An evening with the Monks

Konnichiwa!

Welcome to Ekoin Temple, Mount Koyasan. Ekoin was built by Dosho, KoboDaishi’s disciple, almost 1200 years ago. “Eko” originally means “Transference of Merit.”
The monks of this temple practice Esoteric Buddhism-meaning “secret teachings”-we learned that these monks school of thinking allow them to find deeper meaning in the world around them. Secret, meaning that we can’t see it…it’s within nature, within the lotus flower, in the sky, in the animals, etc. The doctrines are taught one-to-one by masters. Their goal is to achieve enlightenment in this lifetime through hands on experiences.

Mount Koya (Koyasan) is the center of Shingon Buddhism, an important Buddhist sect which was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai), one of Japan’s most significant religious figures. A small, secluded temple town has developed around the sect’s headquarters that Kobo Daishi built on Koyasan’s wooded mountaintop. It is also the site of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum and the start and end point of the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage.

Kobo Daishi began construction on the original Garan temple complex in 826 after wandering the country for years in search of a suitable place to center his religion. Since then over one hundred temples have sprung up along the streets of Koyasan. The most important among them are Kongobuji, the head temple of Shingon Buddhism, and Okunoin, the site of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum (www.japan-guide.com).

Ok, end of the history lesson! If you are interested in learning more, you can research it 🙂 Will I become a buddhist now…? No, but did I learn something while on the mountain? Yes. DoI feel a bit closer to nature…? Yes. It was a very peaceful 18 hours. So, this is our experience.

It’s about 2 hours from Osaka, about south west. The drive was pleasant, curvy, green, and fairly simple…wait, simple? Not really. I drove through 2 mountains, endless tunnels, and got there by sundown. That’s the most important part! That mountain was a most interesting drive. We took a snapshot of our map, just so you can live it with me 🙂 Narrow roads, curvy turns, up, up and up.

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Our room was in this building above
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ust a glimpse at the curvy map we drove…mind you…this was going up on a mountain…not flat 🙂

We made it before sundown, and found a bustling town-including a small college. It was gorgeous! Not to mention, there were temples everywhere. And they were OLD. I looked to this adventure as a historian, not a religious quest. This mountain contains a history over 1200 years old.

We checked in smoothly, and were showed to our room. We payed extra for our private bathroom, but it was worth it. The plus…great shower/bath, private…the negative…we didn’t use the mountains natural hot springs. I should have, even with the private bath. Oh well.

Back to the room-it was a traditional tatami style, maybe 15 mats big? I should have counted! Fail! We had a tatami table and cushions to sit on. We had a monk that was assigned to our room, and here we sat as we went over our meal, ordering sake, and going over the optional schedule. Dinner would be arriving in about 30 minutes-so when he left, Paul sat on our little patio (it was so beautiful and peaceful) and I went exploring.

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This is our patio.
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They moved the table for dinner, and then to put down our futons. The symbol above, is the symbol for Ekoin, the temple we stayed in. Circle with a plus or x depending.
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And let the food begin. Paul being adventurous wearing a yukata and eating something. 
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Dinner came, traditional monk vegetarian cuisine, on little trays. Our monk presented the meal, and left. We sat on the floor attempting to distinguish what everything was. Smelling first, then tasting. I of course ate more than Paul did-but he did good. I was proud! The good news is that I knew there wouldn’t be weird animal bits. So that was a relief!

Soups, pickles, tofu, fruit, seaweed, and more things we couldn’t identify. After dinner, our monk came to collect our trays, and another showed up to put down our futons. Did you know there was a bit of a ceremony for putting the beds out? Me either. They were quite comfy, but we are glad we brought our pillows. The Japanese love their bean filled pillows…my head and neck do not.

