where Ive been

Lazy day today. So now that Ive got unlimited internet for the first time in a month, I thought Id share what Ive been doing with the destined bunch to read this blog.

The first farm I went to was in a small town in Tomamu, about central Hokkaido. Ken-san, the father and man in charge of Karifuri Farm, is a wonderful man. He lived in America for two years after majoring in Economics at (I believe) Tokyo University. He lived with a family in a small town in Utah, worked on a ranch in Idaho, and then hitchhiked from Canada to Guatemala for half a year. But he barely speaks English. Still it was this experience that inspired him to go back to Japan, live with a family in Nagano on their 300 year old farm for one year and just work with them, in order to learn how to start a farm of his own. He came to Tomamu the same way he came to America; with nothing but his backback and a bike. He had only a few acres at first, and slowly, slowly bought land from surrounding farmers. For the first few years that was all he had. He said “we’re poor and work hard, but we’re happy because we have beautiful land, beautiful animals, and healthy food.” Emi contested to this. They live almost entirely self-sustainably.

The mother Emi is a sweet, unsuspectingly strong woman. Kazuma, 10, the son, is an artistic genius. I taught him how to use a knife to carve and he made a small rabbit and a weasel in two days. He also paints and draws lots of landscapes, and wants to use oil paint. The daughter, Hikaru, 8, is feisty and hilarious. She too is interested in art. They are obsessed with Galaxy Express 999, an anime from the 70s about a train in outer space. They all get up at about 5 in the morning to feed the animals. There are about 70 egg  chickens, I dont know how many meat chickens, rabbits (they sell them to French and CHinese restaurants in Sapporo and also sell the fur), 40 goats, 6 pigs, 3 dogs, and a cat named Jo, (from Little Women).

I did mostly harvesting of vegetables, also preparing the vegetables to dry and packing them. I also went with Ken around town to sell the vegetables. Tomamu is a poor, small town, whose sister city is Aspen.  THey have an exchange program. Aspen also gives monetary aid to Tomamu. I met Corey, one of the two westerners who live in Tomamu (everyone, I mean EVERYONE knows him, blond hair blue eyed man who married a woman who owns a restaurant. He ran a taco restaurant but now he sells dairy products, but he also is in charge of the exchange program for Tomamu so he goes back to Aspen quite a bit. It was wild speaking English for the first time in 5 days.

Ken made all of the buildings, including the house they live in (which burned down to the ground 2 years ago, so he rebuild it) and the one I stayed in which was next to the egg chickens house (I would wake up 3 times each night, at 3, 4:30, and 5 by the roosters.) I know I worked a lot, but im sure i gained weight. Wed have breakfast at 7:30, then thered be a break with tea and cookies, then  lunch, then a coffee and dessert break, then back to work, then another tea or coffee break, then dinner. I celebrated by birthday while we were there. It was the day we went to Emis mothers grave (she died in August and it was also a day or two after Obon) and they washed her tombstone and put some beer there (and removed the cans that were already there), put fresh flowers, lit incense and candles, and then tried to take a picture, but their camera didnt have any batteries! So I used my camera and took the picture of them all in front of the grave. I will be sure to post it. Then Emi and Ken tried to take us (by us, there were also Hikaru and Kazumas three cousins) to Karifuri mountain, but it was closed because the water was too high or something. So we climbed a little way up to some phone towers and could see Karifuri farm!

I also went with Ken and the kids to drop a goat off at a man called Jack Daniel. He is fully Japanese and speaks no English. He owns a horse ranch and lives in a 50 year old train station. He has black long curly hair, a handlebar moustache, wears tight jeans and chaps, has a bit of a pot belly, sunglasses, and of course, a cowboy hat, and a belt buckle with the Mustang logo on it. Everyone in Tomamu knows him, you could spot him from any angle with both eyes shut.  His house was decorated like a rich cowboys house. Somehow. He said he might start the Wwoofing program, so I might have to go back and work with him.

Ken drove me about half-way to Asahikawa, he was so kind. We barely had time, but we were in Furano, which is famous for Lavender fields and lavender ice cream. I told him many people had advised me to try the ice cream since I would be in Hokkaido so he sped us over the lavender farm (not much was growing, we were too late) and gobbled it down and drove me to the station.

