Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Mountains Make Me Happy...

And Ena has plenty of Mountains!

The beautiful view just up the road from my apartment. The impressive, snow covered peak of Ontake-san, rising 10,049 feet (3,063 m) over the borders of Gifu and neighboring Nagano, is the first thing I see every morning as I walk out my door. Ontake is an active volcano (erupting last in 1980) and one of Japan's holy mountains. The humid haze of summer makes the peak almost invisible. I know that when I stumble out of my door to be greeted by it's graceful, Fuji-esque slopes covered in snow, autumn has arrived.

Whiter than the rocks
Of Stone Mountain
Autumn wind

The Southern Japanese Alps. Just a few of the many reasons I'm thankful to be in Ena (^-^)/

Monday, November 27, 2006


Things I'm thankful for...

My elementary school students. Love them! Kawaii-sugiru (too Cute), and so much fun!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Pinatas Indestructibles....

...And other things I'm thankful for, like amigos! Happy Thanksgiving, minna(everyone)!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Let's Kimono!

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It's not everyday that a gaijin like me gets invited to a Japanese wedding. Excuses, occasions and opportunities to wear kimono are almost as scarce. Thanks to the awesome sensei's at my beautiful mountain school and Colin's conveniently wafu (japanese style) wedding, I was able to do both

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I hadn't honestly considered wearing a kimono because I knew how difficult it would be. Getting your hands on a kimono is no easy task. Buying one is out of the question, as the ensembles can cost tens of thousands of dollars. At $500, renting one, which many young people do for their coming of age ceremonies (seijin shiki) was just as improbable. With just over a week left, I asked my JTE at the beautiful mountain school what I should wear. She acted as if there was no other option. "Kimono! Of course!"

As we sat chatting in the little tea room of the teacher's office, she very casually mentioned Colin's upcoming wedding, and how nice it would be if only I could wear kimono. "That would be good, wouldn't it?" The art teacher smiled, immediately offering to ask his wife, who, as it turnse out, is a master of kisuke, wearing and dressing people in kimono

"And I have many kimonos!" The couselor shot to the edge of her seat, clasping her hands together in excitement. "I can lend you one! I have furisode from seijin shiki, with beautiful, long sleeves It would look so nice on you!"

"Lucky, Melissa!" My JTE smiled at me over our cups of green tea.

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Since I needed to be at the wedding hall in Nagoya (a good one hour train raide from Ena) at 10 AM, I decided to get my hair done the night before. Why, you ask? In Japan, only conbinis (conveinience stores) open before 10AM. For a hair stylist to come in early to do my hair, it would cost about 70$. So basically, it wasn't an option. Even if I had the money, I had to be at the art teacher's house at 7AM to get dressed. There was no time. So I got my hair done at 6:30 PM the night before(everything closes rediculously early too- that was their latest appointment) and slept hunched over my computer desk trying not to ruin it.

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Despite the difficulties involved, wearing such an incredibly beautiful kimono was worth it. I'm so thankful for the never-ending kindness of everyone at the beautiful mountain school, especially the best JTE ever, Kachi Sensei. Arigatou ne!

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Congratulations to Colin and Akiko Phillips! "Love gets sweeter everyday."

Friday, November 17, 2006

Ena Update: Fall has Arrived!

Beautiful! Lovery!
Dusk in the mountain top town of Akechi, a newly acquired tributary of Empire Ena.

I am much more than a geisha chaser. I am an Assistant English teacher. Behold, the fruits of my labor!

Kana is a third year junior high school student, which is the equivalent of 9th grade in the US. If you can't read it, click on the image and a larger version will pop up. (^-^)

KAWAII! How cute is this? Written by a second year (8th grade) student who does not like a lovery boy named Kazunori (^_<)

These are just a few of the smile-inducing journal letters my Beautiful Mountain School students write me every week. Although it is optional, most of them try to write at least once a week, and many even write three times a week. I'm always excited to see a huge stack of letters waiting in my mailbox when I visit, and spend more time writing back then I do preparing for class (>o<). I've learned so much about my kids through these little letters, and they've learned a lot about writing! The improvement we've seen is incredible, both in their vocabulary and sentence structure (although is obviously still far from perfect). Having the opportunity to write about anything they want, without the pressure of being graded, keeps the students motivated and keeps me up to date on everything about them, especially since I don't get to visit as much as I used to. This connection to my students, and the relationships that it has fostered, is what makes being an ALT worth all the hours of absolute, brain-numbing boredom.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Misoekai: Miyagawa's Fall Dance

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Kimitomo 君友 peeks out demurely from behind her gold-speckled fan. The extravagant silks, colorful kimonos, flowery hair ornaments and hauntingly beautiful make up are only part of a maiko's beauty, and impressive as they are, the true allure lies in her child-like innocence.

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As a geiko, Kimina 君奈 no longer relies on the flashy kimonos or ornate hair ornaments. She has attained a level of skill that speaks for itself with every graceful movement.

