ICU Cultural Activities

And we’re back with another (hopefully) informative blog post! As promised, I’ll be discussing three experiences with traditional Japanese culture. I visited a Zen Buddhist temple and learned a little bit of calligraphy thanks to the hard work of the ICU staff. Afterwards, I had the chance to buy myself a yukata and put it on for a festival in Asakusa. All three experiences were very enlightening in their own way, though the third had its difficulties. Without further ado, let’s get right into it.

Sakae Miayama Temple

The entrance to Sakae Miyama Temple

My first cultural excursion was a trip to Sakae Miyama Konanin to learn about Zen Buddhism.

When we entered we were met with temple staff (one of which was an ICU alumnus) and the head priest who currently oversees the temple as the 29th member of the temple’s lineage of priests. My first impression of him in his ceremonial robes was, of course, that he was about as traditionally Japanese as a person could be. He was exactly what you would expect a Buddhist priest to look like from the rounded spectacles on his face down to his sandals. All of the staff members spoke primarily Japanese, but the ICU alumnus and our guide, Asaoka-sensei, translated nearly all of the information given to us.

A glimpse of the ornate decorations in the main ceremonial chamber

The monks of the temple where kind enough to offer more than a simple tour of the temple. They also introduced us to Zen philosophy, history, ceremonial traditions, meditation techniques, and etiquette. We were essentially treated to a crash course for Zen Buddhism. Unfortunately due to temporal distance and losing my informational booklet on the train, I’ve forgotten the finer points of our history lesson. Nonetheless, I’ll do my best to recount what I learned before getting into the more practical experience.

My general take away from our lesson on Zen philosophy was mindfulness, efficiency, and unity. In the sect of Zen Buddhism the temple adhered to (whose name I have forgotten entirely) many aspects of one’s daily life are regimented in order to be as efficient as possible without indulging in excess or wastefulness. The methods that one uses for daily life also imbue a sense of connection and equality with those around them. This was most easily demonstrated to us through Zen dining etiquette.

A humble vegetarian meal served to us at the temple

There are well defined and rather strict rules regarding how to eat in the temple. In the picture above you can see a spoon, a pair of chopsticks, a cloth, a stick, and bowls of varying sizes. All of these items with the exception of the plate of fruit and bowl underneath it come in a compact package. The bowls come stacked together with the utensils and cloths wrapped on top in a specific manner. You unwrap things in a certain order. You set your table in a certain order. You put everything in a certain place. Each item has an express, single purpose. Once you have finished eating, you put things back in a certain order. All of this is to ensure efficiency. The method we were taught is intended to be the most streamlined way to eat that wastes no time, effort, or food.

On top of these strict set of rules is behavioral etiquette. Whenever you eat you have to be sure to avoid pointing your utensils away from yourself. Always bring your food inward. There is no speaking during meal time. Other monks of the temple will pass by and bring each food item in pots and buckets and dispense them to you. Rather than verbally telling them to stop, there are certain hand gestures you can use. Whenever the servers arrive or leave, you both bow to one another. Each of these points is meant to teach you to be mindful of yourself and to respect those around you. You are all equal in sharing a meal, an essential part of life itself. No one is above the other, and the self should be diminished in favor of honoring and maintaining a harmonious collective.

Pretty heavy stuff for dinner, I know. It sounds a lot better coming from a Buddhist priest speaking Japanese.


A pillar at the entrance of the temple

Dining etiquette was what we spent the most time on for the reasons I mentioned above. It was an efficient way to teach us fundamental facets of Zen Buddhism. Of course, we also meditated. We were taught the proper posture, but there was much less time spent on teaching meditation techniques. I enjoyed the silent, serene atmosphere set by wonderful incense and an opening chant. I honestly just daydreamed the entire time, so there isn’t much to say about this part of the experience.

After dinner and meditation, we ended the session with a casual tea ceremony. One of my favorite parts of this experience was the head priest. He was a very approachable and funny 70 year old man who didn’t look a day over 50. You could tell that he enjoyed teaching his philosophy to inquisitive foreigners, and he did his best to use simple Japanese and even English at times. He was adamant about etiquette without being too austere in correcting mistakes. I enjoyed having him as our teacher for the evening.