After dinner we got ready for our guided cemetery tour. Yes, cemetery. You heard right. I was so excited when they asked if we wanted to join the tour, led by a monk, in English. Well, most of us were on the English tour, and about 10 were on the Japanese tour. Anyway, we are really close to the cemetery-so it was a short walk. The history he spoke of was amazing-from the statues, the symbolism-the ritual behind it all. We were told the history of the mountain, the monks, esoteric school of buddhism, famous people in the cemetery, and rituals.

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As we toured, he spoke of the moons lighting our path. He explained that Kobo Daishi (a renaissance man for Japan), thought very highly of the moon. He likened our minds to that of the moon…every changing with each new experience. So, in this teaching, the lanterns that light the path of the cemetery have different moon phases lighting the way. He also explained the typical headstone symbolism. Each level representing something different: earth, fire, wind, water, space (beyond). There were thousands of these-some small, some gigantic. Like large oak tree size. He said more recently people choose to have just a square headstone as it’s cheaper. Also, each section is owned by a different temple. And by own, it’s their responsibility to maintain the grounds in that section, say the prayers in that section, and more. There is a new section of the cemetery for new burials-this section is owned by the main temple I believe. The other cool thing, is that anyone can be buried there. No matter your religion, or where you are from. They welcome everyone. That is one thing I sincerely love about the monks. All are welcome-all are welcome to learn and observe their teachings and way of life. I like that a lot.

As we continued along the path, he told some myths, some fables. He was very good-he also did a great job explaining the monks life-goals, duties, etc. When we neared the main buildings, the discussion took a different turn. He started explaining the Kobo Daishi’s temple and resting place is at the end of the cemetery-that he is there in eternal meditation. In fact, the first building we came to was the kitchens for the first temple of the mountain. And, each morning and each evening monks prepare meals, and carry them to his tomb. Interesting huh?

After this point we weren’t allowed to take pictures since it was considered holy to them. At this point we crossed toward another bridge, one covering a beautiful river. Our monk told how they learn patience, and bits of enlightenment as they try to recite their mantras, in their underwear, in the dead of winter…where the river is below zero. It used to be a requirement, a part of their training. But now, it’s up to each monk if they will do it. He said many still attempt it, but it’s very difficult and some have died from heart attacks because it’s so cold.

Technically, we should all have stepped in to cleanse ourselves before crossing the final bridge, but instead, we were allowed to splash water on one of the buddhist statues, and bow. Not knowing which buddhist I was bowing too, I stepped up to one that looked welcoming, feminine, and peaceful. As I did my part, the monk started chanting as he did his own. I was surprised, as this was the first I had heard a monk reciting anything. It was beautiful. Can’t describe it otherwise.

When he finished, I think we all were a bit more hushed, as it seemed our “history” tour was taking a slight turn. It wasn’t just a tour, but the beginning of our exposure into his world. I really enjoyed participating, not just watching. After this bit, we went to the other cleansing station-this time for our hands “body” (the other for our minds?). This is the typical set up we see at every temple, and we have never known what to do. We were taught a simple, yet traditional 5 step process that we each did before crossing the bridge. So, now you can learn.

1) Grab the scoop with your right hand. Fill with water, and pour it over your left hand.
1.5) Switch…fill with water and pour over your right hand.
2) Pour water into our left hand, and then fill your mouth with that water, swishing it around.
3) Spit it out into the pool
4) Use the scoop to pour clean water over the spot you spit on
5) Now, you have to cleanse the spot you held on the handle, so fill the scoop with water, and try to flick it down the handle, covering your wrist (and not drenching your entire arm while you are at it)

Replace the handle, and walk towards the bridge….I managed this successfully! Now, I know what to do when entering a temple. Very excited because you know, we are in Japan. There are temples and shrines EVERYWHERE…and one of the most popular things to see  and do 🙂

From this point, we went to the temple! It was huge, breathtaking, lit with thousands of hanging gold lanterns, each with meaning. We didn’t go it, but walked to the back where the Kobo Daishi is meditation. Here, he told us more information about their practice, why they utilise gold lotus flower, burn incense, and what they do when they visit. He then began chanting the heart sutra, which is the same I copied in my room!

