Obon Festival

As promised, here is a post about last week’s Obon Festival! I took lots of pictures and videos, so I’ll let those take center stage. But before we move onto the festival, I just wanted to share another small piece of Japanese summer….CICADAS!! This video doesn’t actually show them – this is just the front of the kindergarten. But you can hear the cicadas buzzing in the trees, and man are they loud over here!

When we learned about the festival, one of my friends and I decided it would be the prime opportunity to dress up in our recently purchased yukata and obi!

Basically, the yukata are made WAY longer than they actually need to be – I’m not sure why, as I think the length of mine would have fit perhaps a 9 or 10-foot giant. In any case, after adjusting the yukata flaps around your torso, you hike up all that extra length, fasten it with a tie around your waist, and smooth the extra material down over the tie. Then you fasten another tie just under your bust. Then you put on the obi (belt). I was inordinately proud of my bow, probably because I never thought I’d actually be able to tie a bow that was presentable (please ignore the fact that it’s a little crooked 🙂 ):

Yep, those long pieces of fabric hanging down are actually part of the sleeves – the sleeves are deep and they come down at right angles, so you can potentially store things in them. OK, now onto the festival…

One of the important activities at an Obon festival is sending lanterns down a river. I think there’s some spiritual significance, such as sending prayers away to dead relatives; in fact I think the whole celebration has something to do with honoring ancestors, which of course I don’t ascribe to (the worshiping part, not the honoring part LOL). For those who are interested in learning more there’s a link to an informative article below. (Upon reading it for myself, I realized that there is the belief that the ancestors’ spirits come back for a visit, and apparently the lantern lighting is a way of sending them back home again.  So much for my knowledge of Japanese culture!)


There was a tent beside the river, with LOTS of small lanterns that people kept sending down the river. I was curious about how it works; do people purchase lanterns in the names of their ancestors, or what? I haven’t found out yet. The video below is very short, but shows these lanterns during one of the busy streaks, when there were a lot on the river at a time:

The next video shows some of the launching process.

After awhile, they started sending bigger floats down the river. Since the river was shallow and there were rapids near the footbridge (where we were watching), these floats required some guidance by men who seemed to enjoy frolicking about in the water.

Eventually I moved from the road to a location right beside the river, so I got to see some of the floats – and the rowdy float-guiders – up close. Every time a new float went by, the crowd chanted for the men to “Turn it! Turn it!” Thus the spinning. 🙂

And here is one of my favorite lanterns:

After watching the lantern sailing, we walked to a nearby park for a fireworks show. Due to clouds and smoke, though, it was difficult to see the fireworks, so we gave up partway through and went home.  Fireworks here are pretty much the same as in America, anyway. 🙂 So there we have it – my first Obon festival!

I’m Back!

Well, here I am, back in the lovely town of Funehiki, Japan. I had an amazing summer break with my family. It was wonderful to get to see some of my friends and family members, although I didn’t see as many as I would have liked. I only had one week in America, and boy did it go fast!

One thing that I wasn’t anticipating when I began planning my travels was the fact that I was responsible for arranging transportation to and from the airport here in Japan. That REALLY stressed me out, especially since I don’t take public transportation in America so I’m not used to it at all. I had some long transition times and some (unwarranted) anxiety about missing my connections, but in the end it all went smoothly and safely, for which I’m very thankful.

Instead of focusing on one topic this week, I decided to post a few random adventures from my trip!

Adventure #1: Hanging out in the big city – AT NIGHT

So my flight leaving Japan was scheduled early enough that I had no option but to take the overnight bus to get down there. That meant taking the half-hour train ride from Funehiki (my town) to Koriyama (the big city nearby), then waiting there for my bus – which left at 2 o’clock in the morning. Oh, did I mention that the last train from Funehiki to Koriyama gets there at 9:15? Yeah, that meant I had about four hours to kill in Koriyama, in the middle of the night. I was NOT thrilled about that at all. However, my friends informed me that “Mr. Donut,” a coffee shop near the station, was open until midnight.

OK, I thought. That will be my first stop. Because the weather was nice and a lot of people were out, I sat in front of the train station for awhile. Then I trudged over to Mr. Donut, wheeling my luggage behind me. I bought a donut and a melon soda (a popular soda flavor here in Japan!) and frittered away my time until midnight. Then back to the train station it was. I’d heard of an Internet café nearby – a place that offers computer booths and Internet service 24/7, for a modest fee. Apparently some of these cafés also have food and showers. In any case, I didn’t really want to go through the bother of finding the café and then renting space there, so I decided to camp out at the plaza in front of the station, where there were some trees and benches.

