Love Letters from Japan: Sake, singing, cherry blossoms and Buddha’s birthday celebration!

Posted on 08.04.2012

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Hello again! In the last episode, we climbed a mountain! In this episode, the only mountain that was climbed was the mountain IN OUR SOULS >:)

The rest of the week went by really quickly, mostly because we had a somewhat full social calendar. Who would have guessed, seeing as how we’re in another country? It’s like going to someplace faraway from home for work and never getting to see the place. Except, we refuse to let that happen, hence the social calendar.

Sensei took V, G and B to the shrines on Thursday after class and A and I hung out at the apartment for a while. I was DEAD tired so I took a nap for about an hour, and then we went out for a little bike ride to buy some gifts for upcoming events and to drop a note at Sakurata-san’s house.

The shrines were an all-day event, so we had a decent amount of time. After they got back, we all headed out for the regular group dinner with Sensei which ALWAYS includes tons of sake and karaoke. Sensei has this amazing little Korean restaurant that he loves (I guess it makes sense that when foreigners come to visit, you don’t take them to eat the same stuff they’ve been eating all week, but instead out to ‘international food’) and it appears he knows the owners, or something. We went there last year and had the place to ourselves, it was pretty awesome.

B, A, G and Sensei

Karaoke in the organization is kind of a BFD, to the extent that it might actually be illegal NOT to sing it when you’re a member in good standing at any event. The JNK is how I got into Karaoke, and I honestly LOVE to sing it even if I’ll never be Lauryn Hill. My favorite songs to do are from the 80’s and 90’s, and tracks that made an appearance that evening ranged from Joan Jett’s ‘I Love Rock ‘n Roll’ to Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ (of course). We threw in some Pixies and David Bowie, because why not?

thriller!

Even Thriller made an appearance. I didn’t want to sing it, so I did as much of the dance as I could remember.

Honestly, Karaoke is a little more fun (and a LOT easier) when you’re a bit toasted.

I might have mentioned earlier that it’s illegal NOT to drink in the presence of Sensei, and that night was no exception, even though we all held our own and were feeling no pain the next day. We’re professionals with this stuff and I think we make it look good (see left-side photo of Thriller for reference). The sake flowed very much like water that night. I tend to get an early start since I can’t drink beer (gluten!), so it meant that everyone else joined in right in the beginning with it, rather than graduating from beer. We even got a lesson in Japanese drink receiving and proper polite chopstick usage from Sensei that night! What a great time:) I love karaoke night at the seminar!

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On Friday, G and V left us after training to travel to meet a famous tattoo artist who happens to be Japanese. They’d spend the night out with the host family (a member of the Japan dojo named Iida) and then be back for training the following morning.

That left B, A and me to our own devices, but that wasn’t how it turned out: Sensei said that since V and G would be gone, he would have us over to dinner at his house. I’ve never been to his place, so this was pretty exciting for me personally!

We spent the time after training relaxing. B and A went to the Onsen, and I stayed back at the apartment and edited all of these fine photos:) If you’re unfamiliar with an Onsen, it’s a public bath house in Japan. Segregated because everyone is nude inside, it’s usually attached to a natural hot spring of some sort. It’s what the locals do when they want to relax and it’s a big part of the culture, just like spas in Germany. Only one issue (for me): if you have tattoos, you can’t go in. The reason for this is because in Japan there is still a stigma surrounding tattoos, and they generally mean you’re a criminal or in the Yakuza clan. So if you are IN the onsen and have tattoos, people will leave. This means I don’t go to the onsen, ever, but I don’t necessarily mind since I have the same thing in Germany and tattoos are cool there.

We went to Sensei’s house for dinner and had a wonderful time, lots of great food, and of course a TON of sake. But not just any sake, we had THE sake responsible for knocking me out on Monday. So I was taking it easy, but it was no use. Thankfully it appears I’ve built up a tolerance to the stuff in the past week. We were drinking the whole time and none of us even felt it the next morning, or even really too much that evening!

He served the sake in these really excellent little ceramics, which are about 20 years old… and come from Kyushu, which is where A and I are headed later this week! So I think I need to look for them, since they’re pretty gorgeous.

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On Saturday morning, G and V came back and we had class as usual, just with all of Sensei’s regular students. This was a regular class and not our special training, so we got to train with some lovely people that we get to see from time to time at the seminars. It was great. Most of the guys are transplants from English-speaking countries, who live here or are married to Japanese women. There are no women in the normal classes, although Sensei has a ladies’ group, who we trained with later.

In between the two trainings (3 hours total) we went to lunch with the guys. I got to ask them all about being a foreigner in the culture, acceptance, teaching English and learning the language, etc. It was like talking to advisors, honestly. It was excellent to get to spend some time with them after class! The Japan group is a great group, so we always have a lot of fun together.