During his chant, we were bowing and thinking of a wish over and over. Once he was finished, we walked back towards the kitchens-where the tour officially ended. Paul and I chatted with the monk for a bit on our way back to the temple-I wish I could remember his name. He was easy to talk to, very likeable. We did get a picture with him at the end of our stay.

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Bad picture, but explaining how to do the water cleansing
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One of the bridges. This one we couldn’t photo after crossing
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The symbolic headstone-going up-square=earth, sphere=water, pointy=fire, small oval=wind, top=space/void
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The many lanters that illuminate the cemetery at night-with the moon phases

After the tour, we headed back to our room. Paul fell asleep and I copied the heart sutra using ink and brush onto a special paper. It took me about an hour, maybe longer. It was all in kanji, which is tricky anyway. But, it was calming too. Maybe that’s why I have gotten into a painting frenzy. It relaxes me! I slept after that. It was actually very comfortable and it was warm (due to the mega kerosine heater in our room).

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Beginning…………………………………..end-all copied by my hand using ink and brush

I woke up at 6:00 to attend their morning service. I went to the main temple, removed my shoes, and found a little seat on a wall to watch. There were 2 monks lighting some candles, turning on heaters, and switching out incense (that is always burning somewhere), and prepared for the service to begin. The head monk of the temple came in right at 6:30…looking like the typical buddha himself-and took his seat (with his back to us) at the main alter. We watched for about 40 minutes as they sang, chanted, hit gongs, used their beads (rosary), and did whatever else they do. At one point we were asked to join, where we went to the alter, bowed, took incense ash, put it to our forehead, and placed it in the bowl.

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Once the service ended, we were able to go onto the main alter area, where we bowed to the main buddhist statue, then left. I had no idea what was happening, and that’s ok. It was peaceful. I was rested, and peaceful afterwards. And stunk a bit like smoke. But that’s ok!

Next I met Paul at the gate for the fire ritual. We were ushered into a little space where an alter was prepared for fire. The fire symbolises the need to purify our minds-burn away our evilness inside. Both services, rituals, are done everyday as a part of the monks life. The monk came in to do the ritual, and another sat at a drum. What is it about fire and drum beats that are so enchanting? This ritual took maybe 20 minutes-and about 1/2 way through the fire began-and it was big. Surprisingly, not hot. Now that I think about it…it was very comfortable in that small room with a contained, yet raging fire.

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Literally, a front row seat.

When this service ended, we pretty much packed up and checked out.  It was going to start raining pretty bad and I didn’t want to get caught on the mountain, driving down in it.

Paul and I both didn’t know what to expect when we booked our stay via email. Paul was especially pleased and surprised by how much he enjoyed the experience. I too was very pleased-not knowing what to expect but being really eager to experience everything I could in that small amount of time. I didn’t make it in time for my mediation practice-but that’s ok.
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Breakfast
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Should you ever have the chance to stay with the monks, I highly recommend it. No matter your religion, your school of thought, you can learn something from their way of life. If for nothing else, it’s beautiful and enriching to see another’s culture-and furthermore, to experience it first hand. How many of us can say we have? How many of us can look past our own experiences and expectations-biases and judgements to learn from someone else? Even if it is a different religion than our own.

If you made it this far, I thank you for sharing my experience with me!

Nomaste
K+P

“Heart Sutra”
Link to listen to a chant. Beautiful!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1evxMA7yYw

website for temple:
http://www.ekoin.jp/en/introduction/index.html

Other pictures from the local area (other temples)-plus some pictures I took from the book they provided us. Read to your own desire!

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Cemetery Photos

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Borrowed cemetery photos-we went at night and left before going back during light-so thanks google!
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These are the statues we threw water on by the river-1/2 of them actually
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The lanterns at the temple.
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Kobo Daishi’s final metitation tomb-golden lotus
*reason for golden lotus..to find the beauty within, even when covered in mud/evil (lotus grows through mud, but is beautiful despite it)

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We were each given a gift- gorgeous chop sticks!
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Osaka + waffles

konbanwa!

