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.

My Sketching Pilgrimage

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It has been a while since I decided to make the pilgrimage up the mountain to the local temple. I’d have to say that living next to Hozanji has been one the biggest neglected treats that I am slowly learning to take advantage of.

After taking a few friends up on a mini tour to see the area yesterday evening, it reminded me of all the beauty Ikoma has to offer.

With some inspiration from the dinner guests yesterday, I decided that today I would spend a good chunk of time sitting and sketching something up there.

I wanted to pretend I was not in my area and forget about work and all of the things I make my brain think about these days.

Walking up the mountain is a workout in itself with steps leading all the way to Hozanji. Along the way you can find anything from hippie cafe’s to accessory shops, to my friends bar to tea houses. There are tons of hidden paths just waiting to be discovered.

I bowed at the gates to let the deities know I was going to be around for awhile. I entered and started to look around for something to draw. I couldn’t find anything that drew me in immediately, but I started a conversation with the old monk in the shop exchanging dirty ten yen coins for polished ones to offer to the gods. A question about the correct way to throw the coins into the box lead to a rant for an hour about the small differences between people who know how to pray and those who just go through the motions. In the middle of our conversation I got my sketchpad ready, and started to draw his post. I took breaks in between and he showed me pictures from him preforming the fire ceremony and images from when he first got purified to be a monk. Old, old photos of him struggling to stand under a waterfall in Kyoto, the strong current pushing him down to the rocks.

Making a long story short, I got a few history lessons while sketching in a temple in Ikoma, Japan. I finished off the day with frozen fingers, a relaxed mind, and delectable tea.

There are a lot of lessons that can be learned from the temple, but also many I learned on the way home from the chill feline who has nothing better to do than lay around and love on visitors that stop by for a pat. Today really was a treat, in more ways than one.

amemini

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!

Oh, the things I wanted to be.

Here in Japanland, I’m currently working three different jobs in the Kansai area. I work part-time at Universal Studios, Kindai University, and Kindai Elementary school throughout the week, enjoying the different dynamics of each position. In the past as well, I worked on and off at different restaurants and learned a little more about how to work with customers. Despite the busy schedule, there is one position that I currently have my eye on. This one is different from the work that I have done up until now, and involves working at home from the computer. When I found it online, I instantly started daydreaming about applying for a job there. Yesterday I was challenged to think about why I want the job and be explicit about the reasons as to why this company would be a good match for me.

While I was pondering and doing a bit of writing for this, I got drawn back in time and thought about job aspirations from when I was younger.

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I switched dream jobs a lot, but I enjoyed the idea of each one. Perhaps from reflecting on my younger self, I will be able to have a clearer answer as to my reasons for wanting to work from the computer.


When I was 5 years old, it was my dream to be Minnie Mouse. I don’t know how I planned on transforming into a fictional cartoon character, but I just wanted to become her. I liked the idea of it and had no concrete reasons for my passions.

When I was 8 years old, I wanted to be a banker because the uncle that I admired and aspired to be like was(and currently is)the manager of a bank in La Crosse, Wisconsin. He also told me that my math skills would get much better if I would work there. I liked the idea of being able to improve in something I wasn’t confident in while doing work that I liked.

When I was 10 years old, I wanted to be a baker. My hero at this time was Scooby Doo. I loved to eat and I thought I had finally found the best job for me. The possibility of baking for other people as well made me happy. While enjoying creating cakes that not only looked beautiful but tasted good, the idea of Eat, Drink, and Be Merry appealed to me.1929830_13522065777_2991_n

When I was 13 years old, I wanted to be a singer and pianist. My idols at the time were Hilary Duff, Fefe Dobson, and Avril Lavigne. I was really drawn into the teen idols of the time, and practiced singing until my tone-deaf self somehow managed to improve. I pursued this dream the longest, practicing and doing random concerts and entering competitions.

Now, I am 23. I still love all of these things. I work in merchandise so I do deal with money and my math has gotten better since I was five, though I have to admit I should brush up on my algebra and geometry.

I have classes at my house where I bake every week for students and get the chance to try my best at making creative foods. I also love to check out different cafe’s and restaurants in Japan.

I sing at different places and play live on occasion. I love the technical side of music and enjoy joining different open mikes in Osaka. It’s always in the back of my head to somehow play regularly for events.

1929830_13522080777_3968_nThe only thing that has yet to become a reality is the Minnie Mouse dream. That is one that I will have to keep on the back burner for now, but I am looking forward to what I could be doing in the future. Hopefully improving my writing and helping other customers and people in my life.

In 10 years

I constantly stumble across these little poems that I wrote when I was younger. Makes me think that I might have to up my game and compete with my younger self. When I was thirteen, I had this giant notebook filled with stickers, poems, lists, anything that I felt like writing. That is where I pulled the mini poem below from. It’s amazing how much my thinking has changed.