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Harumi 春美

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Kikuryuu 菊柳 perfroming a traditional dance in which awamochi vendors take turns pounding rice cakes as they perform various acts. Awamochi is a type of rice cake that was popular during the Edo Era and is still made today.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Pretty in Pink: Miyofuku

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As I stood talking to the old women of Sakuraya, I noticed this young maiko walk past and call at an okiya down the street. After some time had passed, I noticed that she had not yet slipped behind the slit wooden grill of the sliding door, but stood nervously, looking up and down the street. I asked the Okaasan if she was ok, so we walked down to find out. Poor Miyofuku had been locked out of her okiya, and with everyone at rehersals for the fall dance recitals, she didn't know where to go or what do to. Finally Yasuha and Fukuyoshi came by and took her home with them.

Man, I don't know why she didnt just kick off those clogs and climb in through a window! That's what i always used to do when I got locked out (^_<) Hehehe....Just kidding.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Meeting the Maiko of Miyagawa

Kimika and Satoai. Check out Kimika's Minnie Mouse purse (^-^) The epitome of traditional Japanese style.

Goro goro goro goro... The unmistakeable sound of a wooden door sliding open. Whenever I find myself strolling through a hanamachi (flower town, where geiko live and entertain), my senses are heightened and alert. Even simple sounds that usually blend into the indistiguishable hum of everday life in Japan, become melodious, distinct, and full of meaning.

Kobo kobo kobo kobo... Before I could even turn around I heard the soft, giggling voices of two girls and the clop of their tall, hollowed wooden sandals (called Okobo, because of the sound they make) stepping out onto the cement. As I looked over my shoulder, two beautifully dressed maiko came to a stop at busy corner, trying to decide which way to go. The cars and bicyclists, oblivious or uninterested, passed them by without so much as a second glance, but I couldn't take my eyes off them. Behind them a young minarai (apprentice maiko) stood in the street, respectfully seeing her big sisters off. I recognized Kimika (on the left) who has the reputation of being one of the most beautiful maiko in Miyagawa-cho, and was recently featured in Kateigoho Magazine. I watched them turn the corner and disappear, and even after found myself straining to hear the kobo kobo sound of their footsteps fading away. When I came to, I noticed a cute little Japanese woman smiling at me, sweeping the pavement infront of her machiya (townhouse).

"Konnichiwa," I smiled back with a little bow.

"Kawaii, ne? Nihon no maiko-san..." (Cute, aren't they? Japan's maiko)?

"So cute! Beautiful! They're like living works of art. Their hair, their kimono, their make-up, and the way they move... Like a dream!"

"Yes, but it's very difficult, you know. They come from very far away and study very hard. And how about you? You've come quite a way haven't you? Where are you from?"

"America. The State of Ohio. Ohaiyo!" I smiled cheesily and waved my hands in typical school girl fashion (Ohaiyo means 'good morning/ hello' in Japanese).

"Oh, really? Ohio." She said as she laughed at me. "You know, my big sister went to America before. Oh, if she was home I bet she'd love to talk to you. Are you a student? Are you studying abroad? How amazing that you can speak Japanese so well! It's amazing!"

"Actually, I'm an English teacher in Gifu prefecture," I giggled. I get the student thing a lot (I'm not complaining)! "And my Japanese is horrible! I don't study at all...But Thank you for saying so." We stood in the street talking for quite awhile, and eventually she mention that she was 80 years old. 80 years old?! The woman did not look at day over 60, and a young sixty at that. Now that is amazing. It got me thinking, just how old was her big sister?

Yasuha and Fukuyoshi.

As we stood in the street, maiko continued to hurry by. Incapable of hiding my excitement, I fumbled akwardly to get my camera untangled from my neck and bag before they hurried past us. "Oh, that's good!" She said. "We'll take a picture!"

"What? No, no, that's Ok! They're busy and..."

Before I could refuse she was already calling to Yasuha, by name. To my suprise, Yasuha greeted her with a big smile, a bow and bubbley "Konnichiwa Okaasaan!" The little old woman asked her if she could take our picture, directed Yasuha to stand in front of a teahouse across the street, and pushed me over to her as she grabbed my camera out of my hands.
Yasuha and I (^-^)v

I apologized and thanked Yasuha about 3 times in one breath, even as I tried to smile for the picture. "Hai cheeezu!" She called out. "Ah! That one was no good. One more! Hai Cheezu! Ok!"

I started to apologize and thank Yasuha all over again, but she smiled, bowed to me, said "Ookini" (thank you in Kyoto dialect).

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As Yasuha walked up the street, a little old woman leaning on her cane came around the corner. Yasuha greeted her and bowed, stopping in her steps and turning to face the old woman as she slowly hobbled on by. "Oh! Here she is! This is my big sister. Big sister! This cute little sister is from America! It's amazing. She can speak English and Japanese!"