I return to you after a brief lapse in writing due mostly to normal day after day. But in a good way. so the week of school went by slowly as we all anticipated our fall break, which started at 345 Friday afternoon. Or was it at 8AM Friday morning… I think we were all checked out Friday!

Saturday we went to the school so Paul could proctor the SSAT. After that, around 2ish, we headed for Osaka.

It was a nice drive, only about 2 hrs and $60 in tolls. Yeah…they get you with those tolls! But, the mountains and tunnels we drove through were lovely. it’s hard driving and taking in the scenery.

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We are staying in an old Love hotel from the 70s.. a friend stayed here previously and liked it. Plus it’s only $50 a night and right in the neighborhood we want to be in. problem

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…parking. lots are $$$¥¥¥ but we finally found a lot that was $20 for 24 hrs. a really good deal!

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Saturday we shoppd, found authentic Mexican food on a rooftop overlooking the river, and just took in the sights and sounds of Dotonbori. We stayed in a room that was outfitted with a wall mural of a castle somewhere in Europe.

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We checked out Sunday morning and had pancakes at a Hawaiin restaurant that was delish  but it was huge! I mean really…enough whipped cream. On the plus…they had coconut syrup. oooohhhh yeah! I love coconut anything.

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We just walked around Osaka, went searching for Sally Beauty Supply (silly waffles…never found it), ran into a festival at a local shrine, got coffee out of a car…literally. Found a street of Lamborghinis and as we were leaving town went to the floating garden which boasts an impressive view from the 40th floor…open rooftop. The open rooftop view was amazing!

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We drove over to Mt. Ktoday to spend the night in a 1200 yr old temple. This mountain, temple, and the Buddhist monks left such an impression that I will dedicate a whole other post to just them! I will post some pictures but the majority of pics and words will be done later. Check back soon for that!

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We we left around 10:30 or so Monday because of rain…didn’t want to drive down the mountain in that. See next post for more info.

We decided to go straight to Kobe to try some steak since it would be cheaper for lunch. It took about 2 hrs from the mountain and we drove into the port city with a bit of rain.  we stopped for coffee and a creme brûlée at this cute French cafe on a nice tree lined street…a great melding of Europe and Japan. We them ventured over to a steakhouse that the locals eat at for good Kobe meat! The place was small and smelled like my grandparents house. I was instantly in love with the wooden decor and the antique stemware lining the shelves. We sat at the bar where the chefs cook your food for you…right there. I had Kobe set for $50 and Paul had sirloin cut for $30. Umm that was lunch. But the set included drink, soup, salad, steak, vegs, coffee and dessert…so pretty good. The steak was the very most best steak I have ever eaten. He made us try it in three different ways before picking our favorite. sea salt, pepper, and fried garlic chip with wasabi mixed in soy.  That was my favorite!

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Paul wasn’t getting the gist of what the chef was saying and kept getting hollered at. It was funny.  After dinner we drove back to Osaka, about 45 minutes where we rested (been up since 6am)…then went searching for Sally’s again…in a different location. We chased waffles for about 35 minutes before giving up and walking to Osaka castle. It was impressive! biggest we have seen so far. The best part…it was 8:00 and NO ONE was at the park. Technically it was closed so we couldn’t buy tickets to go inside…but the exterior was open and we had the whole park to ourselves!! So, fyi…go to castles after dark when no one is there.

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Tuesday morning we tried the owl cafe but it was closed for two more hours. So we killed time having breakfast at yet another Hawaiin cafe. We killed two hours walking around and shopping in new areas we hadn’t seen yet. Finally the owl cafe was open and we played with owls for a bit. Some you could pat their heads and beaks, others only their beaks. They are kept clean and rotated out every couple hours. Some were babies and we couldn’t touch those…they were adorable. They all were! Really loved the owl cafe and talking witht the owner.