Yesterday, a French girl who had been working here for a month left. We all
went to the train station )the closest one, being an hour away!)  It was a
teary good-bye, as she was like his second hand. He then took us )by us
there is also a brother and sister from taiwan) to a big park consisting
entirely of cosmos fields (the flowers) and he bought us cocoa soft-serve.
Then we went to a funny camping ground with a small train than would run
through every once and a while. we skipped stones and walked around. THEN
he took us to an onsen! It was so funny, the outside buildings were like
churches, and the insides were decorated with medieval antiques and
Scottish kilts and things like that. Then he treated us to lunch! And on
the way back, we went to a waterfall! What a beautiful day, and a kind
man. We cant keep him from treating us because he does it without us
knowing whats going on. Each time its a surprise. We try paying him back
but he wont put his hands out to take the money!
Then we went back and milked the cows )im becoming quite good. its hard at
first because really each cow is different, so I feel like the way you
milk the teats is also different. Theres a lot to remember, but its little
by little every day so I can handle it! Its much less gruelling than
digging potatoes or carrying firewood.
But this morning we went into the stable and there was a dead cow fetus
covered in shit on the floor. It was pretty shocking. He said it was an
early birth, and probably happened during the night. We could all tell
which cow it was because she just stood around mooing as loudly as
possible for a long time.
The landscape around here is crazy. A lot of times like a Breugel
painting. Beautiful pastures of indeterminable distances. Then there are huge hills that stand straight up in the
at a 90 degree angle with neatly planted trees and sometimes giant sunflower fields
on them. The scenery is almost fantastical but more mild than I thought, too. Maybe  what a child would depict you if you asked her to draw a landscape. The vast endless fields are of an impossible green. Green is blinding. You could drive for about 20 minutes and only see a cornfield and a rundown shed. I swear for about 40 minutes on the road, we didnt see a single other car.

I had heard that most of Hokkaido is uninhabited but I didnt even expect this. I quite like it. We also drove through what
Kataokasan called a ghost-town gold town. About 60 years ago it was a gold town but its all overgrown with forest and ruins of small stone buildings and the remains of a movie theater.
But it also means no more traditional houses. Its a lot like being in
America. Virtually everything western style.  I even went to a giant sprawl mall while waiting for the train outside Sapporo (the first I have seen while in Japan) But Kataokasan has a huge buddhist altar and tokonoma, as well as  a painted shoji door. But its all
confined to one room. From the outside it looks like a rundown farm house.
Its kind of what I imagine Idaho as being. Ken-san from the previous farm even said he probably moved here because it was like AMerica. Even the history is similar. A lot of places still have the Ainu language names.
Kataoka san wants me to paint a sign for him (he had seen I had put
‘painting’ as one of my skills on the wwoofing website). I mentioned I had
carved a sign at pearlstone and he brought out small chisels. but i dont
think its enough! so ill paint a sign.


Piano man

I’ve been really tired lately, and not sleeping well (actually I’ve been taking naps in the infirmary it’s kind of comforting, laying in mostly bare white bed in encapsulated by cream-colored curtains with the mid-day sun gleaming behind them, while a radio’s incomprehensible words drift about the room…but I digress). I was exhausted after only less than an hour of using a grinder on my new piece (the wood bits flying everywhere keep cutting my hands, I need gloves or something), and after eating katsu-don and watching the glowing molten mammoths of pink “summer clouds” (according to Kenta, the billowy stacked cumulonimbus clouds should mean that rainy season is over) I sat down and just spaced out on a bench outside the cafeteria. A man came up to me and said, in English, that he would be playing the piano on the second floor, and I could come watch. I followed, and came to the part of the building I always knew was there but had never actually seen. It’s just a hall by the stairs with a grand piano. He played a beautiful song that could have been played in The Peanuts, and I lay down and actually RELAXED. It was, to my delight, one of the most experiences moments I’ve ever had. It gets stranger.