The big sister, who turned out to be 84, slowly made her way to me with a beautiful smile spread across her softly wrinkled face. She asked me where I was from and if I was a student, and then we began to talk about her trips to America at least 40 years ago. She had been to L.A., San Fransisco, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. "It was amazing. I had never seen so many fruits. Such beautiful fruit!"

"Really?" I asked "Was the fruit delicious?"

"Oh, I don't know...I never got to eat any. I was with a customer. You know we can't eat when we're with a customer like that. But I remember thinking, "What beautiful fruit!" I had never seen anything like that before!"

The maiko were still making there way back and forth, calling at okiyas and hurrying to get to the recital practice. All of them greeted this wonderful little woman with deep bows of respect and sweet sounding "Konnichiwa Okaasaan!" and then would smile at me a give a little bow. She often asked them to stop for me to take a picture, or tried to talk to them long enough until I seemed satisfied with the shot I had. "Did you get it?" She asked when they would clop clop away down the little alley just next to her home.

We talked for quite awhile before she called for her little sister to bring something out for me. She emerged, hiding her smile behind a classic Gion Matsuri uchiwa (Japanese style fan) with the name of Miyagawa's most acclaimed dancer written elegantly beside the crest of the hanamachi. She place a "Sakura-ya" sticker (name card, like geiko use) near the base of the smooth wooden handle. "This is my place. Sakura-ya." I thanked her profusely before she slipped into the sliding door of her home, content with the events of the day and the experience they had brought me. It wasn't even noon yet.

Miyoharu and Fukuhina outside their okiya. Conveniently placed, ubiquitous vending machines.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A Stroll Through Miyagawa-cho

With October drawing to an end, I was determined to make a quick trek to Kyoto to secure tickets for Gion Odori, Gion Higashi's fall dance recital. I hadn't been to Kyoto since Gion Matsuri, and after three months I was itching for an excuse to get back.

Kyoto, like the rest of Japan, has been burried beneath a net of tangled electrical wires and encased in concrete. As I pulled into the station, staring out the smudged windows of the train, I wondered how I would have felt if this had been my first view of the old capital. Many foreigners must feel extrememly disappointed upon arriving in Kyoto, expecting to find old Japan, untouched by the rapid westernization consuming the world. Yet it is in the cracks and crevices of this seemingly cold, colorless, modern metropolis that the wonders of the ancient capital strive to survive, and wait to be discovered.

Kyoto has been my home away from home (away from home) since the first time I stumbled up the stairs of the Shijo Keihan subway station (after being stopped by a tiny little Buddhist nun who smiled and bowed and pinched my nose saying "Kawaii ne! Hana takai ne!" (Well aren't you cute? And your nose is so high!), and out onto the busy street, lined on one side by the Kamogawa River and the famous Minamiza Kabuki Theatre on the other. I know it better than the city I have been living in these past 2 and a half years, and probably know more about it than my hometown in the US. So as I weaved my way through the traffic of Japanese tourists filling crowded Kyoto station, I felt strangely enough as if I was home.

I walked along the Kamogawa River, wondering where the day would lead me. I always follow the river up to a certain point before loosing myself in the narrow lanes of Miyagawa-cho, one of Kyoto's five flower districts, where geiko live and entertain. I never expect to see much during the daytime-- perhaps a young maiko on the way to her lessons, casually dressed in a simple kimono-- but just walking through the quiet streets, lined with intricate wooden facades of ochayas (teahouses) and okiyas (where geiko live) is more than enough to make me happy. If I'm lucky, I'll hear an older geisha singing as she practices her shamisen, or see a maiko dressed for an appointment hurry into a taxi or down a narrow alleyway. These simple moments, when I am able to see my life in the light of a haiku, are what keep me madly in love with Kyoto.

The streets seemed quiet enough. It was still early, before noon, and little old women were washing down the concrete in front of their homes. The old man from the tiny little home-front market hurried back and forth across the street carrying big boxes of perssimons and apples, shouting out "Ookini!" to someone hidden in the shadows of his little shop. My eyes focused on the nameplates hung near the entrance of the okiyas, trying to decipher the kanji in the names of the maiko and geiko living there, until a sudden flash of intense color in the otherwise dull distance caught my eye. A maiko sliding out of her okiya and down the street, her long, trailing obi fluttering above her high wooden sandals, appeared like an apparition from another age. "What a great way to start the day," I thought as I watched her disappear into another teahouse, smiling to myself, happy to be "home".

Friday, November 03, 2006


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Miehinna, a beautiful young maiko from Miyagawa-cho.

I had an amazing adventure in Kyoto last weekend. I promise to tell you all about it and get the rest of my pictures up soon! Gomen ne m(- -)m

Final Touches: Jidai Matsuri

A Ritsumeikan University student participating in Kyoto's Festival of Ages has her uchikatsugi tied into place before the commencement of the procession. An uchikatsugi is a long veiled straw hat once worn by noble women to protect their anonymity.