It wasn't difficult to choose some of my favorite moments during our trip to Japan ~ in fact I compiled a dozen pictures which represent twelve meaningful moments for me while I was there.
The picture on the left - me drinking matcha (a type of powered green tea prepared for tea ceremony) would fall under the tabemono category (yes, I did sneak in a 13th photo!) Photo: Tayln Cox
Yasukuni. If you've read the page for Yasukuni you know its a controversial shrine, which is exactly why I wanted to visit it. I wanted to see and experience for myself this infamous shrine. Yasukuni surprised me. There were no protests or overpowering nationalistic messages (well, if you avoided the "war museum"). Instead it was a quiet oasis tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. Families strolled the gravel paths, tall trees provided shade from the overbearing sun and a few visitors approached the shrine to pay their respect to the enshrined kami.
I have two brothers currently serving in the military so I fully understand the need to honor the men and women who serve their nation. However, its difficult to support a place where Class A War Criminals are enshrined and therefore I understand the pain and anger directed at Yasukuni. In the end I'm grateful I had the opportunity to experience it for myself so I can more fully comprehend what Yasukuni is. Photo: Mindy Ward
Mr Happyness was the first of many Shinto and Buddhist priests who graciously talked to us about religion in Japan and their own personal beliefs. His welcomed us into his small Buddhist temple far from the main temple circuit of Tokyo and spoke to us over an hour about his journey to becoming a Buddhist priest and the role of Buddhism in modern Japanese society.
His warmth and honesty was reassuring as he thoughtfully answered each of our questions. After chatting over freshly brewed tea, he led us to the temple hall where he answered a barrage of curious questions (mostly from me) about the different religious symbols found on the main altar.
Afterwards while waiting for everyone to regroup I snapped a picture of these adorable jizo in the front yard of the shrine. Photo: Mindy Ward
While the parade seemed almost somber in tone as float carts moved cautiously through the narrow streets of Kyoto the succeeding procession featuring the mikoshi was the exact opposite. The elated cries from the men carrying the weighty portable shrine pulsated through this back alley street in Kyoto were a sharp contrast to the high-pitched structured musical accompaniment to the parade. The parade appeared to be all about the pomp and circumstance of the ritual, the mikoshi procession embodied the liveliness of the festival, the overall exuberance of the participants and the power of the kami. I dare say it is nearly impossible to not get swept up in the festivities as the opulent mikoshi passes near you, born on the shoulders of animated men.
You are drawn even more into the environment when the mikoshi pauses in front of a home, accompanied by cries of "wassho! wassho!" and is shaken by participants, bells jingling for all to hear, for the entertainment of the home's residents, nearby spectators, and most importantly, the kami himself. And just minutes later the mikoshi is far down the road, the shouts are nearly muted and you are left breathless and amazed by what you just witnessed. Photo: Mindy Ward
Nara, famous throughout the world for its magnificent bronze Buddha, is, to me, simply the place where you feed the deer. Yes, Todaiji is utterly impressive with its enormous wooden building which contains Daibutsu, a massive image of the Buddha. However, its the wild deer which wander around the park which I think of first when I reminisce about the city of Nara.
My first visit to Nara was 8 years ago ~ somewhere in my fuzzy memory I remember a large temple and a big Buddha, the image that is most clear is one of my friend Heather laughing as a couple of deer kept nudging her for the tasty (deer appropriate) cookies she was feeding them. The deer meandered about, grazing on grass and would gather around you when they realized you had those wafer thin cookies, maybe pushing a little to get a bit closer.
Fast forward 8 years and I swear the number of deer have tripled and they've abandoned the Japanese ideology of "the nail which sticks up gets hammered down" and fully embrace the American motto "the squeaky wheel gets the grease." However, they've interpreted squeak as head butt and nip. No longer do just a few deer approach you when they realize you have a little treat, instead a dozen or so deer surround you eager for a taste. This can cause a bit of panic within you as you realize that yes, that deer really does have antlers and he's giving you a dirty look because three cookies really isn't enough to satiate his appetite.
Though the deer can be a bit overwhelming they do provide incredible photo opportunities, allowing you to convince yourself they really weren't *that* aggressive and so you move Nara farther up your list of places to return to when you find yourself back in Japan. Photo: Michael Roemer
Rarely do you get a private tour led by one of the field's leading scholars in a place as intriguing as Yoshida Jinja. We were fortunate to do just that, spending a couple of hours one afternoon with Professor Breen, on sabbatical from the School of African and Oriental Studies of the University of London (which if you know anything about Asian studies is a mighty impressive university). I'm not sure what drew me in more ~ the esoteric practices of Yoshida Shinto or Professor Breen's infectious enthusiasm for this little known shrine.
Yoshida Shinto offers a divergent interpretation of Shinto ~ according to its founder, Amaterasu, the sun goddess is not enshrined at the Grand Temple of Ise, instead she can be found at this seemingly unimpressive shrine. However, appearances can be deceiving and what it hidden behind the red wooden slates of the outer fence of the structure is a shrine like no other. Shaped in an octagon the main altar is dedicated to a lesser known kami with a shrine to Amaterasu in the outer-lying section. However its the nearby shrine dedicated to Kanetomo Yoshida which is truly the exception to Shinto, buried beneath the small shrine, nearly hidden in the woods is the body of Yoshida. This interment violates Shinto's strict emphasis on purification, death being the most polluting thing of all. As Professor Breen captured our attention with in-depth knowledge about the shrine we hurried to keep up with his quick pace, moving from shrine to shrine, eager to learn more this little known piece of Shinto. Photo: Mindy Ward
Mitarashi Matsuri at Shimogamo Jinja
Mitarashi Matsuri is definitely in my top 3 moments from this trip to Japan. I have gimpy feet - from my flat arches to my fused ankles all topped off by a recovering broken ankle/leg from an accident in late winter. This festival involved a ritual purification by walking through frigid water before placing a candle in front of a small Shinto shrine. I got to drink "foot water" and write a wish on a small foot ema ~ all with the underlying goal of healing my feet.
