Kairakuen: The Plum Blossom Festival of Ibaraki

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きれいですね~

“Spring begins with plum blossoms in Mito,” all the pamphlets read. Just before the Sakura (cherry) blossoms start to bloom, the plum blossoms are well fully blossomed. Although Sakura blossoms are known as the symbolic flower of Japan, plum blossoms are still a sight worth seeing.

Kairakuen garden was built during the Edo period  and has been a well known spot since then for plum blossom viewing. This festival is held every year from February 20th to March 31st and is completely free. More than 3,000 trees fill the park and, the colors range from snow white to a very vibrant pink.

Some views of the park.

Getting there is about a two hour train rid from Tochigi prrefecture. There are three seperate sections for the park. The main area is where the trees and festival food is located. Here many people eat bentos (Japanese lunch boxes) on the grass and watch some traditional kimono dance performances. You can walk through the house of Nariaki Tokugawa to see an imperial emperor style home, visit the spring water park, and walk through the beautiful Tokiwa shrine.  The park is pretty big but I do recommend walking the full length just to get a good view of the entire area.

Tokiwa shrine

It’s not the most famous festival in the Kanto area but it’s been gaining a lot of notoraiity over the past couple of years. It’s free and on a beautiful day, it’s the perfect setting for a lovely park stroll.

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A lovely couple taking wedding pictures

Nakimushisan and Uncountable Monks: A Hidden trail of Nikko

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I was so tired here…

A well known area of Tochigi prefecture is Nikko (日光). Nikko, a city to the north of Tochigi prefecture, has been the center of Buddhist and Shinto mountain worshipping. Every year thousands of visitors come to this realively rural city to enjoy the reminicents of ancient Japan. Nikko, being home to three big mountains in Japan is also a popular spot for hiking.

Some views of the mountain hike

 

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Trail map starting from the station

Meet Nakimushisan (鳴虫山), a small mountain in Nikko located just a ten minute walk away from the Tobu Nikko Station. I never hiked before so I wasn’t sure what to expect from the excursion. I fooled myself into thinking that it would be a light stroll. Maybe there would be some hills, and a few rough spots, nothing could’ve prepared me for this hike.

It was rough from the beginning, the path started out narrow and never widened at any point. Due to erosion and earthquakes, many of the man-made paths were torn apart. Despite how hard the trail was, this is still considered a 2-4 hour hike. After the treacherous climb the view from the top of the mountain was really nice. Up top, on a clear day you can see just about all of Nikko city and the point of Nantaisan.

Views from the top

The hike down was the hardest. The other end of the path was just rocks, so unstable in fact most of the path you had to use the ropes to get down safely. At the end of the path was the real beauty, the Kanmanga-fuchi Abyss.

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It’s a gorge in central Nikko that is easily accessible by bus or off the mountain trail. In the gorge is a long row of Buddhist monks that watch over travelers and the Nikko Botanical Garden. The monks lined up are called Bake-jizo which loosely means uncountable. It’s said it’s impossible to know how many monks are in the garden, each time you count them you’ll supposedly get a different number.

Very beautiful scenery

 

Even though my legs still hurt from the weekend, overall I would rate this as a positive experience. The hike was treacherous but the view at the end was well worth it.

Makabe Town: Stone Lanterns and Hina Dolls

Two weeks ago I had a cool opportunity to write for Japantravel.com. A company based in Japan, they pay foreigners to travel around Japan and write articles about their experience.  They covered my travel expenses and in return, I wrote a 500 word article about what I did and learned. I was nervous at first because, my work would be published for many people to see. Then, I became even more nervous when I realized that my tour guides couldn’t speak any English.

It was hard because, a lot of historical Japanese words are difficult to understand (somethings just don’t translate to English) and general vocabulary for stone making is a little difficult as well (I never thought I would learn the word for stone lantern or craftsmen). Nonetheless my guides were very nice to be sure I understood most of what they were saying. If you’d like to read my article you can find it here.

Reading this was actually a lot easier than you think.

Makabe Town is a small rural town located in Ibaraki prefecture. Even though it’s tiny it’s a pretty well known spot to visit in Japan. Makabe is most famous for it’s Makabe Stone (makabeishi) which is the stone used to create the lanterns and statues most commonly found at temples and shrines in Japan. I think it’s safe to say that most of the statues and lanterns at least in the kanto region originated from this small town. The beauty and aesthetic of these lanterns comes to life once the color starts fading and moss starts to grow. Makabe town takes a lot of pride in their stone sculptures. They’re incorporated in every aspect of the town.

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A small view of Makabe Town
Some Makabe stone statues. These can be found pretty much anywhere all over Japan.

This area is also well know for it’s buildings that have remained standing since the Edo period, earning Makabe the name of koedo (little edo).

