Gokayama by Valerie Ho of JETAANY

354_649763661339_5202_nName: Valerie Ho
Location: Gokayama

When I joined the JET Programme, I was placed in Uozu City in rural Toyama Prefecture. Like most people, I hadn’t heard of it since most foreigners only hear of cities like Tokyo, Osaka, or Hiroshima. Living there, I was lucky enough to enjoy the clear water and beautiful surroundings each and every day. One of the sites I was lucky enough to visit on a tour was Gokayama in Nanto City, all the way on the other side of the prefecture from where I lived. Gokayama is one of Japan’s 17 world heritage sites. (A world heritage site is any place UNESCO deems as culturally or naturally significant.)
Here in Gokayama, there are many things to see including Ainokura Gasshodukuri Village, a museum with a stuffed sea lion named Todo-chan, and any one of ancient temples in the area. There are also many fun activities that you can join including papermaking, woodcarving, senbei making and soba making. Here are a couple of the activities my group and I joined in on our day trip to Nanto.
“Washi” is Japanese-style paper and as a former art student, I was very interested in this process. You are given all the tools needed to strain the pulp needed to create your own postcards for a reasonable price. At the time that I had gone, an assortment of colorful leaves was available to add a natural touch to each of your postcards (3 pieces per set of postcards you make). It takes some time for the washi to dry, so you are able to walk away and eat lunch or see other things. The finished product can be mailed to your friends but honestly, they look just as nice when placed in frames in your own home.
We were also treated to a performance by sasara players. A sasara is a traditional wooden instrument that is used during traditional dances and folk song performances in Gokayama. You may also see sasara used at some of the festivals around town. My group was given a bag of wooden pieces to make our own mini-sasara instrument. It took both hands and one foot to aid in the construction of this piece! After completion, the room was full of the sounds of wood clapping together.
Please visit Nanto if you want to immerse yourself in a traditional Japanese experience that won’t be found elsewhere. I myself would love to go again someday to participate in senbei making! I have no doubt you’ll meet some really nice people when you do visit. I loved my time in Toyama Prefecture and I hope that more people are able to share that feeling. Next time you take a trip to Japan, step away from the busy cities and head to the mountains of Gokayama.

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Paper Festival by David Son of JETAANY

Paper MakingName: David Son
Location: Fukui Prefecture
Event: Paper Festival

Uniform
White or off-white
Serious
Official
Utilitarian
A medium of communication
Common consumer good
Recyclable on certain days of the week

Those are the qualities that sprung to mind when I used to think of paper. Perhaps your mental list is similar to mine. Missing from such a dour and unimaginative list are any words concerning beauty, art, playfulness and craft. But if like me, you walk down the roads of rural Imadate district in oft-forgotten Fukui Prefecture–central Honshu, facing the Sea of Japan–your vocabulary and image of paper will broaden like an ever unraveling scroll.

The end of a long narrow road, flanked on both sides by traditional Japanese wooden houses, leads to the origin of the unique cultural heritage of the Echizen Paper Village. Shaded by tall, straight cypress trees is the jewel of the area, Okamoto Otaki Shrine, dedicated to the paper goddess Kawa-kami Gozen. Though there are thousands of shrines in Japan dedicated to the Yaoyorozu no Kami-literally “eight millions gods”, but figuratively meaning “countless gods”- which are venerated in the ancient Shinto religion, Okamoto Otaki Shrine is the only one honoring the spirit of paper making. Its unique multi-gabled roof–deemed one of Japan’s 100 best shrine roofs–seems to unravel delicately, accentuating a gentle beauty.

Legend has it that around 500 A.D. the paper goddess taught the art of paper making to the villagers because they lacked the ability to properly cultivate rice. A young prince from the area, who later became Emperor Keitai 26th emperor of Japan, asked the woman who she was, and she replied simply, “someone who lives upriver,” which is how she was bestowed the name Kawa-kami Gozen which means Upriver Goddess.

If the shrine is the jewel of the area, then the artisans of the area are the radiant light emanating from it. Currently there are several paper makers, including Living National Treasure Iwao Ichibei, who continue to make 100% handmade paper. Each piece of paper has a unique texture and depth due to the fibrous swirls embedded within. While holding up a sheet, one can see and feel the connection between the paper and the natural world, something that has been lost with the mass production of the spotless, uniform paper that we use for work and school.