He played for about 5 minutes, then asked if I knew how to improvise, if I played piano (all in English). I said not piano, but cello, and yes I can improvise. He asked if I’d like to have an improv session. He showed me to play with the palms of my hands, and the backs of my hands and fingers, the sides of them, my wrists, elbows, arms, forehead. He played by pressing his hands and arms all along the piano, and it sounded amazing. Playing by making circular movements with your entire hands. Making music out of nonsense, and he played to them, and I played to him, we were having deep, intellectual conversation without any words. Then I got up and played the strings of the piano, he quite liked that. We must have played for at least half an hour, and he got up and I kept playing. He walked around, leaned behind the piano, and then lay down for a few minutes like I had, just listening to my nonsense. Then he said he was going to leave.  The floor was entirely empty except a man sweeping in the next room.
I too thought I should go.

I asked his name. Ogawa. How come you speak English so well? He looked confused. “I don’t speak it that well. I was in America for six months, but that was some years ago.” I tried to talk more to him, but he seemed to be in a hurry, I asked if he would come next week, but I have the feeling that I won’t ever see him again.

Here are some pictres from a few weeks ago. I went to a bbq at Uchida sensei’s studio in the foothills of mount Hiei. You can see lake biwa from his rotenburo (a small outdoor bath) (I DID take a bath in it, with a few other girls. what an experience!)

around Seika



a dream

I woke up with the idea that there is a type of ceramic-ware that breaks after 30 days, a kind that breaks if you hold it for too long, and a kind that breaks if you admire the  inner glazework too much.

Niigata echigo art triennial tomorrow

Week of free booze.

I feel like I’ve been eating and drinking nonstop this week. For free. I wrote this post on Monday, but only just posted it.

Monday: I was invited out to sushi and beer by Uchida sensei, the steel-work teacher. Uchida sensei took me, Mugi, Nishi sensei, Kamada-san (the shop tech), Yoshino-sensei (my teacher, the wood-work), and another teacher whose name I forgot to a place called Sushi-tetsu (I find this humorous because “tetsu” means “steel”). They ordered everything I liked–eel, octopus, UNAGI SO MUCH UNAGI!, avacado, the DAMN BEST CALIFORNIA ROLLS I HAVE EVER EATEN, maguro and toro, kappazushi, mackerel, things I don’t even know. They ordered me beer and sake. I told them I don’t like ama-ebi. They said that’s because I never had a good one, and ordered up. I tried it, and I actually loved it. Then I said in passing I’ve been wanting to try fugu (blowfish). They wanted to know the names of the fish in English, so they asked for an English menu. They had a ball over the names of the fish. “Blowfish?” I mimed blowing into a balloon to explain why. “Aa~~ naruhodo!” Yeah, they ordered that too. After that, we were walking over to a gallery, but we all got distracted by a bar that was also a small exotic fish aquarium with little sharks pacing back in forth in their tank in the front window. We all decided to go inside, and ended up getting drinks. More free drinks for me. Uchida-sensei ordered on my behalf, grapefruit juice and vodka (I’ll have to remember that one). After that, everyone went separate ways. Yoshinosensei and I took the train back to school. I asked him about the music he likes. I know he likes music because he has about a dozen guitars in his office, one of them he made himself, and also a ukulele he made himself.

Anyways, Sunday: I biked to Kamigamo jinja to scout out where I want to put my sculpture (no photo yet) for the student show that will be held at the shrine in July. On the way there, I thought, hey, maybe that place Radio Bagel is open–it was! I got a whole wheat bagel toasted with scallion cream cheese, and ate it at kamigamo jinja and man, what a surreal and wonderful feeling that was. I bought two more for breakfast. Anyways, after that, I decided it would be nice to go to Daitoku-ji, a place never heard about. It was so lovely, I know exactly where to take Jim and Susan when they come to Kyoto! The thing is, Daitoku-ji consists of half-a-dozen or so different complexes, lots of famous rock gardens (karesansui), including “the smallest stone garden in Japan,” and “the stone garden which represents the truth of the universe” among others.

After that, I went to a group birthday party (a birthday party for any one whose birthday is in May or June) held by kids from school. It was on the river, everyone drinking beer and eating salty things and ice cream, playing music (both a dj and live performances), and bathing our feet in the river. WHannah, Alice, Neal, and I biked home, but I was slow and went to the cemetery that I went with to on my Tajh to watch the sun set on my first day at Seika, but this time to watch the new moon (a great, sharp crescent with a pinhole of light (perhaps venus?) between its horns). After that, I went with Hannah, Alice and Neal to get ice cream. We ate ice cream and watched the moon get so big and heavy that it fell into the forest behind our dorm.

