Japan is a country rich with a storied history. One of the most famous periods of Japanese history is the Sengoku period (戦国時代) or the Warring States Period. The Sengoku Period lasted from 1467 until 1603, when Japan’s political powers were unified under the Tokugawa Shogunate.
This is a period of Japan’s history that paints romantic pictures of noble samurai lords, fighting under the code of bushido, trying to unify and bring about a better Japan. The demon king Oda Nobunaga, the one-eyed dragon Date Masamune, god of war Uesugi Kenshin… this era has only been further romanticised thanks to the wildly popular game and anime series ‘Sengoku Basara’. Looking beyond the lore and the colourful modern adaptations, the Sengoku period produced one of the most famous rivalries in Japanese history—that of Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin.
Takeda Shingen hailed from the Kai province (modern day Yamanashi prefecture) and called ‘The Tiger of Kai’ due to his military prowess. Shingen’s demon-faced and furred helmet is an enduring piece of Sengoku imagery. Uesugi Kenshin came from the Echigo province (modern day Niigata prefecture) and was as famous for his administrative skills as he was for his honour and military expertise.
Shingen and Kenshin’s most famous battle was the Battle of Kawanakajima, fought along the Kawanakijima plains, located in what is now Nagano prefecture. However, the battle of Kawanakajima is actually five different battles fought in 1553, 1555, 1557, 1561 and 1564. The most famous of the battles (which is often used as the climax for many Japanese samurai films and games) was fought in September 1961. It is this battle that is reenacted every spring in Yonezawa City in Yamagata prefecture as part of their Uesugi Kenshin Festival. It was this reenactment that I was lucky enough to participate in.
Spring is in the air! And despite Japan’s claims of it’s four unique seasons… we all know thtat spring lasts all of a month before the bugs and the humidity and the heat of summer is upon us. Let’s make the most of this while we can and get our hiking on! How? With these awesome FuJET events! Everyone is free to join us for the Oze National Park and Mt. Bandai hikes. Mt. Fuji will require reservation (details on Fuji to follow soon!).
We’ll take the Happodai Trail (八方台) to the mountain’s peak and get a great view of the recently planted rice fields all over the Aizu valley. We’ll leave early in the morning and for more information, check out the event page or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org! We’ll end the day with a nice onsen at Aizuwakamatsu Station’s Fuji no Yu! (Their sauce katsu is amazing)
Japan’s 29th National Park, Oze, spreads across four different prefecture– Fukushima, Tochigi, Gunma, and Niigata. The Oze hike is a bit more difficult than Bandai but arguable more rewarding, in the middle of pristine Japanese nature. If you have any questions, please again– ask them and we’ll do our best to answer them ASAP! Just drop us a message at our Facebook page or send an email to email@example.com.
Judo is a sport that is recognized worldwide as quintessentially Japanese. It has been an Olympic sport starting with the Tokyo 1965 games, and is practiced in many countries all over the world. It is also commonly taught in schools in Japan as an extracurricular sport. So it’s no surprise that some local Fukushima JETs have taken up the practice.
Jesse Anderson, a second-year JET in Shirakawa City, has been practicing judo for almost two years. “I enjoy any exercise that helps me gain a skill, so things like martial arts are perfect, and I also was looking to make some new Japanese friends,” he explains.
Similarly, David Tacoronte in Minamisoma City started practicing judo soon after he arrived two years ago when invited to join by other JETs in the area. “I thought it’d be cool to get into a traditional sport, and also get fit.”
While at first judo may seem to be two wrestlers randomly grappling with each other, in fact there are many techniques, both physical and mental, that judoka use to throw their opponents. “I enjoy the technical side of it a lot,” says Jesse. “Now I notice the tiny things like foot positioning, proper rotations, etc.”
“It’s almost like a physical chess match,” explains David. “When I’m in a match, I always have to think about my body and foot position, my opponents’ body and position, what moves are possible and how can I bait and defend at the same time, etc. I really enjoy that aspect and how it makes me think. For me, the most difficult thing is getting your opponent into the right position to execute a possible move.”
Of course, judo is a still a physical sport that takes a lot of time and effort to practice. “The endurance needed sometimes is pretty nuts,” says David. Unfortunately, as with any martial art, injuries can be quite common too, particularly with grappling and throwing aspects of judo. “I’ve dislocated both shoulders so you have to be ready for that possibility also,” jokes Jesse.