Tools for calligraphy practice

Calligraphy is a Japanese art that was adopted from China centuries ago. In modern Japan it is a cultural practice only used on special occasions such as New Years greetings and signing into a wedding ceremony. It’s an art not many people are adept at, but all Japanese students who attend middle school have at least a few classes in calligraphy. Most Japanese people don’t study calligraphy beyond that, but others choose to continue studying while some become so adept that they make a living from it.

Our quick introduction to calligraphy didn’t give anyone enough experience to call themselves masters, but it was fun nonetheless. I always thought calligraphy of any type was incredible but probably not too difficult to pick up. I was so very wrong. Calligraphy really is an art. It’s easy for me to write legibly in Japanese. It’s not even all that hard to have good looking handwriting. However, there are rules to calligraphy. The brush was surprisingly difficult to handle, and producing the shapes you want was much harder with ink that I anticipated.

A picture detailing the various strokes in Japanese writing

Calligraphy in Japanese and Chinese demands a few things: symmetry, proper proportions, and recognizable strokes. Everyone has their own style, to some extent, but certain techniques have to be mastered by all who have set their minds to learning the art. These techniques aren’t too hard to accomplish with a pen and paper, but it becomes far more nuanced and difficult to accomplish with a brush.

My classmates and I practiced the basic strokes and then chose a single kanji (a written symbol with its own meaning) to write on our own. During this process the previously mentioned Asaoka-sensei, a nearly professional-grade calligrapher, was teaching us. Before I attempted to draw my chosen kanji, I asked Asaoka-sensei to draw me a model.

The template kanji created by my teacher

I chose the kanji depicted on the right “kuro,” meaning black. I rather like the look of kuro, but I chose it because I figured the straight lines would be easier to write. I was right for the most part, but the edges of the lines are what were difficult to reproduce. You can see that Asaoka-sensei’s work is tapered with rounded ends. The strokes are also very smooth. My attempt was… Less elegant in comparison.


My attempt at calligraphy on traditional rice paper

So if we were to critique my work, the first noticeable problem is with symmetry. The kanji isn’t in the center of the paper. The proportions of box at the top of the symbol are a bit off as they should be more tapered. I could keep going, but I’ll spare you all the critical scrutiny. All this is to say that calligraphy is something that is mastered through mindfulness and practice. If given more time and the resources, I would love to continue learning in whatever free time I could muster.

Wearing a Yukata

A short, simplified tutorial on how to put on a yukata

A yukata is a simpler, summertime kimono typically made of more breathable cloth. In modern Japan yukata are worn to summer festivals and other special occasions. Though yukata have less layers than kimono, they still have multiple pieces to them. There is the yukata itself which is the robe-like dress, strings to tie things in place, a decorative sash laid over the strings called an obi, and, typically, traditional shoes called geta. I managed to find my yukata and obi for a very reasonable price, but my feet are a bit too large to fit into geta. Large footed foreigners beware.

Yukata and accessories
The back of the ensemble. The bow came pre-made

Disappointing shoe sizes aside, putting on my yukata went quite well. I managed to do so on my own, and I think it turned out quite well. The sandals I brought with me looked good enough with the ensemble, and I found out that it’s fairly common for Japanese men and women to were western sandals to festivals.

My friends and I attempted to go to a fireworks festival in Asakusa while in our yukata. Unfortunately, it rained. Heavily. And because the festival is so very popular, it was incredibly crowded. I don’t think I can accurately put into words exactly how crowded it was. Saying that people were packed together like sardines doesn’t do the situation justice. Saying that something around a million people were gathered in a single section of the city doesn’t do the situation justice. Saying that there were police officers directing pedestrian traffic and taping off certain paths while occasionally pushing people into place doesn’t do the situation justice. It was…  A lot to handle in an outfit that restricts your movement a fair amount.

