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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Summer Firework Festival (Millie F)

I consider myself lucky, because three days after I came to Akita, I had the honor to take part in the Omagari Fireworks Festival. 大曲の花火 literally means “Fireworks of Omagari.” It is a historic nationwide fireworks festival competition that has been held since Meiji 43 (1910). It is not just a little local affair; fireworks team from throughout the country compete with each other to put on the best show for audiences. More than 700,000 visitors are expected for this one of the Tohoku region’s biggest fireworks festival.

The unique things about this competition are that the firework artists launch fireworks that they have made themselves. The whole show lasts about two and half hours. Before we arrived the show ground, we ate a lot from the station which we left to the main venues. There are many market stalls to sell the delicious local food on both sides of the streets. Since my friends and I didn’t bring anything for a seat, we only can sit on the ground. However, we still enjoyed viewing various kinds of colorful shapes and patterns formed in the night sky.
Market stalls, photo by Millie
I really like the competition with many creative fireworks; I saw the cartoon at the beginning, smiling faces, even these star patterns are the image of a star- shaped firework. The extraordinary part is these fireworks displays were choreographed to popular music. The fireworks rose into the sky one after another and then explored into beautiful patterns making people couldn’t close their eyes. 
Fireworks, photo by Millie
There is another summer festival named “Omonogama River Fireworks” in Akita too, but I didn’t have the opportunities to see it. The summer means fireworks in Japan. It is an annual Noryo festival; Noryo means, “evening cool” in Japanese. It represents kind of folkways in Japan which people loves short-lived beauty such as cherry blossoms in spring which best for only a couple of days. It is not only an exciting moment for local people here, but also a very fantastic moment to the visitors likes me.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Kyoto Excursion (Hannah)

Kyoto is not a new place for me. Living so close, it’s only a thirty minute or so train ride to the thick of the city, full of shops and tourist traps. During the excursion, I started focusing more on the people at the sites, rather than the sites themselves.
I put that new skill into use as I explored a part of Kyoto I had never been to before. In Northern Kyoto, that is more residential than touristy. I only saw one other obvious foreigner on my way to find Kami-Goryo Shrine.
Outside Kami-Goryo Shrine
Supposedly it was the place where the Ōnin War began, sparking a ten year civil war. I chose Kami-Goryo mostly because of its historical context; I learned briefly about the Ōnin War in a Japanese History class and hoped I could learn a little more. I went there expecting it to be fairly popular, considering that not only was it the starting point of such a turning point in Japanese history, but because the Imperial Family during the Heian Period worshipped the kami residing there as the guardian of the Imperial Palace, according to the sign directly outside. There was even an advertisement for it in the subway station, which only supported my hypothesis.
Subway advertisement for Kami-Goryo
I was very wrong. Maybe it was because it was ten o’clock on a Saturday morning, but the shrine was practically deserted. Over the course of my thirty-minute to one-hour observance, I saw a total of ten people come and go, about ninety percent of who were there to pray. A mix of men and women, the youngest being about thirteen and looking like her mother had dragged her there, the oldest a woman with a cane there to pray. Those who noticed me looked very surprised to see a foreigner at the shrine. A couple people were tourists, probably from other parts of Japan. They took photos and prayed briefly but also bought things from the small souvenir stand at most temples and shrines.
One of the buildings through which you can see slightly two women praying. They left soon after.
The site is fairly small compared to sites like Kiyomizudera but it was still a fairly medium-sized shrine, well kept in the front but could probably use a new deposit of gravel. Nestled in a residential area, I wanted to know how likely it was that, unless you were looking for it, only the locals knew about it. I couldn’t find anyone to ask, so for now my question remains unanswered. I continue to wonder how to answer the question without directly speaking to someone, and I suppose it would warrant another visit at a different day and time to see if it remains as uncrowded and hidden away or if it is a well known tourist destination, foreigners or otherwise.
Line of torri gates near the back corner of the site. Likely wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't quietly followed a middle-aged man (likely) doing cirucumambulation.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Japan’s “Southern Accent” – Kansai-ben (Hannah)

It’s a journey, to say the least, to apply the knowledge you learned in the classroom to everyday situations. It’s even more of a journey when you learn standard Japanese and most of the people around you are speaking in a dialect you can barely understand. Imagine someone from Chicago going down to New Orleans and not being able to understand a word.

