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.

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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!

Kind people in my corner of the world

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After a little sketch at my favorite organic restaurant, I feel a little more awake. With all of the terrible news that has been going around in the world, it is nice to know that great people are out there. I am more pleased that some of them happen to live in my area. On my way home from class, I went to go buy Imagawayaki from a shop that I have passed since I was thirteen years old. Though I have known of him for years, I have only started talking to the owner recently. A mistake in my schedule a couple of months back gave me the free time and a chance to break the ice with the nice man. Today, we talked about his feelings on learning a new language and the people that pass his stand. He had such an excited look in his eyes when he was speaking that I could not help but smile along with him. I started to get hungry so before I left I asked to buy one Imagawayaki. They would not take the money and insisted that I just have it because I helped them out with the English on their sign for customers. If any of you happen to be in Kansai, I would highly recommend the cute little street shop in Nara.

I got on the train to Ikoma and I was about to head to my favorite restaurant in the area when Sumi stopped me to say hello. The young train man who stands near the ticket wickets never fails to greet people who leave the station. He noticed that my voice was husker than usual and he ran to get me throat medicine. He didn’t think twice about it and came back with some strawberry-flavored Nodoame(のど飴) for me.

It is true that when a kindness is done to you it makes you want to return the favor somehow.

After finishing my food and a quick sketch, I think about how lucky I am to live in my conner of the world with my pencils, paper, and all of the lovely people in my neighborhood.

Prefecture Hopping

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I was very busy this day and ran all over Kansai.

I went to Kyoto in the morning to pick up a painting of mine.

Time Spent: 1 and 1/2 hours

I went to Nara after that pick up a study book for class that I had forgotten at my friends house:

Time Spent: 3 hours

I went back to Ikoma to go to class:

Time Spent: 1 hour

After class it was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I am whipped by this point but I still have energy and I prepare myself for the rest of the day!

After taking a shower I head off to Kobe to spend the evening with my family.

Time Spent: 2 hours.

It was a long day but a great day. I have never done so much prefecture hopping in my life. I managed to get a sketch done in Nara. *happy dance*

I will be going to Nagano from tomorrow to do some agriculture projects and I doubt that internet will be available. I hope to come back with a lot of stories to write about and share with all of you.

-Johnna

Waving at Taxis

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In our area, we all talk about the person down the street.

In our area, we buy sweet potatoes from the same vegetable market every Thursday.

In our area, we stand and chat outside of our houses for hours about the weather.

In our area, we all wave at taxis because we don’t know the bus drivers.

 

 

 

The reason for my hiatus

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I have enjoyed baking since I was young. However, after I started working the hobby seemed to make its way out as new responsibilities came into my life. With a need for artistic outlet, baking found me again. With some inspiration that I got from the website I will plug on the bottom, I decided to try cake photography. I found it adorable and I also wanted to create cute images like the ones she had posted. You can check them out here:

http://call-me-cupcake.blogspot.se

After making a couple of images and talking with my sister, I realized that there were so many people doing food photography. I admired what they were doing, but I wanted to do something different. My sister suggested taking the photos outside. One thing led to the other and my first photo was taken at a train station in our area. I was sick as a dog but I didn’t want that to stop me. Since that first image, I took three other shots. One in a convenience store, one on the cable car tracks, and the most recent being in Kyoto with a good friend of mine. Each one comes with its own emotions and experiences.

The newest one in Kyoto was great fun for me and hopefully for the model as well (I didn’t realize I had made him hold a cake in one hand for a straight fifteen minutes). One thing that I was struck by was all of the positive feedback from the by-passers on the street. Everyone that walked by smiled and/or commented. It was great to give them something a bit unique to go home to and tell their families about. A cake is a very simple thing, but frosting it in the middle of a street in Kyoto made it all that more interesting.