The worldwide Augustana College experience

Pottery and Taiko and Tea, Oh My!

Sorry for the delay! I’m in Tokyo right now, and there’s an awful lot to do here..Hopefully I’ll be all caught up in the next week or so

September 5th

Today was one of the busiest days so far. We split off into two groups and went to Tobe, which is known for their blue and white yaki, or pottery. First, we painted our own. After wow-ing the employees of the store with my stick figures, we took a guided tour around the city. Tobe is a beautiful little town in the mountains, and some of the scenes were beautiful. The tour guide was very energetic, and made a very engaging presentation, despite the fact that we understood less than half of what he said. What we did gather was he loved his hometown.

The most memorable part of the day, however, was the home stay. We got picked up at Ehime University by Taemi-san, the mother. She spoke very little English, most of which was taught to her by her 15 year old daughter, Shoko-san. Ichiro (dad), Shigeo (grandpa), and Estuki (grandma) didn’t really speak any. Initially, it was just mom, grandpa, and grandma. I thought it would be awkward, and it actually was at first. It turned out that grandpa was a pretty cool guy. He collects rocks and coins, and showed us his collections. It’s funny seeing American coins in a foreign coin collections. Like a true grandpa, he also spoiled us rotten. He gave us a set of coins from the Japanese mint, dated 1986. Random, but pretty cool. He’s also a calligraphy teacher and a haiku writer…A haikuist? “Seben fibu seben!” he explained. Afterwards, he sat down and wrote us each a haiku on the spot. I still don’t know what it says, but it looks pretty cool. Afterwards, we just sat and talked for about three hours. I’m fairly certain I used every word in my Japanese vocabulary at least once.

Dinner was a traditional Japanese BBQ, which smelled delicious. Grandma cooked outside one what looked like a mini Weber grill. It turns out that it smelled better than it looked, at least from a Western standpoint. A traditional Japanese BBQ consists of a freshly caught fish thrown onto a grill, then served. Whole. I had to break my personal rule of not eating anything that was looking at me (it still had its eyes), but it actually wasn’t bad. We ate in the family room with the TV on. I thought this was an interesting cultural difference…At least at my house in the US having the TV on during dinner was kind of rude to begin with, and unheard of with guests over. They were also eager to give us beer and keep our glasses full. One of the first questions Taemi-san asked us upon eating with was “Osake wa iidesuka? Nansai desuka?” “Is alcohol ok? How old are you?” Next time you have a dinner at a traditional Japanese home, don’t make the same mistake as I did and finish your glass when they pour more…Leave it about three quarters full. Otherwise, the beer will keep on flowing and your confidence in your Japanese skills will keep on rising.

The family experience was wonderful; I’d do it again in an instant. Being in a traditional Japanese home was cool enough, but just noticing the little things, like the TV at dinner or the versatility of the rooms (TV room is a dining room and a living room, as well as a guest bedroom) was an enlightening lesson on Japanese daily life.

September 6th

The most memorable part of the day started at around 5PM, when we again went to Ehime University to meet local college kids and grab dinner and hang out for the night. A small group of us went with Tonami, a Junior who used to go to Ehime but is transferring to Kobe University after summer break (Japanese colleges are on their summer break in August and September, and begin their school year in October). She took us to an okonomiyaki restaurant, and where we sat in silence. Intensely awkward. Language wasn’t a problem; she spoke English and we spoke Japanese. We just didn’t really have much to say to each other—no common interests or experiences can lead to a pained conversation at best.

After dinner, we went to a Pirukiru machine. In the States, we have photo booths. In Japan, they have photo booths on steroids in most arcades. After taking photos, you decorate the photos with digital stamps, writing, etc. I feel like the intended audience for these machines are teenage girls and their unfortunate boyfriends, but I figured I’d experience every aspect of Japanese culture that I can while here. After Pirukiru, we played my favorite arcade game ever…The Taiko drum game. It’s basically a Guitar Hero except with Taiko drums instead of a guitar and drums, and J-Pop and Anime theme songs instead of good music. For those of you that haven’t had the pleasure of listening to J-Pop, just think of the wonderful 90’s and early 2000’s when we had artists like the Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls. Then make it Japanese. After awhile, we decided to return back (I had a midterm the next day!). The entire way home, Tonami, Brooke (a fellow Japanese speaker) and I couldn’t stop talking…We had a lot of fun. On the way back, we ran into her friend, Keiko. She really wanted to meet the Americans who spoke Japanese, and she chattered non-stop in broken English and unintelligible Japanese.

