Day 10 : Pikachu Fireworks!

It’s my birthday today!!! I woke up at 6 am though, which meant that it wasn’t actually my birthday in England (oh well…). We had breakfast and went on the train with everyone to central Tokyo (we left our suitcases at the station) to attend the much anticipated tea ceremony. We met with Yukiko-san and Hiroshi-san. Both were really nice and funny! They even proposed to one of us if one of us wanted to wear a kimono and since we all did we settled it with Janken (rock paper scissors) and Tom won…   (; – 😉

   
 

That lady was one of the students who was going to execute the ceremony for us. We started by introducing ourselves in the waiting room and had a cup of hot water while we waited. Then, we went inside the tea room for the charcoal ceremony. Even the act of entering the tea room must be perfectly executed. It all starts when the tea ceremony teacher rings a bell 5 times. On the 5th chime, we all stay quiet and leave the waiting room one by one and put on sandals. We then leave go outside and follow a cobblestone path but before that we purify ourselves in the same manner as in To-Dai-Ji temple. We rinse our left then right hand with water, then our mouth and let the remaining water pour down the bamboo cup we used. When that is done, we make our way down to the room and enter one at a time through a very narrow opening, leaving our shoes outside. There is a reason the opening is so narrow. Whoever wants to attend the ceremony must feel humble and as such, must crouch down to enter. And so, rich or poor, everyone inside the room is on the same level. The room itself is very small, poorly lit and very humbly decorated. This is so that we concentrate only on the ceremony and appreciate it more. Once everyone had come in, upon hearing the sound of the hatch closing, one of the students entered through another door to begin the charcoal ceremony. It’s a sort of preliminary to the real ceremony and consists in checking if the water is boiling, and when we “find out” it’s not, add another charcoal to the fire. Once it finished, we all left the room to wait for the water to boil and went back to the house. Apparently, it is customary for the host to prepare lunch while the guests wait. And so Yukiko-san prepared a delicious meal for us. Each dish was beautifully presented. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a picture of all of them…

   

When we finished, we ate a sweet so as to sweeten our palette before drinking the bitter tea, and repeated the steps to enter the room.

  

The ceremony was extremely calming and interesting and I loved every step of it (there are too many for me to list them all) like the appreciation of a piece of art the student brings, or the actual drinking of the tea, or the naming of the bamboo spoon (I think it was called “kokoro”=”the mind” today). It was really cool, exactly like what they describe in Shogun. Except they don’t tell you about the excruciating pain of kneeling for 40 minutes. I couldn’t feel my feet after about 10 minutes and when it was finished, standing up was so painful it was hard to stand. But overall it was a great experience!

After saying goodbye, we then went to LumiAmore, which I think was a really nice hotel, and ate dinner with Suematsu-san and Kumamoto-san.

  

It was really nice (Thank you again for the kind gesture) and in the middle of the meal, we listened to a duo singing and playing the piano (it was interesting).

 

At about 18:50, the Fire Festival set off their first fireworks and we went to the plaza to watch them. The fireworks were nothing I had ever seen before. You couldn’t even compare them with the ones in England. The display went on for about an hour and a half and the fireworks (hanabi) ranged from giant spheres of different colours to really cool sparkly ones that separated like fireflies. Some even exploded into shapes like hearts, pikachu or naruto which was amazing!

When the show ended, we said goodbye to Suematsu-san and Kumamoto-san and left to collect our baggage back from the station. Then we went to collect our baggage. I had lost my baggage receipt unfortunately but it only took a couple minutes for a member of staff to come and unlock the locker for me. We went back to a nice hotel. I got a room all to myself so I could call my parents. After a while they got Skype to work and I spoke with them for about an hour. Went to bed really late but in a happy mood.

Day 9 : Saying Hi to Waka-chan!

Woke up early to meet Waka-chan and her grandma. We didn’t have much time until our next train (only a few hours) but we spoke with her and introduced ourselves.We walked around Matsue and went to the sea. 

  

 

We got to learn a lot about her. However, we had to leave to go to Tokyo (not central Tokyo but close enough) and departed. I’m really sad we couldn’t stay longer, but if we raise enough money, we may be able to pay for a trip to London to meet her again next year!

The train ride took a long long time (I ate too much too)…arrived at night. We went to the hotel, and went to buy dinner. Just fruit for me… Went to bed.

Day 8 : A sad day in Hiroshima

Today I woke up at 7:30 which was a nice change of pace. We all met up in the lobby to have breakfast together. Afterwards, we left our bags at the hotel and went to Hiroshima by Shinkansen train. Hot hot hot! It was extremely sunny as we arrived near noon. We first went to a volunteer tour kiosque and met a pair of nice ladies (one who talked about the city and a student who translated in English. Both were really nice and interesting. 


We first went past the A-bomb dome which was kept as it was after the bomb landed. It really showed how destructive the bomb was. 

