Saturday, June 06, 2009

Rainy Season....Sigh....

It's that time here in Japan, the time of never-ending rain, of mildew and mold, of the constant racket of pouring rain. It's the Monsoon Season! Holy freaking downpours! You don't get how depressing it is until you live through weeks of clouds and rain, and since I'm in the north, it's cold rain too! Meh... I want to go somewhere sunny for the next week or two... :(

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


I love my job, I love my kids but if I get sick one more time this year I'm going to lose what's left of my mind. That is all.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

At The Shrine ~ 初詣 p.2

We were at Kushihiki Hachiman Shrine in Hachinohe. It is both the most famous and the oldest shrine in Hachinohe. The Meiji Emperor is supposed to have stayed there when traveling in Aomori. More about the shrine later.

Anyway when we finished caring for the horses it was time to go in the shrine for the ceremony. Most people, when going on hatsumode or most other times, pray at the alter outside. They throw a few coins in the offering box and then ring the large bells hanging from the rafters. They bow, clap twice, pray, clap again, and finally bow again. There are different degrees in formality in how many times you bow and clap. I haven’t figured it out completely yet. However, we weren’t bound for the plebian outside but rather for the inner part of the temple. We were dressed in our formal jackets and breeches, though we obviously had to take off our riding boots to enter the shrine. The owner of the riding club and five of the riders (including me) entering the waiting room to the side of the shrine. It was a tatami room, heated by and electric brazier in the center. The owner of the riding club (who we all call sensei) went to one of the attendants to giving the offering of money and sake while the rest of us waited. Honestly, it wasn’t a very interesting room, traditional, with little ornamentation, a few picture on the walls. We waited in the crowded room for the priest to be ready. Eventually he came in to the room. He was wearing a long overcoat of blue brocade, with hakama pants and the hard brown hat that has a bump in the back. He was carrying a long wooden fan, and invited us into the back of the shrine. We walked into the main space of the shrine, which was behind the offering box and bells. There were rows of low seats, where you could sit with your legs tucked under you.

The room was very interesting, it was actually a combination of four different rooms with large sliding doors to separate the rooms, but the only doors closed were the ones behind us leading out to the front of the shrine and the offering box and bells. We could hear the rattle of coins and the ringing of the bells as people came to the shrine to pray. Directly in front of us was an empty table and beyond that another room. The room was dominated by the offering tables with mochi (rice beat into a past used for celebration) and sake. Beyond that was another set of sliding doors that led outside to the heart of the shrine. Faintly I could see the symbol of the deity, a large silverish mirror set into rock. To our right was a small room that contained a huge drum, and to our left was a small room that we had come through to enter the inner shrine, with a table.

We sat at the low chairs with our lower legs tucked under us. It was cold in the inner shrine, the back door to the shrine being left open so that we could see the mirror that represented the deity. (This part is a little fuzzy because it’s taken me so long to write this post.) The ceremony started as an assistant priest (second in charge?) banged the big drum to our right and the head priest asked us to bow and he began to pray. I don’t know exactly what he said, even a lot of Japanese have told me that they can’t completely understand what the priest says. He almost sings the chants in an odd kind of tonal singing that sounds similar to the singing of the narrators in Bunraku and other traditional Japanese theater. I was told that he was praying for the good health, fortune etc. of those people gathered there. Anyway, we spend the better part of a half and hour bent in half bowing. Finally when the priest was done praying and blessing the offerings we could sit up. The next part of the ceremony was when representatives from each group would get up to make an offering (?) or prayer (?) for the group. The priest in charge instructed them what to do. The assistant priest gave them an evergreen branch tied with the ceremonial rice paper (shaped like a bolt of lightning in Western terms) and the representatives took it placed in on the offering table and bowed twice, clapped twice, prayed, then bowed twice again. (There might have been a second round of clapping in there I can’t exactly remember.) Then the sat down again. After everyone had finished the ritual, the priest ended the ceremony and we all went to take a sip of the blessed sake (that stuff was amazingly strong!!!) and left the shrine.

After we get outside we returned to the horses and we waited for the priest who came outside to bless the horses. We got them all lined up and bowed again. The priest waved his ___ (it’s a long thin wand with many strands of the ceremonial rice paper tied to the end) over the horses and prayed for the good health of the horses in the coming year. Then we took pictures (which I will post as soon as I have a copy) and finally it was time for lunch. (Yum!)

Coming back was like going, same route etc. I rode Michael so I wasn’t worried about the Yakiimo man but Western (who was ahead of us) freaked out again. So it was through the crowds, over the bridge, down the stairs, across the rice paddies, and back up the mountain for us. It was a long day but it was tons of fun!! This trip was a trip of many firsts and it was the best experience I’ve had in Japan so far this time! I hope that I can do it again next year!!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Leaving in the morning!

初詣 ~ January 2, 2009 Part 1

On January 2nd I went on hatsumode. Hatsumode is the first shrine visit of the year in Japan. On the 1st through 3rd of January Japanese people go on hatsumode to their local shrine to pray for the new year. I, of course, was also going to go on hatsumode, but not the normal way, I was going to go by horse!