That’s how it is for me.

Especially living with a host family, I had to get used to the dialect very quickly. My host mother and grandmother have very thick accents, though I can tell my host mother tries to tone it down whenever she speaks with me, something I’ve figured out when I compare how she speaks to me versus the rest of the family.

Kansai-ben is the dialect of Japanese spoken in the Kansai region, an area in southern Japan made up of Osaka, Kyoto, Wakayama, Shiga, Hyogo, and Nara prefectures. I’ve noticed it’s a bit more nasally than the Japanese I hear in class, with slang terms and pronunciation varieties that confuse me greatly. Kansai-ben is most often associated with Osaka, and is often mistaken for Osaka-ben, or a dialect that seems to be only spoken in Osaka. Each Kansai region has it’s own variation of the dialect different from that spoken in Osaka.

Luckily, I’ve made friends who help me!

Selfie with Natsuki (right) and his friend Yuuya (left)
A Japanese student named Natsuki approached me in the international student lounge one day, and he has been very helpful in deciphering Kansai-ben. Every week we sit together and teach each other different phrases in each other’s languages. Not everything he teaches me is Kansai-ben, but a significant amount is, and I’ve overheard the words he teaches in conversations on trains or bus stops.
Natsuki is proud of his dialect, from what I have gathered. He told me he teaches Kansai-ben to his other international student friends, and is as eager to learn new English phrases as he is to teach Japanese ones. I am a master of tongue twisters now, thanks to him.

He taught me words like なんでやね “Nandeyaneh” which means something similar to “are you kidding me?” andおおきに “ookini” which is a Kansai casual form of “thank you.” I’ve even learned words outside of my Japanese friends’ guidance, a frequent one I have begun using being めっちゃ “me-cha,” or “very.” I feel like I’m more in the inside group than the outside when I use Kansai-ben, and it’s very comfortable to use.

I’ve heard these words in and around the area, and I love the feeling of hearing words I’ve learned in real life situations. I just hope that I don’t suddenly speak Kansai-ben in class when I get back to Beloit!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Paying Closer Attention to My Surroundings (Ethan)

For this assignment I was asked to do participant observation at a site in Kyoto that I hadn’t been to.  There were many places I wanted to do this at but the place I decided on was Nishi-Hongan-Ji.  I decided on this site because it’s a Buddhist temple with over 500 years of history but, unlike many other historic temples in Kyoto, it is still very active.
I went to Nishi-Hongan-Ji for my observations on a Sunday morning.  When I got there I was impressed with the size and beauty of the temple.  I’ve seen some large temples and shrines in Japan but this is definitely one of the largest.  Next, I tried to pay attention to the people using this massive building. 
Nishi-Hongan-Ji
I noticed that while the space is a tourist destination, it doesn’t feel heavily marketed as one and the majority of the people using the space seemed to be Japanese.  There was a variety of ages among these people, from middle and high school students to senior citizens.  One thing I noticed while walking through the inside of the temple was that no matter their age, many of the people stopped, even if just for a second, to pray or pay respect to the Buddha inside.  I’ve seen this at other locations as well and find it interesting that people will stop for every temple or shrine they see.  Around the side of the temple, there was a several hundred year old gate, which was an original piece of the structure.  Here, there were significantly fewer people and people in this area were just taking pictures.  Here, any religious feel from the temple seemed to disappear. 
Gate on the side of the temple
In addition to the Japanese people, there were a few foreign tourists around the site as well.  While they were much smaller in number, they were visibly present at most times and interacted differently with the space.  The tourists seemed fairly well-mannered and respectful of the site, but it didn’t seem like a religious place for them.  I didn’t see as many of them enter the building or interact with it in a religious way.  I also saw tourists at the gate on the side of the temple taking pictures (along with people that I believe were locals)

From just a couple of hours, I learned a lot about this space and how people use it.  I noticed that not everyone uses the space in different ways and everyone appreciates it differently.