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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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

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!

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

Sushi tastes better with a good attitude.

I am off from work until the end of August and it just feels great to have the freedom to wake up at whatever time I want. With so much time off, the lazy side of me comes out. Too much bumming off can make my vision hazy, and I stop noticing the dishes in the sink or all of the clutter on the floor.
It’s terrible of me, but I was not especially hoping to find work over the summer, but a night of waiting tables and washing dishes at a local Izakaya found me.

I sometimes get asked to help out at the local bar, but I usually turn it down because I have other work until late. This time I had no excuse and I decided to try it again. When I woke up this morning, I started to regret accepting the work; the usual night of Facebook stalking and sketching could have been awaiting me. When evening started to roll around,  I decided to stop Third-World complaints and just do a good job.

It was always difficult working there because for one thing, at most Izakayas, they have various assortments of plates, cups, and utensils. Each one has their own place and it is near impossible to learn where everything goes in one night. Also, the more elderly crowd that comes to the bar are not used to seeing a foreign face in a Japanese setting. They always are surprised and I end up as the butt of the jokes.

On my five minute break, the owner of the bar made me a lovely sushi dinner plate. *Happy Dance* Egg…salmon…yellowtail…yeeeees. As I was in the middle of choking on my wasabi, my boss told me to eat fast and go straight back to work. Most people work like robots here and are not laid back. Though it is though at first,I appreciate this way of working because things get done.

The time I was there shot by fast and I ended up having fun working. In the end I was glad to have an excuse to get out of the house. I am not sure if it was the conscious choice to change my attitude  or the free food that came with the deal that made me appreciate the evening more. Either way, I am happy to come home with a full stomach and a more positive perspective. 

How to start a conversation and make friends

By show of hands, who believes in luck?

I don’t know what to call it, but when my walk was coming to an end this past Friday, I was afraid. I was afraid that my good luck streak would run out someday. I was worried that my life and the experiences would become boxed and patterned; packaged nicely for all of the readers. I was worried about becoming fake.

My moods tend to pinball around, and that morning I felt pretty good about myself. I planned to go sketching. I also planned not to plan. I would go where my nose took me, and hoped things would work out. They did, and I ended up having a great day.

At my station, I managed to get into the same elevator as a man from my neighborhood who I had been wanting to meet for ages. He has art sitting outside of this house all of the time. In rain or shine, the Renoir and Picasso copies stay out. I pass that house every time I walk home, and my pace tends to slow down when I walk by The Painting House. I never could find a good excuse to go and introduce myself, but now I had one. My first ten minutes out of the house seemed to be productive, and I told myself that if nothing else interesting happened the rest of the day, I would be happy with just that chance meeting.

I decided on the platform to always look up. No books. Though books are great and much better than watching TV, I find that after reading I come out of some sort of haze. I feel dull and unobservant.

I counted the number of people using cellphones in the train car: 28. Basically everyone was using their cellphone except the young girl behind me. I glanced over at her paper and saw that it had English on it and I guessed that she was studying for a test. As soon as she saw me looking at the notes, she quickly pulled the paper away- slightly embarrassed. That had never happened before so I took that as my cue to chime up.

For those reading this book:

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The trick is to say something before you can talk yourself out of it.

She was studying for a listening test at her university and that she had everything down pat but told me that she had no confidence in her English. It didn’t sound fun to study in the heat. I wished her good luck.

We parted ways and I went to the main tourist area of the city. For those who don’t know, I was born and raised in Japan and if I do anything that seems touristy, I start to feel uncomfortable. It pained me at first to take out a camera and take photos of the most iconic things in the area. But the ego slowly calmed down and I got used to it. Though I come to this area all of the time, I felt like I was in a different country because I was more aware. I heard different languages (mostly Chinese) and smelled different smells. My favorite smell being the Lush Stores with air-conditioning. On the opposite side of the spectrum, nothing smells worse to me than Ramen on a hot day. Kudos to the workers who don’t use nose plugs.

After some mindless wandering and photo taking, I ended up in Starbucks. Not exactly exotic, but it did the job. While sitting down for a bit with my well deserved sandwich and a book in hand, I noticed other travelers who also decided to get a Frapacchino. Backpackers, couples, families, it was nice to see.

I went back to glancing at my book and two Germans came in looking for a seat. I was hogging a table of two so I told them they could have my spot. One of them was super tall with long arms. He reminded me of the Abominable Snowman from Monsters Inc. He was also just as friendly and invited me to sit with them. We talked for a while with the running theme of the conversation being, “Never become a flight attendant.”

I had a great day but I found myself in a less-hopeful mood towards the end. Asking again, what do you believe about luck? Is it something that is given to you, or is it something that you make yourself? I’d like to believe it is the latter. You can have all the luck in the world, but if you don’t act on it, you miss the chance for a fun ride.

Just ask these two:

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