On Saturday, I met Asakura-san at Takashimaya. It was my first time, and it is crazy beautiful and super classy and expensive looking. My gluttonous, materialistic side wants every thing inside that place. She took me to lunch to eat at any of the restaurants at the top of the store and I chose a restaurant that specializes in soba (But I wish I had chosen a different one…there was a crazy good looking Italian place up there). She was so kind to treat me to lunch. After meeting her, I went to Shimogamo jinja to follow the Aoi Matsuri procession over to Kamigamo jinja. According to Wikipedia, the procession consists of “two oxcarts, four cows, thirty-six horses, and six hundred people (Frang, 2002). All of which are dressed in traditional Heian period costumes decorated with aoi (hollyhock) leaves.” The horses, oxes, and people, all in ancient attire marching against traffic, through intersections, across bridges, along the canal, all silently, slowly. It isn’t anything like the other festival I went to; actually, the entirely the opposite. It’s composed, dignified, calm. I wish could have taken pictures, but I didn’t even think to bring my camera.
Then I hung around Kamigamo jinja for a few hours trying to see the ancient rituals being carried out . I couldn’t really see anything (it’s all done behind beyond a gate leading to the main shrine, and you have to pay money just to get a better look at it). I saw a bus drive by loaded up with women who took part in the procession (still dressed in robes and makeup).

I decided it would be nice to walk back to the dorms. About 3/4 the way there, I got lost in a neighborhood. It was getting dark. I saw a woman start her car in front of a temple. “Excuse me!” I called. “It seems I’m lost” I said. “Oh, please get in” she said. I got into the car. My third car ride with a stranger in Japan. The woman is the wife of the head priest of the temple (I have to go back and find out what temple it is. she said I should come visit!). Her son graduated from Bukkyo University and now goes to UCLA for his doctorate in…I believe Buddhist Cultural studies. As I got out of the car, she asked my name. “Hannah” I said. “Hana”…she writes its kanji out with her finger into her palm. “I’m Kishida Youko. Please stop by soon!”

Friday: Drinking party in Kino-ryo (the dorm). Free drinks, free snacks.

Thursday: Got home from school, saw a bunch of people outside. Tajh, Laura, Jee-ye and I went to a bar whose name I’ve forgotten. We all shared a nabe, a stew pot, and ordered a few beers. We were curious about a bottle three men sitting across from us were sharing. We asked. “Shouchuu” they merrily replied. It’s Japanese sweet potato liquor. “Have some!” They ordered special shouchuu drinking glasses for each of us. The youngest man (I think he is the son of one of the other men) is attending Bukkyo University and had taken a year off to travel around Japan on his motorcycle (he camped out the whole time). He had come back from Shikoku and even brought his photo album to the bar! We all talked and laughed, and they gave us more shouchuu. We all exchanged numbers so that we can all be drinking buddies again some time.

Now the passage of time is soft and twisted, like a pretzel.

Maybe on Tuesday the sculpture department held what the teachers themselves could only describe to me as “crazy party.”
Well, it’s more like a frat initiation party, where all the first year students have to go up on a stage and do an embarrassing, amusing performance, one at a time. The upperclassmen decide whether to pass or fail the freshman. Performances I saw were pitiable, sometimes border-line terrifying or just plain disgusting. One girl began shaving off her long hair. All the girls began screaming, “LET HER PASS!!” and she stopped 1/4 the way through. One boy ate half a tube of wasabi paste. I saw some come out of his nose. That was just gross. If the performance passes, then the freshman can step down and join the audience. If it’s fail, then may god save your soul. The freshman has to do “batsu-game” which can be anything from having mayonnaise poured over your head, to having everyone in the audience throw raw eggs at you, to, in the worst case I saw, somebody pour candle wax (just a tiny rousoku one, but still!) on your bare back. Everyone is dressed up in crazy outfits, hitting each other with oversized paper fans, throwing eggs left and right, tons of beer and snacks, condiments meant to be squirted or poured on contestants were sprayed and splattered everywhere, so much so that people were sliding around on the floor. Yoshino-sensei looked at me and said “Japanese people aren’t really like this”. People kept telling me that. This is a school ritual, at least for sculpture students.It happens every year, who knows how long it’s been going on for.
After the “crazy party” I was taken to a bar (the same bar I went to on Thursday) and was told I could order any thing I want–food, beer, dessert–and it’s all free. I ate so much I thought I would die and I kept on eating–mushroom soup, sashimi, something described to me as “chicken special parts”, udon, beer, beer, beer, fried eggplant, who knows. It was amazing. Everyone was so fun. I learned that this is called Bureiko (無礼講). My electronic dictionary says it means “free and easy (party)” or “putting aside ranks.” It’s a time when everyone becomes equal, everything will be forgiving because we’re all drunk, so we’re all on the same level. One friend told me it’s very important that Japanese have these parties, because it dissolves boundaries and tensions between male and female, student and teacher, upperclassman (senpai) and lower classman (kouhai).