Then there are artists, such as Fukuda Tadao, who use the exceptional paper as a medium for their visually stunning art. Mr. Fukuda uses ink tipped brushes to put wild, wave-like color patterns on water which he later transfers to paper. With his nimble fingers, he makes it looks like the brushes are dancing atop the water.

Visitors can drop in on several different workshops as long as prior reservations are made. A visit to area Paper Museum showcases the proud history and various uses of Echizen Paper. It has been used for some of the earliest bank notes, diplomatic messages, lamp shades, woodblock prints and more. You can also try your hand at making your own paper at the nearby Papyrus House shop, which sells various paper goods from artists in the area. At the end of the journey, I hope you can develop a fine appreciation for a most common, but not unimportant part of our lives.

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Yuki Matsuri by Emily Rosenburg of JETAANY

DSCN1494Name: Emily Rosenberg
Location: Sapporo City, Hokkaido
Event: Sapporo Snow Festival

Snow and Seafood in Sapporo

My friend and I- two girls from the balmy southern island of Kyushu, where I was a Coordinator for International Relations on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program- arrived in Sapporo on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido three days before the start of the city’s annual Snow Festival (Yukimatsuri) in early February.

This early arrival itinerary, recommended by a well-traveled friend, was definitely the smartest way to plan our trip. In the days leading up to the official start of the festival, we had the chance to witness snow and ice sculptors putting the finishing touches on their breathtaking works of chilly art. Our very first evening in town, we spectated in amazement as the Self Defense Force worked on scaffolds across a fifty foot-tall mass of snow to craft the epic centerpiece of the festival. Another perk to arriving early was that, for the most part, we were able to avoid the incredible crowds that flock to the festival (some two million people over seven days) and enjoy views of the sculptures largely unobstructed.

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Although many people might visit Hokkaido in the winter time to enjoy winter sports in the famous powder snow, or relax in snow-encircled hot springs, we went with a mission- to take in all the artistic marvels of the Snow Festival itself, and to sample every Hokkaido specialty we could get our hands on.

Indeed, devouring Hokkaido was our own winter sport- we tackled rich, warming bowls of miso ramen with butter and corn near Sapporo’s famous Ramen Yokocho, spicy soup curry and “Ghengis Khan” (thin slices of grilled lamb) in the nightlife neighborhood of Susukino, rice bowls laden with the freshest of raw seafood (kaisendon) at the Sapporo Street Market (Jogai Ichiba), and endless crab legs and Sapporo label beer at the Sapporo Beer Garden. A recommendation to prospective travelers: book your table at the beer garden well before your trip, as it fills up quickly with tour reservations, and is an experience you probably won’t want to miss!

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Prior to dining at the Beer Garden, we took a tour of the adjacent Sapporo Beer Museum, where we learned about the history of the Sapporo beer company, the beer-brewing process, and how to pour the perfect glass of Sapporo Black label. Another tasty tour we enjoyed was that at Shiroi Koibito Park, where Sapporo’s famous and beloved souvenir cookie is manufactured. At the end of the tour, overlooking the snow-covered mountains right in the city, we sipped on creamy hot chocolate (yes, chocolate- not cocoa!) splashed with Grand Marnier and felt warm all over.

At the end of every day, weary from shivering and exploring, I remember taking a particular pleasure in a long soak in a very hot bath. Although I had been skeptical at first about taking a vacation to such a wintry locale, I have nothing but unforgettable memories of my time in Sapporo. If you have a chance, definitely pay a visit to the Snow Festival- your soul and your belly will thank you for it.

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Mt. Rokko by Jodi Renee of JETAANY