 

Next we went past a number of memorials for the Hiroshima incident. First was the Children’s peace monument. There is a very touching story behind it. Sadako Sasaki was two-years-old when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, close to her home. Sadako survived the explosion but over the course of the next ten years, Sadako developed leukemia. Many other children who were exposed to radiation from the atomic bombs developed leukemia as well. While hospitalized, Sadako began to make origami cranes. Ancient Japanese legend holds that anyone who folds one thousand paper cranes (senbazuru) will be granted a wish. Inspired by the Senbazuru legend, Sadako set out to fold one thousand cranes. She continued faithfully and persistently to create these symbolic birds until she died at the age of 12. Her friends continued to make paper cranes after her death and the monument was created shortly after that. There is a chime below it you can ring to wish for peace. We all rang the bell and carried on walking around. 

 Our next stop was the Peace Bell. The bell was constructed so that whoever wished for peace could ring it. On the bell is a map of the world yet without any borders; this represents a world without conflict that we should strive to attain. Also, on the gong is the nuclear symbol and so when we ring the bell, we are stiking it and this destroying it. The bell itself is held a roof representing the universe which is itself held by four pillars which represent the 4 pains in life : birth, ageing, sickness and death. By striking the bell, we are releasing ourselves of these pains and obtaining peace of mind. Around the bell is a lotus pond. The flowers bloom every year around the Memorial Day so we could see the flowers. 

    
  

We then parted with the group and went in the museum. The museum was an eye opener. I felt so sad and emotional walking through it (I mean who wouldn’t…) and it made me realise how much tragedy and destruction the atomic bomb can bring to a whole city! It should never ever be used offensively for any reason whatsoever! And so at the end of the museum, I signed the petition o stop the use and possession of nuclear weapons (I kinda also signed for my sister and parents.. Hope they don’t mind!!!). Anyway it was really enlightening and horrific (especially the clay models of the ragged children running through burning rubble with their skin peeling off… We left solemnly and went to eat at a nearby department store to eat. We then missed the first bullet train but took the next one an hour later. We arrived back in Kurashiki And left straight away to go to Matsue. Tomorrow we will meet another orphan called Waka and her grandmother. (q-q)/

Day 7 : Saying our goodbyes

We woke up at 4:30 again! This morning though, there was a service at the temple so after the prayers, we spent an hour listening to a sermon. We were all still a bit sleepy and we couldn’t understand a word the monk was saying so I admit it was a little hard staying awake, but afterwards Akemi-sensei told us that he was talking about peace and how we should all be kind towards one another. After that, we ate breakfast with the people who attended the sermon in a big room. When all was finished, we packed our bags in our rooms and went to tou (tou period) shou (invite) tei ji temple. The temple was meant to accommodate the famous Chinese Buddhist monk Ganjin invited by the Japanese government in the 7th century to introduce Buddhism to the Japanese people. It was really impressive! We went back to our rooms to clean up and were invited to do some calligraphy. That was a great experience! I have never tried calligraphy and this was the real deal! Before entering the room, we are all given a clove to place in our mouths during 10 minutes to purify the inside of our bodies and were asked to step over incense to purify the exterior of our bodies. Then we sat down at our table and were given a text to copy and some tracing paper, as well as a calligraphy brush, a block of ink, a vial of water and a paper weight. 

 
I must say, the room was extremely quiet (even the AC seemed loud!) and I felt really calm and serene!

We went back to our rooms to get our bags and went to the train station. We said goodbye to Sumika who stayed a bit longer at the temple. Then we said goodbye to Ryouta and his family at Kyoto station. We arrived at Kurashiki, our next stop and checked in at toyoko-inn, left our bags and washed to meet Kitano-san a jujitsu sensei. As we talked, he taught us a couple simple yet really effective tricks for self defence… We walked around the famous streets in Kurashiki known as samurai town or bikan area and found some really pretty areas! 

    
    
 
We settled on a restaurant location that specialised in yakitori (meat skewers) and ate a lot. It was absolutely delicious. We saw a weird poster on the wall that I feel is necessary I show you. 

 

Kitano-san offered to pay for the meal…that was really generous of him and I am really grateful for his gesture. We went back to the hotel with a full stomach and went to bed. I must say, the rooms are really cute! The bathroom feels like they tried to fit as much of the essentials a bathroom needs in the minimum amount of space, and it works really well! \(^-^)/

Day 6 : A day in the life of a monk.

We woke up at 4:30 today…and I have to say, it wasn’t as hard as I thought. I must have slept really well because I got up the moment the alarm rang! After we woke up, we had to put our beds away to one side of the room and go down to meet the monks of the temple. We walked across the courtyard to the prayer building where we joined in to chant the sutras at 5:00. At 6:00 we had a breakfast of “rice porridge”, seaweed and umeboshi. Personally, I liked it (but everyone else including the monks don’t particularly like it!) and we all cleaned our bowls and plates using the takowan radish. We came back to our rooms to clean our dormitory. Each of us were assigned specific tasks and it was over before we knew it. We relaxed in our rooms until it was time to visit the different important buildings and temple around Nara!