Did it heal them? I wouldn't really say yes though they were so numb after wards from the cold water I couldn't really feel any pain in them. However, the experience of participating in this ritual is definitely one of my most memorable moments from any and all of my travels. Photo: Talyn Cox
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Its no surprise the corridors of bright vermilion painted torii of Fushimi Inari Taisha were used as a scene in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. The seemingly endless pathways amongst the torii feel almost whimsical. I felt a childlike sense of wonder as I passed through each gate ~ amazed that something so simple could be so enchanting. Words really can not describe such the simple yet beautiful experience of enjoying a beautiful day wandering through the torii at Fushimi Inari Taisha. Photo: Mindy Ward
Tenjin Matsuri concluded our whirlwind tour of festivals in Japan, ending the experience with a bang (literally since the festival is well-known for its fireworks display). However, the hanabi (fireworks) brightening Osaka's dark sky wasn't the highlight of the event for me, rather it was the seemingly never ending parade of musicians, dancers and dragons along the route which made this a memorable moment.
This parade integrated people of all age groups - from the elderly to toddlers, all of which passed us by in festivals costumes. Their enthusiasm ranged from exuberant participation to utter boredom, but that's what made this festival so real. We were able to witness a festival with hundreds if not thousands of participants, banging drums, twirling parasols and bellowing chants. We were so close to the action that at times we were pushed back by participants as they made their way through the streets.
The procession of float carts of Gion Matsuri seemed impersonal as they made their way through the streets of Kyoto but at Tenjin Matsuri we were up close, nearly drawn into the festival parade itself and utterly intrigued by it. Photo: Mindy Ward
Sumiyoshi Taisha and Mayumi Sensei
Sumiyoshi Taisha was another shrine enchanted me while I was in Japan. The shrine itself lacked the towering trees of Meiji, the overwhelming feeling of nature of Ise or the mystery of Yoshida, however, Sumiyoshi Taisha had something the other shrines lacked - the energetic and gregarious Mayumi sensei, head priest of this important shrine. A sprite elderly man, Mayumi sensei took the time out of his daily responsibilities to sit with us and talk about Shinto. He was the first (and only) priest (either Buddhist or Shinto) who said he became a priest because he wanted to serve the gods. Though our time with him was brief he seemed to leave a lasting impression on each member of the group. His enthusiasm and sincerity for Shinto changed my perspective towards this shrine, emerging back into the sunlight from one of the administrative buildings I saw the shrine in a new light ~ it was as intriguing as its lively head priest. Photo: A very kind Shinto priest
For many of the group this was their first trip to Japan but for me this was a return to a country I once used to call "home." Nostalgia ran high at times as I explored familiar sites, tasted favorite foods and heard the cadence of spoke Japanese. One of the fortunate experiences I had while in Japan was to reconnect with friends. One was a relatively new friend, someone I had met the year before while studying at Ball State University. The other, was someone I have rare yet wonderful opportunities to reconnect with after many years. I met Yumi over 10 years ago when we both were studying at a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. After I graduated I moved to Japan and a year later we reconnected in Kyoto, exploring the city with friends. Now eight years later we were able to meet again, though only for what seemed like a fleeting moment, in the city of Ise. I'm looking forward to our next meeting how ever many years down the road it will be! Photo: Tayln Cox
Travel through food is one of my favorite ways to experience a culture and this journey to Japan was no different. Though this time I was limited by my own personal restrictions (I am a vegetarian) I was still able to experience Japan through its culinary art. The journey was a contrast of food experiences - from the delicious festival treats we found throughout the country at various matsuri to the delicate artistic expression presented in our keiseki lunch in Kyoto. In Japan, food is art.
As we traveled from city to city we experienced local culture through its food. We slurped udon in Ise, enjoyed Kansai okonomiyaki in Osaka, ate skewers of meat at matsuri, tried our hand at eating sushi with chopsticks and by the end of the trip we were all craving ramen.
My sweet tooth was not ignored during this adventure either. Japanese sweets are more subtle in flavor than their Western counterparts which is probably a good thing since I only had two weeks to take in as much as possible, kakigori, kekii, mochi and wagashi ~ flavored with matcha (green tea) made it even more irresistible. Photo: Mindy Ward
Flat Stanley and Sachiko
While trekking throughout Japan where ever we went we were accompanied by Flat Stanley and his friend Sachiko. My cousin, an elementary school teacher asked me to take Flat Stanley along with me on my adventure. Flat Stanley found himself in a variety of situations on this trip, from admiring the Golden Pavilion to purifying himself at a Shinto Shrine. He tried soba, got lost in a crowd at Yoi Yama (Gion Matsuri) and nearly got eaten by a deer at Nara. From time to time his friend Sachiko would pop into a picture, eager to share her culture with visitors.
What made these moments with Flat Stanley so memorable is that I realized I was helping young students to learn more about the world outside of the United States and perhaps it would spark an interest in some of them to go out and experience another country and culture and gain greater understanding of people that are different but also alike us in so many ways. Photo: Mindy Ward