I could lament further, but I think you all get the point. While the festival was a bust, wearing a yukata for the day was actually really fun. The fabric is very breathable, so even though I had an outfit on underneath I never got too hot. It also dries very quickly, which was wonderful consolation prize after we escaped Asakusa. Despite it’s someone restrictive nature and the unfortunate circumstances that occurred while I was wearing it, I became so enamored with my yukata that I have felt the urge to buy myself another ever since. If I had space in my luggage, I would definitely have picked up another. They’re simply beautiful.

Next Time

Each cultural experience was honestly amazing to me. I know this post drags on a bit since I rambled on about each one, but I think that simply reflects how exciting each moment was. I hope my enthusiasm came across in my description of each event.

But enough about that. On to the next thing. I plan to use my next two posts to give some impressions I’ve developed about Tokyo as time has gone on. The topics will be a bit scattered, so I can’t really think of a good way to summarize them at the moment. Still, look forward to the next rambling post I come up with.


Gilded Surroundings

My first month in Chiang Mai, I had an apartment on Nimmanhaemin Road, which is a great location to access cafes, shops, malls, transport, etc. The area is known for the droves of digital nomads, hipsters, and yes, sigh, shopping tourists. I was craving a place with a little more authentic Thai flavor so I moved to the old city. Now, I live next door to a wat (temple) that is surrounded by golden horses. The monks’ morning bells are my free alarm clock.

I’ve rented a bicycle for the month and life is so much more joyous! Sometimes I can’t believe the busy roads and chaotic streets I ride through. It is terrifying and exhilarating all at once! The thing is, the traffic is actually very relaxed. People don’t move hastily or aggressively. Red lights and street lanes are suggestions. The driving is creative and fluid. It feels as though I am floating down a river filled with motorcycles, songtaews, cars and other bikes. The invisible space bubble I am accustomed to is no longer. One must bobble, weave and expect the unexpected at every moment, and be completely present (and calm) while doing this. My bright pink helmet and neon yellow bag also help me to be more visible.

My uncle recently had his 90th birthday! I rented a car with Laos, my partner, and we took a day trip north to visit my uncle and cousin. It was my first international driving experience! I could read only some signs and did not have wifi or GPS – but I had a good feeling (and an excellent co-pilot!) and we just went with it. After only one U-turn (missed a turn due to construction) and we made it! We were so happy to spend a few hours together and enjoy fishball noodle soup and then eat some local sweet snacks.
This past weekend was Asahna Bucha Day วันอาสาฬหบูชา and Kao Phan Sa วันเข้าพรรษา, Thai holidays. They fall on the full moon of the eighth lunar month. I made my first offering to a monk at Wat Phan On. It is a small quiet temple with a peaceful atmosphere and a lovely golden chedi. I chose my sangkataan – a basket containing everyday items like soap, toothpaste, and balms to donate to the monks. I went inside and kneeled down before a monk and said a few sentences in Thai. He asked me a few questions and we had a short conversation (mostly in Thai!). He said he had lived at that wat for 21 years. He sprinkled aromatic water over my head while chanting blessings. It was a very moving experience. When I walked out onto the street, it felt as though all strangers had smiling faces and everything moved in slow motion.
The following morning I awoke at 5:30am to do a dak bat offering at a wat near my new apartment. Many people were dressed in beautiful bright colored silks and carrying bags of food and rice to feed the monks for the special holiday. I sat down beside 2 women in front of a monk and and they showed me what to do. I poured water from a decorative container into a silver bowl while meditating as the monk chanted blessings. Then the water in the bowl is poured outside onto the earth.