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After that we drove to another tow outside Osaka to have lunch and find the tempura battered and fried. maple tree leaves. yes…friend maple. leaves.  America…stop frying crap like Oreos and, butter, and snickers…and start frying nature!! They were Delish…and it’s a town tradition for hundreds of years. we got to watch the little old ladies make their better and fry them…right on the street in their little stalls.  Bought a bag!

We we then attempted to see the ramen museum and make our ow ramen bowls…but of course they are closed on Tuesdays. Why didn’t we think of that? Great little town though and found a yummy bakery.  So that’s a win.  and, we know where the museum is. so…win win 🙂

We attempted to go toward Kyoto but traffic was so bad that we went to the Osaka aquarium instead. Totally works for me as I  looove the ocean and what’s in it! the aquarium wasn’t very busy so we got to wander around without much distraction. I will say I have never seen such animated marine life as here. Otters, pengains, sea lions, Dolphins…all very playful. Even saw a bit of dominance between some sea lions.

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Our last night in Osaka ended with another lovely walk…and small snacks for dinner at various restaurants we wanted to try. Local meat on a stick at one place, yummy dessert at another, and fish and chips at a pub…and wings with the best blue cheese dressing ever at a final stop…owned by a man who lived in Illinois as a child.  He decided to open an American type bar.. yummy! And we enjoyed talking with him.

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So…that brings you up to speed up til now…where it is past my bedtime…12:37…and I write you in our final night.  Tomorrow we head for the old capital Kyoto to see a parade of history.  ( all periods starting in the 700s) and some famous temples.  That will be a separate post as well.  So, for now…hope you enjoyed Osaka! We sure did!

Sayonara!

K+P

Trapped by Tradition!

Konbonwa!

Life since Hong Kong has been normal 🙂 It’s been nice to have some normal nights-trying out new restaurants, going to a movie, buying new lamps and a rug. Yes, a movie! We went through the process of reading a movie poster to get times (Guardians of the Galaxy) and the poster was in Japanese! We got the right time, in English-love when it’s smooth!

Food!
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This weekend we await the typhoon…let’s see where it decides to go this time. Last time a typhoon threat was upon us it just rained-minimally. Let’s hope this one does the same!

Wednesday-Friday Paul leaves with the middle school kids for their retreat. He’s in charge of building the camp fire. Do they KNOW what they have just done? Hehe-he loves it!

I leave Friday for Tokyo for 2 days for a PYP training. It’s not far, but I am excited to explore a different part of the city!

I have lots of pictures of food to post-I haven’t come across something I haven’t liked a whole lot in a while. Yes!
School is going really well. We are starting our 2nd unit of inquiry, How we organise ourselves, Monday. I can’t believe Monday starts the 8th week of school.

This past Thursday night was the induction ceremony for National Honour Society, which I advise. The event was perfect-nothing went wrong. That’s always a plus!

This week I MUST get back into my routine. Though I have ridden my bike home many nights, and rode to school last weekend (I parked outside my classroom!!!), I haven’t been to yoga in 2 weeks-I miss it! My chorus group didn’t happen this week because they are out of town…I missed my Japanese class due to helping the kids prepare for induction…I don’t like missing it all.

Random!
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o thankful for my love Laura for sending me this snap on my bday! Made my day!IMG_0607
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arked outside my door!

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o this is a urinal in the women’s room. How are we supposed to use that!??

So, this week I have meetings scheduled with parents who want to talk…before the conferences in November. It’s not like I talk to them in the hallway almost daily…and email frequently…but OK. Let’s meet and talk. I have a skype conversation Monday with a student’s counselor, 2 parent meetings on Tuesday, yoga on wednesday with sushi afterwards, Japanese on Thursday, chorus on Friday (maybe…depends on when I have to catch the train to Tokyo)…busy busy! But that’s how I like it.

Last week we stumbled upon a gorgeous cemetery and temple-it was right near our neighbourhood…and hiding! Of course Paul had to ring the gong bell thing a couple times for a video…I hope no-one saw!

