he came.

I followed his instructions and covered my precious potatoes with dirt and weeded the garden. I thought that that would be the end of gardening for this week, but this morning I heard a loud pounding on my front door at 8:00 AM. Who would that be at this time? My sisters? My mom?

I let out a timid, Hello? with no answer and slowly opened the door to find Morita-san with gloves and a little bag in hand. I was surprised to see him so early. He had come again to help with the garden and also had brought new sweet potato plants to grow. After working in the garden for a bit, he explained to me what I had to do, and again was quickly on his way.

After he left I watered my new sweet potatoes and headed back into the house with a smile on my face. I now have something better to do than going straight to the internet in the morning: working on my new potatoes from Morita-san.

My bosses’ name is Bunny

11220839_10152807117600778_7347434529073034128_nThe restaurant that I currently am working at is an interesting place. Located in the middle of Kita-horie(Osaka, Japan), the upperclass side of the city, it is a little gem on the right-hand corner coming from Yotsubashi Station. It is a Spanish restaurant, with Paella, Tortilla, Pil Pil, all of that great Spanish food that you know and love, cooked by the chef from India that has owned the place for about nine years.

I have only been there for about three months, but I have learned a lot. I remember the first day that I started, Bunny gave me a run-down of the ropes and it freaked me out for a minute because it was a lot more to remember than the previous shop that I had worked at. The challenge was super refreshing though, and coming home yesterday I realized that working there has been a dream come true.

I made a list in my head of what kind of place I would like to work at a couple of years ago.

  1. A place where have a friendly relationship with other staff and the boss
  2. A place that had food that I would really recommend to family and friends
  3. A place that didn’t seat too many people.

I had forgotten about the list I had made in my head, and walking home yesterday it floated back to my memory.

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Bunny was born in India and grew up in Switzerland. His culinary career started in France and after coming to Japan worked in fancy places like the Hyatt before starting his own restaurant. He can speak seven languages, which I am sure is useful in the restaurant business(or any business for that matter) and likes hiking around on his free days with his two adorable children.

It is my favorite out of the three jobs that I have now, and hopefully I can be there for a while. The shop’s name is Poron Poron, and sadly will close at the end of July. Bunny is hoping to decide on a new place and have a different theme for a change. I am sure that anyone after nine years of Spanish food would be tired.

Let me know about the place you work. How is the boss? Is the atmosphere good? How did you remember the menu? Can you take peoples orders without writing it down? How much do you know about your co-workers? What have you learned from your job so far? Where is it? Will you be there a long time? What 10996036_10152723544795778_6108964435379518769_nmakes you a valuable employee there? 

If anyone is in Japan, or is interested in coming please let me know and will treat you to a Paella!

Go find me on that corner

photo-144Yesterday I was particularly sad not to have had my camera or Itouch charged. It was a big day for me because I tried something new: Selling my postcards in the middle of the street in Osaka. I would only be on that corner for a short time however, after some lovely new friends from Senegal would pass by and be the first and last customers of the day.

They talked to me on that corner for an hour about law, the United States, the future of Japan, and predicted how my own future would pan out.

After treating me to a tomato water from the convenient store, the two brought me the bar that he plans renovate within the next few weeks. The shop used to be a bar, a hair dresser, and a kimono shop all in one, with a lot of the supplies still inside. He seemed excited about all of the leftover things that he found there that the owners had just left. I got to try on a few kimonos that was upstairs and told me to keep one along with a couple of tabi socks and a bright red tote bag. We talked while trying to fix a busted computer and I managed notice the time to catch my last train.

I was very glad that I had met them in that way. It was funny because I wasn’t going to sell postcards. If I did sell postcards it wasn’t going to be on that corner on the side of the street. Lastly, I was going to work at the Spanish restaurant that night so our paths probably wouldn’t have crossed had something been out of sync. I just might be selling postcards every Monday after work from now on to see who else will approach this girl sketching on the side of the road. Go find me on that corner!