“In 10 Years”

In 10 years all of these things will pass
All of the hurt and the confusion
Will be all gone and won’t last

In 10 years I’ll wish I knew what I knew now
I’ll have so many regrets
Just because at the time I didn’t know how

In 10 years I’ll wonder why I made such a big deal
About things that never could matter
Instead of things that are real

In 10 years I’ll still be the same person at heart
My hopes and wishes might change
But can’t go back to the start

In 10 years God will still be the same
Yesterday today and forever
He’ll be with me through the pain

Levels of life

I managed to finish the book Levels of Life by Julian Barnes while taking my lunch break before the second half of my test. I enjoyed it and I was able to get into it enough so I didn’t have to worry about the two test directors that showed up just for me(I was the only one that was taking the test). Some quotes from the book that I scribbled down:

Perhaps the world progresses not by maturing, but by being in a permeant state of adolescence, of thrilled discovery.

So why do we constantly aspire to love? Because love is the meeting point of truth and magic. 

He could hear himself living.

We were together for thirty years. I was thirty-two when we met, sixty-two when she died. The heart of my life; the life of my heart.

It hurts exactly as much as its worth.

Perhaps grief, which destroys all patterns, destroys even more the belief any pattern exists.

There are two essential kinds of loneliness. That of not having found someone to love, and that of having been deprived of the one you did love. 

Customer Service Q&A. A chat with an artist friend from the neighborhood

IMG_0337One night after running up and down a hill in our neighborhood for exercise with a good friend from the area, I managed to get him to have a quick conversation about his experiences in customer service.

The following will be snapshots of our conversation and tidbits of speech that I enjoyed listening to.

My friend is from the States and we had the chat in my kitchen in Nara, Japan.


Johnna: Have you ever worked in customer service? What was it like for you to work in the States?

Brendan: I worked at the front-end of a warehouse at a Sears. Whenever people had problems with lawn mowers or snow blowers, they would come to me and ask how to fix it.

What was the most difficult part about the job at the time?

Brendan: That people would come to me with problems that I would have no idea how to solve.

Were there customers that you had to hold your patience for?

Brendan: Oh yeah, all the time. I worked in a Sears and it was out in the country. Angry shoppers would come to me with problems and not be happy that the person that they had to talk to was an 18-year old kid.

Would you ever lose your temper?

Brendan: There were days that I wanted to. We had a big trash compacter to take out our frustrations with. We would throw in things like computers and televisions and watch the machine break down all the trash. It did help to release the tensions of the day. I am pretty good at staying calm though.

Did you have any co-workers that you admired for their customer service expertise? 

Brendan: I had a lot of co-workers that knew a lot about what they were selling. When you understand your product, it is easier to deal with people that ask you questions. If you don’t know what you are talking about, it’s a lot harder to walk them through it.

What do you think the differences in customer service are between Japan and America?

Brendan: For one, there is customer service here.(Laughs) No, I’m joking. The thing about the service here in Japan is that when you have a problem, every person working in the store rushes in to help and stands there looking like they are doing something, which is good and bad sometimes. If I have a problem that takes one person to solve, I don’t need four people come and help me with it.

I was in the library and asked if they had any books in English. I waited a half an hour while five people walked about looking. If just one of those people knew, the job would have been done. In America, the conversation would have gone something like: “Hey John, we got any books in Japanese?” ……… “Nope, sorry Phil”.

The interesting thing about the customer service in Japan is the way they address the people that come into the store. At the end of names they have many endings such as -san, -chan, -kun. But those that come into shops or or those with a higher position have the -sama ending. It is the same ending used for God as well. Okyaku-sama (customer), Kami-sama(God).

Brendan: Oh, thats interesting. I didn’t know that. I don’t know how I feel about being treated as a God though.

Changing the subject a bit, what do you think about people who are overly enthusiastic about helping you or serving you?

Brendan: If people over-do their enthusiasm, it breaks the illusion of their helping me. They are being super nice because they want my tip money or they want their boss to think they are doing their job. I would be happy with a simple, “Thanks for coming, have a good night”. If they act normally, then its believable. If they are over the top then its clear that it’s an act.

What if they are just really happy people? What if it is just their personality? 

Brendan: You can tell, I can tell, and most people can tell when people are faking it or being genuine. Some people make it clear that they are trying to make a good impression for a reason. They have a goal in mind.

Again, going off the topic, but so far from what I’ve told you, what do you think of Buffer?

Brendan: It seems like they genuinely care. Their Number One concern is how their customers feel about them and their product. It seems like they put a lot more effort in that part of the company than others do. If you call the customer service at Apple for example, they send you to a separate company that takes care of the details for them. The joke in America is that if you call a company for customer service support, you get forwarded to different country where the people on the other end of the phone speaks English as their second language.

It seems like the people at Buffer have their employees in the company actually talk to their customers. In short, from what I know so far it doesn’t seem like a bad place at all.