Thursday, January 13, 2011

Winter Vacation: Winter Wonderland and A Real Japanese New Year's

You can view the full album here, although I'll attach a slideshow at the end of this post. There are 250 photos in this album, so feel free to not be constrained by the slideshow, and just browse at will! (note: this album is for both Kyoto and Tokyo, though this post is for Kyoto only)
Winter Vacation Part I

Our journey began with the bus to Kyoto at 9:30 in the morning on Friday the 31st. At the bus stop, we picked up some little origami charms made by the toll gate people, for travelers. We were about to roam far and wide, so it seemed an auspicious start.

It was snowing in Kyoto as we picked out some gifts for our Malaysian friends. After wandering all over the station in search of one open establishment without a line out front, we gave up and hit the streets and were finally blessed with a deserted Italian cafe of lovely atmosphere.

From Winter Vacation Part I

We next set out to see Ryoan-ji in the snow.

Have water, will travel.

Which was gorgeous, especially the garden area out front.

The rock garden was interesting in the snow, but I think I liked the rocks better in summertime.

From Winter Vacation Part I

The area up near the pagoda was breathtaking, though.

You aren't supposed to touch these trees. I didn't know that, but Miriam read me a sign just as I was eating snow off the branches.


We intended to see Ginkaku-ji in the snow, too, but by the time we were done with Ryoan-ji, it was 4:30, nearly dark, and closing time. So we went back to meet up with Nami and Hiroshi!

They took us home to treat us to New Year's, Japanese style, kinda. Which meant we hung out and talked for hours, munching on homemade cookies (courtesy of Miriam), chips and salsa, and other snacks. We taugh Hiroshi-san some English not necessarily found in his study program while Nami-san laughed at us from the kitchen, and watched NHK's New Year presentation (hosted by, who else but Arashi!).

At midnight, you eat soba as you cross into the new year, and we had a look at some osechi-ryori without actually eating any, because by then we were too full from having spent the previous three hours eating.

Not long after midnight, we just bathed and went to sleep. I'd gotten up at like 6am that morning, and was quite ready to call it a day!

It was really nice, though, to spend New Year's together with a family. The family of Nami-and-Hiroshi is a small one, but I've known Nami-san for such a long time, that she feels to me like my Japan family, like my big sister. She and Hiroshi are always so nice to me and whoever I happen to have come to Kyoto with at any given occasion.

From Winter Vacation Part I
Happy New Year!

On the 1st, we got to accompany the two of them to give the traditional New Year greeting to Hiroshi-san's parents. (Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!) Though they didn't eat with us, they did give us a lot of the special foods for the holiday (osechi ryori), and we sipped sake and tea and sat in the formal room. Most of the foods in the osechi boxes had symbolic meanings, and sitting around eating them generally made me feel really calm and happy. I felt then, as so far, that this is going to be a very good year.

From Winter Vacation Part I
Pre-meal.. we're standing because once we sit, we're gonna be in seiza for a long time.

On our walk back, I saw a biking post-person delivering the New Year cards (nengajou)! When we got to the apartment, Nami-san put Miriam's nengajou next to my Christmas card (I sent a nengajou too, but Miriam's was home-made). Next we went into Kyoto city to make the New Year's shrine visit (hatsumode).

First up was Hiroshi-san's natal shrine, Yasaka jinja. It was absolutely packed. In fact, the entire district was packed. We couldn't even walk on the sidewalks, or not very well, anyway. Too many slow old people and stuff. Once we reached the gate, we elbowed our way up to the shrine where we tossed coins and said prayers. The first time I visited Yasaka, I said a little prayer to end the swine flu issues that were then effing up the lives of students everywhere (school closings, tubs of sanitizer, etc.) because Yasaka shrine was connected to an epidemic long ago (the stopping thereof, I mean).

From Winter Vacation Part I
Calm and peaceful, yes?

But I didn't have any swineflu to stop this time, so I made a little wish, and even in that roaring crowd, felt pretty peaceful. Everyone was buying fortunes (omikuji) but I didn't want to.. I don't really like to buy those very much, because I worry that if I read one, it'll come true, not because it was destiny, but because the stuff will get into my head, and then I'll make it all self-fulfilling prophecy. Off to another side, there was a booth for people to retire their old 2010 charms, things they'd bought last New Year's Day. I was surprised to see all these being basically thrown away, but as I was told, the charms have served their purpose, done their work, and now they can go. I guess if everyone kept every charm, they'd have craploads of the little (sometimes big) things hanging around. I personally will only be in Japan a few years, so of course I tend to keep them all.

Nami-san was reading to me the different aims of different charms. I almost bought "transportation," but then she translated another one as "opening up your future" or something like that. Pretty generic, but it was how I was feeling.

We got out of there and headed for Nami-san's home shrine, Shimogamo, but her father reported that it had taken him like an hour and a half to get in and back, so we skipped it in favor of going to her parents' house to eat and be merry.

From Winter Vacation Part I

Now, Nami-san is weird. Not in a negative way, but in Japanese way. Most Japanese people are vaguely interested in foreign cultures as long as they stay just like that, foreign. Fewer people want to actually get involved in foreign stuff.. but Nami lived in the US for many years, and even considered making it permanent. Having been to her family home, now, I know she comes by it honestly. It struck me as basically indicative of her family's way when I got their addresses from her to send thank-you notes after the trip. In the email she asked us to write to Hiroshi-san's parents in Japanese, and it was okay if we made mistakes. To her own parents she said English, Japanese, Hebrew, Russian, whatever we wanted to write was fine, and they loved getting postcards from anywhere. (We sent Hiroshi-san's parents a classy Thank You note.. actually left over from my graduation! And we sent Nami-san's parents a postcard we got in Kuala Lumpur)

So we got a great traditional cultural lesson with one meal, and just hung out at the other. Hiroshi-san made okonomiyaki in a style I loved better than either Osaka-style or Hiroshima-style. Nami's sister and I made takoyaki (yes, octopus balls) like pros. All too soon we had to leave to catch our train to Tokyo!

Though the day wasn't even over, and we were pretty tired, I have to admit that it was one of the best New Year's I've had, partly because it was very different from any New Year's I've had. It wasn't loaded down with expectations, but it was relaxed, educational, and warm of heart. I loved that.

From Winter Vacation Part I
The day isn't even over yet? (Stay tuned for Tokyo)

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