Some photos of the house I visited

While I was visiting, the town had already set up their Hina dolls. Hina dolls are used to celebrate Hina matsuri, also “Girl’s Day”. It’s the day to celebrate good welfare for your daughters. People place them out for display in early February until the festival on March 3rd. It’s said once the festival is over you have to put the dolls away quickly or else your daughter won’t get married.  During this time residents set out their dolls displays and open up their homes to visitors to get a glimpse of little Edo. Many of the homes simply wanted to display their dolls creations but most residents were selling trinkets and goods reminiscent of Edo times.

 

I will admit, that I was a little put off when I received the topic for my assignment. Writing about rocks wasn’t super exciting, but this was a lot more fulfilling than I expected it to be. I know Makabe town would be a little difficult to explore without proper transportation but it’s definitely a place worth visiting. Who knows you might even learn something new.

Me, with my tour guides. They were so nice.

A Little Bit of Culture Shock

I have to laugh at myself a little bit, mainly because this is my second time coming to Japan. I’ve already lived through all of this for a short time before, so what else could I possibly find shocking? The truth is there’s still a lot that gets to me. Sometimes it’s frustrating and other times I just have to roll with the punches. So I’ve complied a short list of things that I’ve found to be the most shocking since living here.

ATMs Close

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My ATM: I’m charged ¥ 108 after 6pm on weekdays and on the weekends.

Japan is still a heavily cash based society so it’s still uncommon to pay using credit card at most places especially in rural places where they might not even have card machines. So it’s very common for people to walk around with $500-$1000 in cash at any given time. The only place I can think to use a credit at around Sano would be at the Aeon Mall and Outlet stores. Even online, there’s often options to pay in cash at convenience stores or give the delivery man cash on arrival.

This all wouldn’t be so bad if dealing with the ATMs wasn’t so annoying. Unlike in America ATMs in Japan actually  close, usually around 6pm, on weekends,and on holidays. ATMs are also notorious for charging fees for withdrawing your OWN money from your OWN account. I was lucky enough to be with a bank that’s not so annoying but I know I do get charged to withdraw money if I do it after 6pm.  So this means I have to do some careful planning when it comes to my weekend adventures. Especially since my bank can’t be found outside of Tochigi so I try to make sure I withdraw enough money to get through the weekend.

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Just slide into the ATM, the machine writes all your transactions.

A good thing about them though is that you can update your bankbook automatically at the ATM so Japan got that part right.

 

 

 

 

 

No Returns

This one is still a little hard for me to understand, most stores will not allow you to do a return. If you are able to make a return, it’s usually an annoyingly long process.  It’s not that you can’t return things I’ve returned a couple things, you just have to have a good reason why you want to return it i.e. broken, wrong fit, etc. Even if you are able to make returns most places will want you to do an exchange instead of giving you back your money. It’s a hard concept to get used to,  especially coming from America I remember returning things that I bought months ago without any problem. Hell I’ll buy clothes to try on at home and then return them within the week if I don’t really like them. I’m not sure why it’s so hard to return things , I guess it’s just to make sure the stores aren’t being cheated out of money somehow. It’s not all that bad though I just have to really think about what I’m getting and weather or not it’ll be worth the purchase.

 

Technology

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Electronic Dictionary: the saving grace of English Education

Japan has a very love hate relationship when it comes to technology. On one hand they have electronic dictionaries, self opening car doors, and high tech Japanese phones, but on the other hand they still rely on kerosine heaters, fax machines, and chalk boards. I guess it’s the idea of if it’s not broken don’t fix it, because they will hold onto outdated technology until it dies. Maybe it’s a part of the energy conservation or just putting money into more viable infrastructure… I’m not really sure what it is. Most of my teachers aren’t really sure how to use certain technology like bluetooth speakers or creating power points it’s strange. I remember being at Kansai Gaidai and having to type my final reports on computers that  were still running windows 98. It’s crazy to even think that that program can still work on anything in 2017, but it still exists.

Delivery

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McDelivery is McGenius

This one I can’t experience too often because most places around me don’t deliver but it’s surprising how many restaurants actually offer delivery services. You can get not only get pizza but also McDonald’s, Moe’s Burgers, ramen, etc all delivered to your door step. The first time I had it in Osaka I was shocked, as lazy as Americans are why don’t we have delivery McDonalds?

 

 

 

I’m sure there’s plenty of other things that throw me off every now and again but these are the few things that I experience everyday that really get to me.

 

Fiction vs. Reality: What’s it like being black in Japan?

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I was trying to be an egg

I always get a little sad when I look up blogs on wordpress, tumblr, or youtube and find very little information from bloggers of color in Japan. Not that I don’t find information from white bloggers useful but the way life is experienced, is always different for bloggers of color. Many white bloggers have no idea what it’s like to be a minority and usually don’t have to deal with issues of racism in their home countries. So they often don’t think or even consider that their darker colleagues might be facing some tougher times simply because of their skin color.