Other highlights and new discoveries of the week:

  • Trying new fresh fruits!!! —> Mangostein (not at all like a mango!), guava, passionfruit, white dragon fruit —> all delicious!
  • I bought some peanuts from a little girl with big eyes. The following day, I brought them to school for a snack after class and was disheartened when I cracked one open and the nuts inside were black. I opened another. Same. With a sour face, I asked my teacher about it. She laughed and said “gin daai!” Meaning “Eat can!” I love these fresh peanuts. They are black or white or grey inside the shell, and a little bit wet. So very good!
  • Watched a Thai movie with English subtitles. Before the previews, everybody must stand up to respect the King while the national song plays. Images of the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn (Aka Rama X) are displayed in gilded frames amidst a luminous dawn. 
  • In honor of the late King Bhumibol, I made paper flowers for the upcoming Royal Cremation Ceremony taking place this year October 25-29. Flower-making hubs can be found throughout Thailand. I made the daffodil, which was His Majesty King Bhumibol’s favorite flower. He often presented this flower to Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, when they stayed in Switzerland.

Another song to help learn Thai! This one is so funny and combines English and Thai, particularly common phrases many “farang” (foreigners) have difficulty saying in Thai.

Temple of Heaven (and Other Adventures)

My first week in Beijing was a whirlwind, to say the least! Between adapting to the challenging class load, figuring out how to order the food I wanted in the Peking University cafeterias (and figuring out what the food was in the first place!), and supplementing my still-developing Chinese language skills with a plethora of hand motions and head nods, I felt exhausted by the time the weekend rolled around. However, every Saturday the Notre Dame in Beijing program directors and professors plan an excursion for us – and I was not about to miss out on my first opportunity to explore this city!

China has an extraordinary, storied history that spans more than five thousand years. While people first settled in what is now Beijing nearly half a million years ago, it wasn’t until 1279 A.D. that it was first made China’s capital by Mongolian invaders. After turbulence in China and the eventual rise of the Ming Dynasty, Beijing became China’s permanent capital city in 1421 – it was at that time that the city’s grid system and many landmarks were created. Since then, the city has seen many major events – including the Boxer Rebellion, Mao Zedong’s revolution, and recently, an incredible modernization, population, and catapult to the world stage aided by the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

We got to learn more about some of this history by visiting the Beijing Capital Museum,  北京首都博物馆 (beijing shoudu bowuguan). The museum has extensive exhibits of porcelain ware, paintings, jade, bronze vessels, seals, needleworks, Buddhist statues, calligraphy, and coins from different times in China’s history – some pieces date as far back as the New Stone Age! My favorite part of the museum was the Exhibition on History. In the huge exhibit hall, the wall was lined with a timeline of major world events dating back hundreds of years (i.e. Hundred Years’ War, French Revolution, etc.), and the center of the hall across from the corresponding timeline dates were diagrams, pictures, and relics detailing life in China during that time. So, for example, I saw some traditional clothing and house wares, as well as read about what was happening in Chinese culture and economy, at the time when the American Revolutionary War was happening half a world away. It was a fantastic introduction to the history and beauty of China.

Notre Dame in Beijing program at the Beijing Capital Museum

After leaving the museum, we took the subway to 天坛 (tiantan) – The Temple of Heaven. It is one of the few surviving ancient temples in the Beijing area, originally constructed in 1420 during the Ming dynasty and maintained very well ever since. The area consists not only of the iconic Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and surrounding temples originally used for sacrifice and prayer, but also beautifully landscaped paths and gardens. The various temples, altars, and other architecture symbolize the relationship between heaven and the people on earth, and are masterpieces of ancient Chinese culture. It was fantastic to visit this beautiful, historic oasis in the middle of the huge, bustling city.

Temple of Heaven park

In addition to these trips, I learned a couple of other things this weekend – most notably, I had my first taste of 讨价还价 (taojiahuanjia) – bargaining at Chinese markets! I’m still a little put off by the aggressive shopkeepers and back-and-forth haggling process, but with a little more practice, I’ll be ready to get some of the cool and (very realistic) knock-off items offered at the various markets in Beijing! I also learned how to maneuver through Beijing’s extensive subway system – it is surprisingly clean, cool, and easy for an English speaker to navigate.

The Chinese have a saying that essentially means “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”: 入乡随俗 (ruxiangsuisu). This will be my motto as I continue to experience this new culture and make it my second home.