Here’s my current WIP. Cloud box.

Cloud boxSaw this guy in the studio today


Festival and a cold


Cherry blossoms and businessmen

In the indigenous Japanese religious holiday Sannou-sai, portable shrines (mikoshi) of are carried down from Mount Hiei for a huge festival. The deities are prayed to for a bountiful harvest. At night, about (what seemed like) 100 of the town’s local young men dress up in fundoshi and repeatedly rock these huge mikoshi back and forth violently to represent the female deity’s giving birth to wakamiya (according to Kanji Go program means “shrine dedicated to a child of the god of the main shrine” After rocking the shrines, the men carry them to Hiyoshi Taisha. Of course, the actual experience is beyond words or recordings but I did try to take photos.

Mugi, an alumni from KSU who works in the sculpture department took me to the festival. Hiyoshi Taisha is about a 5 minute walk from her house. She randomly invited me to come, and I’m so thankful that she did. I say randomly, because I only really had met her briefly once before, and it’s funny, because when I first saw her at school, I really thought I’d somehow met her in America (she’s never been to America). For some reason, she looked startlingly familiar. She was a sculpture student at Seika five years ago, now works at school and doing office work.

At the festival, we joined a huge crowd of people to watch about 50 men in fundoshi up on stage rock the shrines back and forth, side to side, shouting the deities’ names, which lasted for about 40 minutes. There was a huge cherry blossom tree hovering over the crowd, and every time the wind blew, hundreds of petals float towards the stage, glimmering in the light against the purple night sky. Old ladies would say, “Oh, it’s just like snow, isn’t it?” to each other.

When the rocking was over, the men carried the four shrines and gigantic bamboo stalk torches and headed up the hill to install the deities into the main shrine. We eagerly and aggressively pushed our way through the crowd to chase after the shrines, dodging the occasional fiery bamboo pole or leaping over its ashes, trying to photograph the whole thing all the while.

We ate yakisoba, dorayaki, and sugar-coated sweet potatoes at some of the hundreds of vendors that line the path up to the shrine. After that, we walked to her house. I met her parents, who are AMAZING. Her mother is a sculptor. She has wild, frizzy purple and black hair. Her father is a naturalist (with artistic inclinations, he said “nature is my inspiration” in English) with a gray-haired bowl-cut. Her mother made us a wonderful meal, they are so kind, and were very excited I play the banjo (I mentioned it when I saw the grand piano, two violins, and guitar as we warmed ourselves in front of the wood burning stove). I hope I can take photos of the place soon, the bathroom is bedecked with tiny, beautiful plastic, wooden and porcelain animals, and an AMAZING cloud calendar.

As I was leaving, her parents also gave me two oranges from their garden. Mugi drove me back to the station. On the train, I was almost moved to tears by her and her parents’ willingness to embrace me and overall kindness and generosity despite my being a complete stranger. I don’t think such a thing would ever happen in America.

I’m sick this weekend and since Friday had just been sitting around, not really doing anything except trying to get better. Now herea are some pictures

Carrying the shrine

Actually, I lied. I’m invited to “Midnight Nembutsu”, midnight praying at Kiyomizudera.