 

Even in Asia, western forms of beauty are still highly sought after. It’s inescapable, every where you go you see Japanese advertisements using white models. I’ve even heard of business companies that will hire white men just to go to business meetings with them because they think it makes them look good. I can’t say I’ve faced a lot of negativity here but, I’ll never forget how a Japanese man compared approaching black people to approaching dogs, “You want to come up to them because they look fun and friendly, but you’re still scared they might bite you.” It didn’t feel good to hear that but I’m sure he wasn’t the only one to feel that way.

The reason why I started writing this blog was to share a little of what I’m going through with all the numerous black people that really want to come here, but are too scared to do it. When I first studied abroad I had all the same questions everybody else had; what will everyone think about skin color, what will they think about my hair, what will I do with my hair, what if they secretly call me racist names, what if I don’t make any friends… Just a lot of what ifs, and if I could go back in time and slap myself I would. I won’t lie and say that living in Japan is easy for me because it’s definitely not. There’s plenty of challenges that I face everyday from communicating at my job to just simply commuting. However living in Japan is not as scary as it seems. In fact I think most of my initial fears were over come by simply just being open and getting out of my own head.

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Endless nights in Roppongi

Fiction: Japanese people will find me intimidating.

Reality: This one I think, depends on where you live. Tochigi is fairly close to Tokyo where a lot of foreigners live. So I think most people here have come in contact with foreigners of all colors several times in their lives.  In small country towns this might be a little bit more challenging to foreigners of color. It’s hard to fathom but, there are probably plenty of Japanese people who have never talked to a foreigner, let alone a foreigner of color. As I’ve said foreigners only make up one percent of the population in Japan with the biggest number of minorities located closer to the bigger cities. While I have heard some bad stories, most Japanese people I’ve met have been pretty accepting about my skin color, some have even found me more interesting because of it. More than anything I think people find me intimidating because they’re scared to speak to me in English.

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This is actually the only selfie I have with my hair out.

 

Fiction: Japanese people will probably think my skin and hair texture is ugly.

Reality:Again, Japan is no stranger to Eurocentric styles of beauty. Both men and women spend thousands of dollars trying to achieve a more western look such as skin lightening, eye surgery, and extreme dieting to look more like the Taylor Swifts and Justin Beibers of the world. So I have no doubt that there are plenty of Japanese people that find African features conventionally unattractive. I think beauty standards are a little less unforgiving here in Japan because overall Japanese people don’t differ to much in terms of hair, skin and body type. Diversity is still a pretty fresh concept in Japan but it takes time for society to slowly accept what’s different. Coming here made me accept my outward appearance even more because I know no matter how hard I try I’ll never fit into conventional beauty here. I still make sure to look my best when going out but it’s on my own terms. And despite feeling self conscious I’ve had more than enough Japanese people tell me how beautiful I am whether I’m wearing a wig and make-up or just being my natural self.

 

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The famous Room 806

 

Fiction: I can’t buy my hair products/ there’s no where for me to get my hair done.

Reality: Unfortunately this is more fact than fiction because, there isn’t really a market for black hair care products in Japan. Foreigners make up only 1% of the population and I’m willing to bet less than half of that percentage is black. I know there are some salons like Room 806 in Tokyo that can do braids and sew ins but their prices are pretty high. To avoid paying those prices ($60/ hour) before coming here I started learning how to do my hair myself (youtube is my bestfriend now). I order most of my products offline and do a lot of DIY mixes. If you’re adventurous with your Japanese it doesn’t hurt to find good Japanese substitutes with hair products. I’ve found some lines of sulfate free shampoos and some people swear by Japanese deep conditioners. It is annoying that there’s not a beauty supply store that I can walk to find a good leave in or curl cream but that’s the sacrifice you make to live in Asia.

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Yohei Kamiya and Tara Kamiya

 

Fiction: Japanese people won’t want to date me

Reality: Due to the over consumption of media and general different dating practices, dating in Japan can be difficult. Many Japanese people are reluctant to date foreigners due to cultural differences and communication. It’s hard to date someone if you can’t communicate with them so many people just don’t try. Conversely many Japanese people might want to date foreigners because they think we fit some sort of stereotype. Foreigners are often seen as promiscuous and sleeping with one might be kind of as a status symbol. However the same can be said for foreigners that only want to “date” Japanese people because of an Asian fetish. Besides all of those short comings there are plenty of successful interracial relationships both in and outside of Japan. Like any relationship, it takes time and effort and if it’s meant to be, then it will happen.

 

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I really love the pig filter

Being in Japan as a black women is hard but, I find it’s only as hard as I make it out to be. Asia in general is still relatively closed off from the rest of the world so there’s still a lot of people who are just ignorant of what life is like outside of their region. I always have to think about that when I’m out because, most of my misunderstandings just come from simple miscommunication. No amount of complaining will make my time here easier but, I can just take things for what they are and continue to live in Japan as unapologeticaly black as possible.