The time commitment required is also pretty heavy, as without frequent practice it is difficult to improve. Jesse explains, “Everyone who does judo around me is either in a judo club at school (training minimum five times a week) or has done so already and has been doing judo for twenty plus years, so coming in and learning from scratch twice a week can be a bit rough. Getting floored by a fifteen year old boy and a woman half my size were both big eye openers,” he jokes. That’s not to say that it can’t be done, but it can be disheartening if you can’t commit enough time to training. Similarly, David says, “Not only do you have to commit yourself to a judo throw within a match if you want to successfully execute it, the amount of time you need to commit to actually become good at the sport is pretty demanding.”
That being said, judo can be a truly rewarding practice to take up. David says, “I’ve seen many of my students go above and beyond what they thought they could do to try and become better than they once were. It’s very inspiring for me and makes me proud of them.”
Judo has also benefited Jesse in other ways. “If I had to sum it up, it would be learning how to be strict and lenient at the same time. Obviously in a straightforward sense that can mean physically, but also in an everyday sense, judo helped me learn how to deal with problems in a more efficient and stress-free way.”
Jesse had this advice to give JETs who are interested in taking up judo: “Just jump in! Don’t worry if your Japanese isn’t that great or you aren’t the most athletic person. You’ll make great friends and get fit while having some fun along the way. It’s a humbling and rewarding experience.”
One of the coolest Japanese instruments has got to be the taiko drum. Just watching a group of taiko players leaping around hitting drums in unison is an amazing experience in and of itself, but some of our local Fukushima JETs have joined taiko groups and have performed it themselves!
The term “taiko” in Japanese refers to all types of drum, and the term “wadaiko” specifies the traditional Japanese style of drum. They can range in size from the shimedaiko (about the diameter of a large dinner plate) to the huge festival o-daiko whose face alone can be almost as tall as the players themselves! Accompanying the drums are a variety of other instruments, such as small gongs called “atarigane,” and bamboo flues called “shinobue” or “takebue.” The performers’ voices themselves can be part of the song, chanting or yelling to add to the rhythm, or signalling a change in the song.
Diana Truong, a fourth-year JET in Showa-mura, Aizu, has been playing taiko for almost four years. “During my first year, I heard about a local taiko group in one of the towns that I teach at. I was invited to join the group by one of the local families.” The taiko group members include some of her elementary and junior high school teachers and students. “I really enjoyed spending time with my students and some of their parents outside of class! It is also a good stress reliever,” she jokes.
Fifth-year Shirakawa JET Emma Gibson joined her taiko group in a different way. “I told my BOE kachou when I first arrived in Japan that I wanted to learn something traditional while I was here. I was thinking ikebana. He suggested taiko because his friend was the kaichou of a local team. I had no idea what it was… so I said yes.” She has been playing with this group for almost five years now! “I love my team members. After such a long time you get very close. I also love that I’ve been able to travel and perform. I’ve performed in Okinawa, Ishikawa, Saitama, Kanagawa, Yamagata… and all over Fukushima.”
Playing taiko involves a lot of time and commitment, to both practices and performances. It is impossible to play taiko casually without giving it your full effort. “Once I’d proven that I was serious, the senpai accepted me and taught me. It took a long time to get that acceptance, but now my senpai are like my Japanese family,” Emma says.
Of course, in the beginning you will be at the bottom of the totem pole. Emma explains, “I’ve learnt a lot about status. When you start you are at the end of the line. You play in the back corner and clean the floors after practice. But slowly over time you move towards the centre of the stage and someone else has to wipe the sweat off the floors. And eventually (for me, after four years) you finally get to play the solos and really become an essential part of the team. It’s a good feeling when you get to that stage.”
And of course the taiko songs themselves can be a challenge. Diana says, “It can be difficult playing your part simultaneously with completely different rhythms being played by the others. It’s easy to get lost! Also remembering so many different pieces!”
Despite these challenges, Diana believes that taiko is a great representation of Japanese culture. “The beating of the drums represent the sounds of the Japanese in its own unique way. Often times, the pieces are reflective of the nature and culture of Japan. When you hear the songs, you can picture a story from the mixtures of melodies produced by the drums, flutes, cymbals, and the shouts of the performers.”