Our first stop was Heijo Castle, which was destroyed hundreds of years ago. Today, only the emperor’s chair and the foundation of the palace remain. We then passed the temple for the Buddhist nuns and drove to Tou-Dai-Ji, the biggest wooden temple in the world, containing the biggest Buddha statue on the planet! It was absolutely stunning and really humbling too! 

    
   
In one of the pillars of the temple was a small narrow hole where people small enough could crawl though. It is supposed to give you good luck if you manage to pass to the other side. Only North, Ryouta and I could manage! 

    
 
As we left the temple, we saw a bunch of deer from Nara park! The deer from the park were thought to be messengers of the kami and so were protected by the government. Today, they are the most tame deer in the world. You can pet them and feed them. They’ve even caught up on the way Japanese bow whenever they want food! (^~^)  

     

We then went to eat lunch at a delicious Japanese restaurant, were we had the fanciest bento box I’ve ever seen. It was really tasty and I got to try food is never tried before like bamboo.   

When we left the restaurant, we headed towards the last temple for the day, Kitoji (Ki=joy and To=light). 

 We then headed back to Yakushiji to sleep.

Day 5 : Arrival in Yakushiji Temple!

After breakfast, we left at 10 am to take the train from Himeji station to Nara. We left at 11:12 and changed at Osaka to go to Nara Station. I was surprised at how easy it was to navigate arround! Everything is written in English as well as Japanese which made things very simple and we arrived without a hitch!

Upon arrival we immediately met up with Akemi-sensei and the other people whose train had arrived at the same time as ours and we proceeded to fill in our JR rail passes. As we left the station, two monks were waiting for us to drive to Yakushiji Temple!!! I must say I am really honoured to be a part of this trip. Not many people get to live in a Buddhist temple and follow in their daily deeds! 

   
After 10 minutes drive, we arrive at the temple. It’s beautiful! We then went in the dining room to introduce ourselves and had bitter green tea after eating a sweet (for which I don’t know the names unfortunately…) 

 
After, we then went in our rooms. Real tatami floor! This is the first time I get to sleep in a traditional Japanese room and I am so giddy!  

 
Later, a monk gave us a tour of the Temple grounds and showed us the building where the monks pray. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed so I will do my best to describe it : in the centre of the building is a giant copper statue of Buddha. It is called Yakushi Niorai. Yaku means Medicine, Shi means Master/Doctor and Niorai means Buddha. Next to this “Doctor” are two “nurses” on either side. On the right is the sun nurse and the left is the moon nurse (which is now at Nara Museum) thus ensuring health and peace of mind all day and all night to those around him. And so the monks sacrifice incense and chant the sutras to call for his help.

By the time we had finished, it was nearly 5 pm and so the monk gave us the opportunity to ring the temple bell. It has to be rung every morning at 5 am and every evening at 5 pm 5 times only. So Tom, Angela, North, Ryouta and I each rang the bell once! It was a really nice experience! Here are a couple pictures. 

   
After resting a bit in our rooms, we set out to prepare dinner and ate at 6 pm. Everything is very ordered and the bowls and plates must be set out in a specific order. When we finished our meal. We take one slice of takowan, a kind of yellow radish, and use it to wipe the bowls clean with a bit of water and then pour into the next bowl in a specific order. Then we drink the final water mixture. Nothing must be wasted! Then we all tidy up and clean the dishes.

We all went back to our rooms and later had a meeting with a Buddhist scholar, who made us read some of the proverbs he wrote during his life and taught us their meanings. One for example read : yokukiite yokukangaete soshite doryoku, which teaches us to first listen to other people’s opinions, then to think and finally only then can you express yourself (much like the English expression “think before you speak”!)

We then went back to our rooms and played for a bit with Ryouta-kun, counting money and playing Uno. After that, we each laid our beds and went to sleep on the tatami floor.

Day 4 : Himeji Aquarium!

This morning, the three of us went to the aquarium after eating breakfast. It was really fun and interesting and we got to see all kinds of new and great sea creatures! My favourite was the sea turtle but all were really cool! 

    
 
We then went to a ramen bar on our way back which was absolutely delicious and my first proper ramen meal ever!

Michiko-san then dropped us off at Himeji city centre (the place we went to after visiting Himeji Castle) while she did some shopping for tonight. There was so much awesome stuff that I wanted to buy but I forgot my money… (-_-).

This evening, Michiko-san invited some other friends over for dinner. The food was so delicious! (Unfortunately no pictures) everyone was so friendly here. Tomorrow, we leave for Nara, where we will meet Akemi-sensei and everyone else!