This weekend

This blog is a documentation of my daily adventures and describable transcendental experiences in Japan. Let it be known that I am an exchange student from Cooper Union studying sculpture at Kyoto Seika University.

Here is a link to my flickr account (currently consists of photos from my trip to Kumano only. I’ll have to wait till next month to add more)

On Friday, I biked over to Entsuji Temple. When you enter you see signs saying something like “Enter with a quiet heart.” So much for a quiet, peaceful place to meditate. I sat and drew Hieizan and read Japanese Aesthetics and Culture until the sounds of jackhammers from nearby construction became too peace-wrecking to bear. Once again the development of suburbia has ruined the day.
Next, I tried to go over to the Shugakuin Imperial Villa. My not being aware that one must first make a reservation months in advance to enter Shugakuin was not an issue because I never found it. Instead, I came upon a shinto shrine, asked the monks a simple, stupid “where am I?” and strolled around the grounds (I’ll have to go back and find out what shrine it is. and take pictures of the countless stone sculptures).
Trying to find my way back, I stopped on a bridge and watched the clouds light up the range in Kurama. “Hello there!” An American woman’s voice. I turned around and saw the same woman who, days earlier, had given me and another exchange student directions to a vegan all-you-can-eat for 850 yen lunch buffet from a kaleidoscope museum. She biked with me through Takaragaike park through a special cherry-blossom viewing path to get back to school and drew me a map of how to bike to Ginkakuji from my dorm.
I went back to the dorm, and after dinner went with a group of exchange students to the greatest bar in Kyoto, Honky Tonk. The owner, Beau Yatani, a country musician himself has made Honky Tonk embody the collective nostalgia that everyone has of some run-down dive bar somewhere in Memphis. Live country and western music almost every night, 500 yen cover charge, and here are just a few of the nights I plan to go this month:
April 15: HONKY TONK JAM! JAM! JAM! (no cover charge)
April 22: BLUE GRASS JAM! (no cover charge)
29: HONKY TONK 40th Anniversary, with Stardust Cowboys, Cabbage Down, and Dallas & Steppers
and possibly 30: HAWAIIAN NIGHT
I asked him if I could play my banjo here, and yes, I will be playing on the 15th or 22nd.

On Sunday, Tajh and I went to Iwakura Shrine, Jisso-in Temple whose garden altogether bewildering, intense and calming (hint: everything is everything), and a few crazy moss-shrines scattered around the grounds of (what we think is) a nearby hospital. Neither of us wanted to go home, so even though it began to rain, we biked over to Miyake Hachiman jinja (these pictures don’t do the early-evening fog filled, cherry-blossom raining water falling shrine justice). There is holy water you can drink that comes down from Mount Hiei, and the pigeon is the shrine’s sacred animal of choice. There are two large stone carved pigeons at the entrance, bronze ones perched on bells, little red and blue painted wooden ones scattered about and imprinted on lanterns and other inconspicuous surfaces, on banners and well…yeah. everywhere.
We sat under the closed entrance of a temple and watched clouds wade across the smaller mountains before us.
Then we ate okonomiyaki. I can’t even describe the anticipation of that dinner. I’ll try. A family sat across from us, across the hibachi grill, ordering every food to make your mouth water (fried and grilled every kind of meat (from the sea and land), grilled asparagus, tofu, omelettes, things we had no idea what they were but looked way too good for how hungry we were, and our food took forever, and the family was very nice and talked to us. The anticipation for our own food with the never-ending parade of delicacies before us made us REALLY appreciate our okonomiyaki when it came.

Today I went to the studio for the first time. I came in early to meet the professor I’ll be working under, Yoshino. I was printing out the image I am now carving from, and another teacher, Takemata, saw my image, looked at it for a while, said “Yes.” And “It’s a man?”, left the room and came back with a DVD of Calder’s Circus. “You Look?” He asked. I was quite flattered. We watched it until we had to go to a funny little morning meeting. I didn’t understand much of it. Just about things that the teachers saw recently (books, articles in the newspaper, shows, movies) that they thought were worth mentioning.
While working, I met a few 4th year students, they showed me their work, they asked me about New York’s punk scene. I said I didn’t know. I was invited to go tomorrow to a festival so I’ll be sure to update about that.

Good night

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