Emma agrees, “Our main performance piece is called Natsu and is about the samurai horse races. You can hear the thundering of hooves and the rising tension as we play.” You can hear this piece at this year’s Soma Nomaoi Festival in Minami Souma City on July 26th, Saturday night, 9pm with the fireworks. “We are/were the local team from that area and it’s the first time we’ll be back at the festival since the Great Earthquake. I’d love to see everyone there!” For more information about this festival, see the link here: https://www.facebook.com/events/516502978476094/
Diana has this advice for JETs: “If you’re interested in experiencing new things, I definitely recommend trying out taiko. You will easily fall in love with the rhythmic beats. If you are not sure where you can find a taiko group, ask your predecessors, talk to the locals and teachers (especially at enkai), go to festivals and keep an eye out for local groups and ask them about it. Once you become a member, just keep beating and enjoy the sounds of the drums.”
This is the second in a series of articles exploring Fukushima JETs who practice traditional Japanese arts as a hobby.
Tea ceremony is one of those unique traditions that is iconic of Japanese culture. To master tea ceremony, you must also learn several other disciplines, including how to wear a kimono, ikebana flower arranging, and much more! Like the belt system of martial arts, there are different levels of tea ceremony mastery, and it can take years and years of study and practice in between taking each certification. Also like martial arts, there are many different schools, and practices can vary hugely between them. All in all, this makes tea ceremony one of the most difficult of the traditional Japanese arts to master.
Third-year Aizu Misato JET Judy Pan began studying tea ceremony two years ago. She had this to say about what made her get started doing tea ceremony: “The first bowl of macha I had in Hongo. My tea teachers run the local Japanese tea sweet shop in town. I wandered into their shop on a sunny afternoon and had my first bowl of macha that I actually liked. They were really nice and patiently answered all the questions I had about tea. When I asked about where I could learn tea ceremony, they offered to teach me and I have been learning ever since.”
Although seemingly complicated, there are in fact rules for each stage of the tea ceremony. Felicity Kerkham, a second-year JET in Iwaki, has been studying tea ceremony for over a year. “I love the discipline, following strict steps in order to perform it beautifully!”
For both Felicity and Judy, tea ceremony can be very relaxing. Judy says, “I enjoy the atmosphere of tea ceremony. It is very calming and empties my mind of idle thoughts.” Felicity enjoys learning about wabi and sabi – the appreciation of beauty in simple things and quiet. “Experiencing this is extremely calming.”
In addition to Japanese ways of thinking like wabi and sabi, tea ceremony can also teach about Japanese hospitality for the guest, or omotenashi. “For example in summer, we use green leaves to cover our water pitcher and pour water in a way to mimic the sound of water trickling from a stream. The point is we are trying to cool the guest down with those gestures, even though they are about to drink a hot bowl of tea,” Judy says.
Of course practicing tea ceremony is not without its difficulties. For Felicity, the most difficult part is sitting in seiza, the traditional Japanese way of sitting while kneeling. Many Japanese learn to sit this way from childhood, as it takes practice to not have your feet fall asleep or in fact hurt yourself. “If you haven’t done this a lot since you were young, it’s going to be hard!” Judy agrees, “Holding the proper posture for while making the tea can be pretty difficult at times too; sitting in seiza for a long time is strenuous.”
Judy says the most difficult part for her is the Japanese vocabulary. “Remembering the names of the items/tools we use while making the tea, as well as the names of the flowers as they change with the season.” Even for native speakers, this specialized vocabulary can be difficult to remember!
While practicing tea ceremony can be difficult at times, it can be very rewarding as well! “I love the tea and sweets and the lovely ladies I do it with!” says Felicity. She has this advice to share to JETs who are interested in getting started: “Ask around! Some high schools have tea ceremony clubs where you can learn the basics. Some cities and towns have tea shops that sell the tea and equipment so they would know about classes and upcoming events where you can try it. For me it was a case of a distant connection (another ALT friend was invited by an office worker at her school whose older sister does it!) so just talking to people might mean ‘oh yeah my sister’s husband’s cousin does it,’ which could get you an in.”
Similarly, Judy had this to say, “Ask your schools if they know anybody who does tea ceremony in the area, chances are they will be able to recommend someone to you. You can then ask the teachers to give you some trial lessons just try out how tea ceremony is done before you decide to commit to it. If you are interested in learning, it may be good to start with a friend because the learning becomes more interactive and engaging when there are two of you. There are also lessons just on the proper way to drink tea; and you may be able to see how tea is prepared during those lessons as well.”
Douzo goyukkuri meshiagatte kudasai! Please take your time and enjoy your tea!