This week on one of my rides home I had a lovely hello chat with a boy, and everyone on my path was saying hello, nodding, etc. I love my rides home. I haven’t worked up to riding to work much yet. There are way more up-hills than down which is exhausting, hot, and makes me all shaky before work. That’s a no-go.

My parents sent a package that came yesterday! Lot’s of goodies that we requested…Duncan coffee, a can opener (the ones here are crazy!), hair oil, BLEACH!!! I can bleach my hair! Yes!!! My finished necklace and earrings mummy made me!!!-a calling card for those “just in case moments”-Tums. I don’t need them often anymore, but when I do…

I also got a package from Lindsey Hamburg today…a beautiful peacock necklace!!! I was surprised! It made my day!!!

So, I bet your wondering why the title is about being trapped? Well, as you are aware, Japanese generally don’t wear shoes inside buildings. Mostly homes, and some restaurants. Stores sell the most amazing liners for your shoes…they are the BEST “socks” I have ever had. They are cheap, cute, and comfortable. Even have padding for your heel or ball of your feet. They are just the right height not to show too much when wearing flats…and they don’t fall down! Genius!

I have many pairs of these. They are very handy when shoes are not allowed. Well, tonight we went for traditional Nagoyan fried chicken wings. They were delicious. Better than that…some of the best wings I have ever had! One was a Worcestershire flavoured…the other a very peppery-lemon-esk flavour. More pepper, less lemon.  This place had a traditional sliding door booths where you remove your shoes and sit down on pillows, with the table sunken into the floor. Well this particular family was in a large room, and a baby starts crying. Incessantly.

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The door slides open, and kneeling there is mom, dad, grandpa, screaming baby, and 5 year old boy. I wish I had a picture…because they were all half-way hanging out the door, but no-one would come out. Why? Because they didn’t have shoes. You see, they take them off on the floor, and step into the room…WITHOUT touching their feet to the carpet where the shoes are. Well, mom was looking for shoes, and couldn’t find them. The staff had come by after they sat down to store the shoes under the booth…a little flap door opens up and wala…the shoes are hidden.  It was so comical because she is frantically opening up all the cabinets looking for her shoes, and her baby shoes, and the boy’s shoes.

It was just one of those moments…when no shoes can be a problem. They were literally trapped by tradition. They finally located the necessary shoes and ran into the bathroom.

Shortly after that life resumed normalcy. Until I saw the back of the chopsticks paper which had a lovely cartoon that began with a picture of a man eating a chicken wing, and ended with the restaurant mascot, who is dressed as a chicken, standing with his butt showing and dancing? Are we supposed to do the chicken dance after we eat?

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Another cultural thing we ran into was at the movie theatre. As the movie ended, Paul and I got up to leave. And as we walked out in the dark *clue one* we realized no-one else was moving. We continued on our journey as I had to seriously use the potty…and Paul hung around to confirm his suspicions. The Japanese watching the movie waited until ALL credits had finished rolling before getting up, collecting all their trash, and leaving very orderly. They waiting until the credits stopped…like the movie cut off completely and the lights came on. So, 2 things I learned about movies in Japan…we will always have the perfect seat when seeing an English movie…or rather, a movie in English…and we won’t fight to leave a busy theatre (if ever that happens) because we will be the first out. I don’t think that’s a custom we will follow. LOL.

Oh, and I cannot forget to mention the concert we went to last Sunday! Our colleague James is in a band, with Tomo the lead singer. I met him at my birthday Karaoke before Hong Kong when they both showed up at the same place we were at…so they joined out room. Tomo is a middle school English teacher in GIfu. It’s great seeing him moonlight in his band! He’s crazy! And loves James Brown, and all things funk. And Georgia. He always has it on his mind!!

Tomo!
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We have break coming up… we were planning a trip to Okinawa, but I think I’d rather go to Kyoto and Osaka this time. We shall see!

For now,

Sayonara!

K+P