Friday, December 9, 2011

Changing Impressions

Mt. Hiei
It's already been over three months since I've landed in Japan! It still feels like I'm getting used to living here, though. My college in America isn't terribly far from home, so the longest I've gone without going home before was probably only a little over one month, yet it still feels like I just got off the plane last week.

Heian Shrine
Like I have said in my first post, this isn't my first time in Japan, but it is my first time living here for longer than a month, being so close to the city, and living with a host family, which are all factors that have shaped my time here so far. Being able to go on adventures to Kyoto and Osaka whenever I want have helped me to become a little more adventurous, especially when I try to go find new places like I did when I visited the Heian Shrine. Also, if I wasn't living with my host family, I wonder if I would feel more disconnected to living in Japan. As it is at Kansai Gaidai, I feel like we live in our own little foreigner bubble, which I don't necessarily consider a bad thing, but it is nice to have both a foreigner bubble and a Japanese family bubble.

Kansai Gaidai Halloween Contest
Another one of the impressions I've had over the past few months is that Japan seems to be a country of extreme conveniences and inconveniences. Everything you could need (super markets, hospitals, etc.) are hardly ever out of walking/biking distance or are reachable by bus, and going from Kyoto to Osaka is just a matter of hopping a few trains. At the same time, nearly everything closes by 8, if you're out past midnight you're probably going to miss your train home, and grocery shopping needs to be done nearly daily (my family goes to the store just once a week in America). Living here has been a mix of conveniences and inconveniences, which I suppose reflects how I've been adapting to living here, since I can't have my American conveniences and Japanese conveniences all at the same time.

I'm going to be staying here over the winter break as well as next semester, so I hope I'll be able to continue having new experiences throughout the time I have left here at Kansai Gaidai and in Japan.

The single branch of colored leaves in a still-green tree, Tōfukuji.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Tōfukuji Kōyō

Given that it's now 紅葉 kōyō/momiji (maple leaf) season, going out to get a glimpse of the beautiful reds, oranges, and yellows is probably one of the main activities going on around Kansai Gaidai, especially because we are so close to Kyoto and Nara, two of the prime 紅葉狩り momijigari, or autumn leave hunting, locations in Japan. Some of the most popular sites in Kyoto include Arashiyama and Kiyomizu Temple, and I decided this past weekend to go to Tōfukuji, another location famous for its leaf-viewing.

However, although I was at Tōfukuji mainly to see the momiji, that does not mean I wasn't interested in everything else the temple had to offer.  For one thing, the famous Tsutenkyo Bridge gives an amazing view over a valley of beautiful trees, most of which were nearing their prime autumn colors.  In addition, and unrelated to the momiji, are the temple's rock gardens, which are some of the few places where you could go to just sit and relax away from the bustle of tourists there to see the autumn leaves. Specifically, I visited the gardens near the Kaisando Hall, where there is a contrasting rock garden and pond garden surrounding the area (and not a single red leaf in sight in this area--the majority trees here were pine trees).

One thing I noted when I was there, though, was that the vast majority of tourists were there more for the momiji than for the temple itself: this particular rock garden was in a slightly separate part of the temple past the bridge, without any sign indicating that the path lead to a rock garden, not a momiji-viewing sight. As a result, most people lined up to enter this part of the temple without knowing where it lead, and about a third of the people in line, after getting so far and realizing that there were no momiji, would turn around and leave. Like the commentary from the Japanese couple standing behind me in line, going out to momijigari shouldn't be just solely about the momiji: it's about being with friends, going out to view nature and go sightseeing, not just for the leaves themselves. In other words, skipping out on the temple's rock garden just because there weren't any autumn leaves there would omit part of the experience of Tōfukuji itself, in my opinion.

In addition, some of the trees at Tōfukuji weren't fully red (or were only just starting to show signs of turning red), which was also sad to see, as they weren't gaining any attention from tourists just because they didn't stand out as much as the other trees. Granted, one of the main points of momijigari is to see the momiji, but the other beautiful trees in the area certainly didn't take away from the scenery of the momiji, in my opinion. That being said, I did see many, many tourists sitting with their loved ones and simply looking at all of the trees--not there just to look for a few minutes, snap a few photos, and leave when they've had their fill, but to really enjoy the view while spending time with their friends and family. In addition, I got handed a flyer for a momiji festival, which also shows just how popular autumn leave viewing is in Japan and how much influence it has away from just literally looking at the trees themselves. Similarly, like the sakura treats you can buy during hanami season, momiji treats also abound at every popular momijigari location, which is another way of tying food with Japanese culture.

Coming from Pennsylvania, where there are countless trees changing colors in the fall and an abundance of natural scenery, I wasn't really expecting to be incredibly awed, but the entire atmosphere--the tranquilness of the temple, wondering down narrow Japanese streets to get to the temple, breathing in the fresh fall air after being cooped up in classrooms all week--really made this an experience that could never be received anywhere but Japan.