Since coming to Japan this time I joined the local riding club called Polo. The people there are great! I don’t have a car so they pick me up at the train station, and drop me back off again when I am done. The are always willing to talk to me, and often let me hang out all day. It’s a fun club, were people learn to ride and enjoy going on trail rides together. The horses at the club aren’t my beloved, elegant Arabians, the are the traditional horses of Japan, a breed called Dosanko, and are not the most beautiful of horses. They’re short, I would estimate them to average about 13-14 hands. The smallest is closer to twelve and the largest is probably about 14+ hands. They have big heads and big round bodies, with a short thick neck connecting the two. Never destined for the dressage ring, they make perfect trail horses, surefooted and hardy, and for the most part calm. Originally breed to be warhorses, they now are a dying breed, (as are all Japanese horse breeds) unable to compete with Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods, and Arabians in racing, dressage, and jumping which are the popular horse sports in Japan today. These horses are still used in one of their traditional sports. The reason that the club is called Polo is because they still play traditional Japanese style polo at the local shrine each year. I didn’t get to see it last year so I’m definitely going this year!

So, back to hatsumode. I woke up pretty early that morning to meet one of the nice ladies from the riding club that lives near me so we could carpool to the barn. It was cold but clear, which was great because the weather earlier that week was calling for snow and rain. We got lucky. We got to the barn, tacked up, got dressed, figure out who was going to ride when (we had more riders than horses) and off we went. The riding club is on the top of a mini mountain on the edge of Hachinohe. It’s a rather steep mountain in fact, so the first challenge of the trail ride was to navigate ourselves down the mountain. Doing this always reminds me of a passage in the Tale of the Heike when one of the generals successfully sneaks up on his enemies by bringing his mounted army down a cliff face that the enemy was using to guard their backs from attack. Anyway, the horses are very surefooted so even though it was icy and snowy it wasn’t that bad. We successfully navigated the mountain and crossed the road to stop for a brief time at the convenience store to go bathroom, change riders etc.

The next phase of the ride took us through the dormant ride paddies. For all that the mountains are steep in Japan, the flatlands are well…flat, no hills or anything. Cultivated that way over centuries for rice growing. Rice paddies are like large rectangular pans with the sides built up into walkways and roads. Even though most of the ground here is frozen now, the ground in the rice paddies is still soft. However, the roads and walkways were perfect for trail riding as we trotted and cantered though them. Surrounding the paddies were the train tracks for the local lines and the shinkansen (bullet train) which flew by as we passed. It was a lot of fun and quite invigorating. We changed horses and walked through the rest of the rice paddies and into the outskirts of town where we paused to put on our formal riding jackets and make sure that everyone had a leader for their horse.

I probably should take a moment to name the horses. We had 6 of them with us, and by the end of the ride I had ridden all but one. They were Chibi, Buchi, Kotaro, Icchi, Michael, and Western. Chibi and Kotaro are both black geldings, Chibi is a bit larger, and I think a bit calmer as well. I ride Chibi a lot. Kotaro can get a little grumpy. Buchi is the old lesson horse that everyone loves, me included, and is still fit and healthy even though he is approaching 30 years old. He is also the tallest horse and a brown and white pinto. Icchi is the smallest horse, and a palomino. I’ve never rode him so I don’t know his personality very well. Michael is a red chestnut horse, quite good at jumping, but tricky. He gave me my first fall in years after going over a two foot jump and stopping the minute his front feet hit the ground. He’s a good trail horse though. Western is another brown and white pinto and a bit more high strung than the others, though I’ve only ridden him once.

We had stopped by the river, below a huge bridge that crossed the river and headed towards the shrine. While I generally spend most of my days in a bit of a daze of confusion, I became slightly more confused when I couldn’t figure out how we were going to get up to the bridge, the only way I could see was the stairs but we weren’t taking the horses up those, right? I mean they were nice stairs each step being quite wide, in fact short people (like me) would have probably taken a step forward between each step down. But they were still stairs.

Well, I was wrong. We did in fact take the horses up the stairs. I was riding Western and was a bit nervous. Climbing stairs on horseback is actually like climbing a steep hill. The horses seemed fine with it, so it was all good. Another new experience for Alyssa. But directly after the stairs was the bridge. It wasn’t a particularly large bridge width-wise. Enough room for a side walk on each side and one lane going in each direction. However it was a rather tall bridge, and we were riding on the raised sidewalk and the whole time the only thing that I could think of was that while the horse might be protected by the side rail, on the horse I was not, the side rail did not go up that high, and it was a very steep drop. Needless to say I survived. What was amusing was that the cars passing by would inevitably slow down and little faces would be pressed to the windows in surprise.

After the bridge was the main road leading to the shrine, and it was packed. I mean Michigan Stadium on a Saturday after a game lets out packed. It’s a good thing that the horses were pretty calm because the roads were mobbed. We were able to slip down a small side road to head to the shrine. Then we headed down the road towards the torii. Western was fine until we reached the yakiimo man. Yakiimo is baked sweet potato that is sold by vendors at festivals, and on the street during the winter. Historically they would sing as they walked, announcing their wares. Now they play a recording. As we came by the cart the yakiimo guy closed the lid of the cart and about gave Western a heart attack. But since I managed not to run over any pedestrians, it was all good.

We finally, after about two hours, arrived at the shrine. We tied the horses up and took off their bridles and loosened their saddles.

This is just part 1. Will try to finish part 2 by tomorrow. Pictures too!

Thursday, January 01, 2009


Hello :)

Since Mom sent out this blog address and my new site is nowhere near finished I thought that I would update this site for now.

So where is Alyssa?

I'm back in Japan again. This time teaching English to elementary and middle school kids. I work as an assistant language teacher, traveling to many schools to teach English. It's a lot of fun and I really enjoy my job.

Aomori Prefecture

Hachinohe City

I'm currently on winter vacation, and will post pictures when I have time!