I was really surprised that the arcade acted as our bonding experience. It really got us out of our shells. Unlike the US, where arcades are stereotypically the second homes of geeks and pre-teen boys, Japanese arcades are a sociably acceptable hangout for teenage schoolchildren and businessmen alike. It was great to just let loose and act like a kid.

September 7th

Today we split into three groups and went around doing different activities: a Tea Ceremony, Taiko Drums, and touring Matsuyama Castle.

The Tea Ceremony was our first stop. A Tea Ceremony is the culmination o all Japanese art-calligraphy, Ikebana, painting, and the even the ceremony itself is an art. The whole idea of a Tea Ceremony is to let go of any worldly worries and relax. A guest to a ceremony is enjoy the moment each second of our lives is unique and will never happen again. In all honesty, I don’t think any of us grasped the concept on the deepest level, and my explanation is a gross oversimplification, but it’ll have to do. Women who perform the ceremony study for months, even years, to understand all of the symbolism and customs. The Ceremony itself was eerily quiet and very peaceful, which seems to be a trend with most traditional Japanese ceremonies.

Our next stop was the Taiko Drums. We met a man who performs Taiko with a troupe, and he made the experience fun with his laughter and energy. He talked nonstop in Japanese with no translation, but I guess you can say music is a universal language because everyone seemed to get the idea, especially the Music majors. He taught us a beat, a chant, and a dance, then sent us outside…He expected us to perform! I acted a photographer for the most part, taking videos and pictures. Almost as entertaining as watching the twenty gaijin playing Taiko, chanting butchered bits of Japanese, and dancing was the reactions of Japanese passers-by. You see, we were playing right outside of a busy chairlift stop in front of Matsuyama Castle. A lot of foot traffic meant a lot of spectators, and a lot of spectators meant a laughter at our expense…But then again, I was laughing too. I didn’t have to dance…

Lastly, we went to the castle. Matsuyama Castle is my favorite of the castles so far. What really helped was our tour guide: Ruth Virgin, a professor at Ehime University. Being a history geek, her fun facts about the castle (In English) gave me a better background than just wandering around Osaka Castle, reading whatever was translated into English (not much). Even something as simple as the concave shape of the castle walls to increase stability and make climbing more difficult was fascinating to me…And I wouldn’t have even noticed had Ruth not pointed it out. It turns out the castle was never attacked. I guess if you build something formidable enough nobody will even bother trying to steal it. The castle is on top of a mountain in the middle of the city, and if I was an attacking Japanese Samurai I wouldn’t have even bother climbing the hill. One last interesting note was Ruth’s discussion on Matsuyama Castle today, which actually kind of connects with my senior thesis, which was pretty cool. Today, the castle is going through a little bit of an identity crisis. What does the castle mean to Matsuyama today? The city ended up outsourcing the maintenance and ticket sales to a private company, who has taken significantly better care of the castle. They’re also holding events to encourage locals to make use of the grounds, like a park. Japanese sakura trees, or Cherry Blossoms, would make the castle grounds a beautiful sight in the spring. Finally, Ruth concluded that the castle is probably doing more now for the city as a tourist attraction as it had as a defensive structure in ancient times. Matsuyama lacks both the cultural significance of Kyoto or the cosmopolitan nature of Tokyo, but hopefully the castle will bring some tourism to this beautiful city that most Americans haven’t even heard of.

Tobe Pottery Mural



2 Responses to “Pottery and Taiko and Tea, Oh My!”

  1. Hi Phil,
    What a joy it has been to read your daily comments of your experiences in Japan. It sounds like you are having a good time and discovering a great deal.
    You keep writng and I’ll keep reading. Enjoy the rest of your fall term.

  2. Love your stories and pics, Phil! especially the part where your host family got you drunk-bahahaha. Make the most of every minute–you’ll miss it when you’re back in here the Island of Rock!


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