Hanging out in front of the station wasn’t too bad. I felt fairly safe, but still a little uncomfortable, especially as the crowds began going home and the only people left passing through were the occasional office workers, bar hoppers, or groups of young guys hanging out. I wasn’t sure exactly how many of the men I saw had been drinking, but I know at least some of them were. I was consoled by the fact that I was near the taxi stand, so if anyone did try to bother me I could just holler and one of them would (hopefully) come running. I did get a couple of weird questions from younger guys (e.g. “Will you sing with us?”) but other than that I didn’t receive any attention. Still, I was very relieved when 2 o’clock rolled around and I could sleep peacefully on the bus for a few hours!

Adventure #2: Kindness of strangers (and friends)

This segment is more of a way to say thank you to all the lovely people out there who made my trip home so enjoyable. It was amazing to see my family and my home again, and to get to eat American food! I got treated to Pizza Hut, Five Guys, and Chic-Fil-A, and I was given huge bags of chocolate to bring back with me! My family and friends were the best part of the trip, but even strangers helped make the trip better. On my way home, when I got off the train in Koriyama, a man stepped up to me just as I was about to lug my suitcase down three sets of stairs. “Help,” he said, and proceeded to carry my 47-pound suitcase down all of the stairs. It warmed my heart. 🙂

Adventure #3: Buying Japanese clothes

OK, this is not related to my trip, but it was a fun experience. Two days after I returned, we got an unexpected day off, so I decided to go to Koriyama to do some shopping and exploring. One of the things I wanted to buy was an obi (belt) for my yukata (Japanese robe). If I’d thought it through, I would have gone to one of the cheaper department stores, but since I’m still unfamiliar with a lot of the stores around, I ended up going to one of the kimono/yukata shops in a mall in Koriyama – not the best choice for getting reasonably priced clothing! I looked around for awhile, cringing at some of the prices and wondering if I needed a specific kind of belt or if any kind would do.

Finally, I asked for help to make sure I was getting the right belt. A sales clerk pointed me to the correct ones, asked the color of my yukata, and tried to help me pick out an appropriate match. After a few moments of indecision I ended up picking out a raspberry-colored one that matched some of the flowers on my yukata. “The tie might be difficult,” I told the sales lady, mostly because I was still undecided about the purchase. Some stores sell obi that have pre-tied bows, and I was thinking that as a foreigner that might be my best choice. But the lady offered to show me how to tie it, escorting me over to a dressing area with a raised mat (traditional Japanese style) and mirrors. Another friendly sales lady stood beside me and modeled the bow tying with a different obi as I copied her actions with mine. I didn’t do a very good job, but I had a blast learning how to tie an authentic obi bow. It made the cost of my pricey obi worth it…almost! Anyway, it was a fun experience, and I learned something I would not have if I had chosen to buy a pre-tied obi. It’s all about the cultural experiences, I guess!

Well, since this post is getting long, I guess that will be the end of my random memories about my awesome summer break. In a few hours, our town will be hosting its Obon festival, the largest summer festival in Japan, which occurs in towns and cities all over the nation. My friend and I are planning on dressing up with our yukata – I’ve never worn mine in public before, so that’ll be a new experience! It should be a fun event, and I’m planning on taking my camera to the festival, so look for a future post about Obon!



Four Month-versary

Yes, it really has been four months! Time has moved both slowly and quickly, as it tends to do in new situations. With this four-month mark in mind, I’ve come up with a list of four low points and four high points of the past few months:

Low Points:

  1. Feeling shell-shocked when I got here. “Everything even smells different,” I remember complaining to some of my teammates.
  2. Realizing that the language and culture is so different from our own. Will I ever get used to the Japanese workplace culture, or the way they profusely greet/apologize/thank each other? To my American mind, it seems very surface-oriented. And yet, it’s an integral and respected way of their interactions.
  3. Realizing that two years is a LONG TIME. Yep. It is. Not that I’m not excited about it – I am. But it’s STILL a long time.
  4. Missing favorite food products. The top food items that I miss? Fruit. (Very expensive, meaning that I don’t buy berries and other favorite fruits that I used to eat at home. Except for apples, which I buy anyway and try not to think about the price.) Peanut butter. (Available, but expensive. And no Reese’s!) Trail mix. (SOMETIMES available in small packages. And expensive.) Granola bars!!

Four High Points:

  1. Realizing that I “took the plunge.” However difficult this experience may be at times, I am over the first (and hardest?) step of actually doing it. I don’t think about that fact much, but when I do, I am excited about it.
  2. Learning to do simple things. Like mail a card from the post office. Even small victories are big victories in a foreign country.
  3. Learning to do complex things. Like buying bus and train tickets. (Actually not that complex, but since I never had occasion to do it in the U.S., I was totally clueless over here). And doing things that the locals do, like getting a point card for the grocery store. Yay!
  4. Having some success with the language. There’s still SO much I don’t know, and I realize it more and more every day. But even understanding simple things, or being able to communicate a little bit with someone, is a victory.

There’s so much more I could write about, but for the sake of my readers I’ll keep it short and snappy. After this post I’ll be taking a brief hiatus from the blog world as I set off to spend my summer break in the best way possible – visiting my family. 🙂 See you all in two weeks!