After lunch and the women’s training (which was equally excellent, but in a far different way) we went to Ueno park for the cherry blossom(s) celebration. They’re in full bloom right now and will be for the next few days, so we took the opportunity to go somewhere beautiful and check them out.

Ueno park was full of what Sensei refers to as ‘drunk Japanese people’, since the festival/celebration was happening. Every bit of free space was full with blankets and picnickers revelling in the pretty blossoms.

We got there around 5:15 and stayed until it was too dark to take more photos. There was typical festival food there; a lot of things I’d never seen before but heard about, like squid on a stick and squid poppers. We totally snacked on custard-filled rice pies and chocolate covered bananas, while walking around and taking photos of the beautiful trees in bloom.

If you can EVER be in Japan at this time, absolutely be there. The photo ops are literally ON EVERY CORNER!

We were back to the honbu with enough time to get ready before heading out for a group dinner at Sakurata-san’s house. She lives on the other side of the small part of the town that we’re in, so it’s a nice walk. We love Sakurata-san and dinners at her place are always AMAZING! Saturday night was no different, and we stayed until midnight, just talking and eating and having a great time!

Sakurata-san is a friend of Sensei’s from way back. They were in grade school together. They’re in their 60’s now. She is usually the person to take the extra people and lodge them if the honbu is full, which is how A knows her. So when we come for training, she has us over for dinner. She makes REALLY great food:) But then, ALL Japanese food is excellent, so of course she does:)

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V in an alley full of shops and people

Our plan for Sunday was to wake up entirely too early (around 6) and take the trains down to Tokyo to Asakasa’s shrine in order to see the celebration of Buddha’s birthday. It coincided with the cherry blossoms blooming this year (they were about a week late due to all of the rain), so it was CRAZY packed at the shrine. Both tourists and locals alike were there, even before the shops opened around 9 to celebrate and walk around.

If you ever get a chance to visit Tokyo, DO go to Asakasa shrine. Aside from the fact that it’s a gorgeous mix of Shinto and Buddhist shrine parts, it’s where you’ll be able to get all of that tourist stuff that you would want to get for all of your friends and family members back home. I spent about 35-E and had everyone finished in 1 hour. YES.

It may have been crowded, but it was worth it to be there before our 1pm training. We jumped back onto the trains to get back to Noda around 11, and got back with just enough time to get ready to go out.

Our training on Sunday was cutting practice, since it came to Sensei’s attention that some of us had never cut with a ‘live blade’ before. This is important to practice and very, very different from just cutting in the air with a training sword. So he took us out to the fields behind the golf course where the bamboo grows really wild, and he’s allowed to cut it, and we stood in a grove of bamboo, practicing our cutting technique.

It is WAY harder than you’d think, even with a razor-sharp blade. The bamboo we were looking for was under 3 years old, as it’s too thick for beginners after the 3rd year. We each took turns cutting, and getting criticism from Sensei on how to better our form. If you do this wrong, you don’t cut the bamboo and maybe end up stuck in the middle. My first try was pretty terrible, but by my second round I had an idea of how to do it better. I was glad to see that I wasn’t the only one who was new to this, and I know that the practice is going to make my cutting a LOT better!

Every time we made a perfect, or near-perfect cut, Sensei picked it up, cut it down on the uncut end, and gave it to us as a reminder, to keep, that we CAN do this and that we have done it. I was SO excited when he gave me mine, and then I got another one in my following round! It’s great to go home with a reminder of that, far better than any tourist item I could have bought.

We trained for 3 hours out there, and although it wasn’t a ‘real’ training with full training gear, it was actually a real workout. If you weren’t slicing with the real blade, you were stripping the bamboo of branches to cut later, or practicing cutting with a piece of bamboo instead.

Overall fitness over the past 4 days: a TON of walking, a little biking and a minimum of 2 hours of training every day. Still no running or workouts, but we’re getting to that. I realized that (TMI) I’m about to bleed, so I think that might have been helping my lack of energy. I tend to slow down in the days before that happens. So, go figure.

I also learned something interesting this week about the cooling vest, and that is that I have to ‘reactivate’ it every few days if I’m using it a lot (which, I guess, I am?). By the time Saturday rolled around, it wasn’t keeping me cool anymore and the difference was totally noticeable. So I had to sit out for the last 30 minutes of training with the regular class, and promptly re-soaked the thing that night. I’m hoping to not make that mistake again, as it was a terrible reminder of how warm I can actually get from and during training!

That’s all for now. Happy Monday! I can’t believe it’s been a week and it’s halfway over.

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