scan0002Name: Jodi R. Matz-Feldman
Location: Honshu, Hyogo, Kobe
Area: Mt. Rokko

There were letters about rooms with straw mats and hanging scrolls, women in kimono practicing tea ceremony, rice fields stretched for miles like squares on a patch quilt, and food so delicious that you could smell the taste even in your sleep. He painted a fantasy for me out of the concrete world he called his life. It was better fiction than any I ever read: I travelled 8000 miles to see for myself that it was no fantasy. It is what foreign residents call the Japan experience.
I lived in a suburb of Kobe for three years where I taught English in a reputable academic high school. I fumbled my way through the language, travelled coast to coast and made friends for life. What I witnessed from the balcony of a fifth floor classroom at my school was the construction of the longest suspension bridge in the world, Akashi Kaikyo Bridge. As I travelled east toward Kobe, I marveled at the expanse of sea stretched south and gravitated toward the plush mountain range in the north. The Rokko Mountains served as my compass when travelling around Kobe.
One of my most poignant experiences while living in Japan was in February 1997 when I was invited on a class trip to climb the mountain range. I am not a hiker by any stretch of the imagination and, like many instances in Japan, did not know what to expect when I enthusiastically agreed to go. In preparation, I bought my first obento, Japanese style lunch box, and packed an American version of Japanese food. Bundled in layers to fight the frigid air that bounced off the sea, I travelled cautiously toward my destination.
Four hundred tenth grade students, a homeroom teacher for each group of ten, and I marched upward, the ground at first bear, snow gradually revealing itself the higher we climbed. With each trembling step and the onset of sweating in cotton clothing, I slowly removed the abundance of layers. Without question I handed my backpack, my coat, my outer sweatshirt to whoever was willing to help. Then in all my blind commotion I shouted in poor Japanese for students to walk carefully along the ledge overlooking a steep cliff. I am proud to report that they all survived the hike with their crazy foreign teacher.
It is not only the hushed dusting of snow across the mountain peaks in winter; but too, the song of the Cicada in summertime that invites a visit to the Rokko Mountain Range in Northern Kobe. No matter what time of year or season, there is something for everyone; from the Country House to the Pasture; the Alpine Botanical Garden to the Garden Terrace. In the morning, a quiet respite; and in the evening, a magnificent view of city lights, sparkling like gemstones.
I have been many places in Japan and because Kobe is my home away from home, I recommend a visit to a place from which you can gather your bearings.

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Dogo Onsen by Julio Perez of JETAANY

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAName: Julio Perez Jr.
A literature lover, writer, translator, and graduate from Columbia University. Julio is currently seeking opportunities in New York. Follow his enthusiasm for Japan, literature, and board gaming on Twitter @brittlejules.
Location in Japan: Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture
Name of city/restaurant/venue: Dogo Onsen

Dogo Onsen is a very famous bath house with a history of over a thousand years. It is one of my favorite places in Japan because of its connection to Natsume Soseki, my favorite Japanese author who lead me to become fascinated with Japanese literature and culture. In his comical novel Botchan, the titular character moves from Tokyo to Matsuyama to become a Junior High School teacher. Feeling out of place in a very different city, Botchan finds solace in visiting Dogo Onsen as often as he can. He comes to love it so much that he goes so far as to pay for the first class treatment each visit. Today you can choose from several courses granting you access to different baths in the onsen, some being more exclusive than the others, as well as snacks and a small private room to relax in with your friends. You can even sample Botchan Dango, one of Matsuyama’s meibutsu (famous products), three sweet rice flour dumplings on a stick usually colored green, yellow, and brown. You can also take a tour of the Imperial Baths, a now unused section of the onsen built exclusively for the royal family in 1950, and finally there is a room dedicated to Natsume Soseki featuring information, photos, and a bust of the author.
The novel Botchan is based on Soseki’s own experience teaching in Matsuyama and it was out of his love for Dogo Onsen that was featured so prominently. I had the privilege to work as a teacher in Kyoto through the JET program, and on my holidays I took the opportunity to visit Dogo Onsen. Natsume Soseki and Botchan were central to my undergraduate thesis on translation, so visiting the Onsen was a trip I had eagerly been planning since I first arrived. I was thrilled to discover that Matsuyama city is very proud of its appearance in Botchan. The characters and Natsume Soseki himself can be found all over the city, people dress as the characters, Botchan souvenirs are sold, and there is even a Botchan themed clock near the arcade where you can see the Botchan automata perform a short scene at the start of each hour.
As I have already mentioned, Dogo Onsen has a long history outside of its appearance in classical literature. Its waters are believed to have healing properties and this power is attributed to ancient times with a legend of a white heron being discovered healing itself in the waters of the onsen. To this day the white heron is a symbol of Dogo Onsen and a statue of one can be seen on top of the building. Also, if you have seen Hayao Miyazaki’s award winning Spirited Away, then you are already a little familiar with Dogo Onsen. The appearance of the bath house in the animated movie is based on the façade of Dogo Onsen’s main building.
Matsuyama is a wonderful city rich with history. I recommend staying near Dogo Onsen and visiting famous sights such as one of the few remaining original Japanese castles, Matsuyama-jo, or several Buddhist temples and Shrines like Ishite-ji and then finishing your day with a relaxing bath at Dogo Onsen.

Vote for your favorite JETAANY entry and help them win and you can win as well! Voters who vote for the winning entry can win a free dinner ticket to one of the participating restaurants during Japan Week. All you have to do is “like” your favorite post.

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