Ekumae Lantern Festival, Japan

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It was Friday morning and time for my driver’s test in Japan (driving on the other side of the road for me is a very bad idea!) when another officer asked me if I wanted to go to Ekumae that evening to a Lantern Festival. I had nothing else going on so of course I said yet. I finished my drivers test (which I passed!) when shopping for a few items then headed back to get ready to go. I brought a back pack of snacks along for the ride and we were headed to the train station in the early afternoon to catch the train to Ekumae. J has more cultural experiences then me, so I decided to let him buy the train tickets and a good thing that was.

As you can see everything is in Japanese and you need to pick which town you are going to from the list. It is very confusing sometimes.

He bought us our tickets and for an hour and a half we steamed along the Japanese countryside past rice paddy fields, thatched-roof houses, and gorgeous mountains. It was a very relaxing ride and one I enjoyed thoroughly. J had bought 6 different pastries at the train station which we each tried pieces of. I can’t get enough of the pastries here. Since Japanese houses don’t have ovens, they buy all of their breads and pastries from the market and they truly have some of the best pastries I have every eaten.

Our train was small and only had 3 cars, there weren’t many people on board and we were 24 stops away. We worried a little bit how we would find the festival once we got to the town but as we slid into the station, there was no more worrying necessary. We could see the HUGE lantern tower from the train windows and knew exactly which direction to go when we debarked.

As we were walking off, we passed a group of school boys who said hi to us in English then they told me how hott I was. I just laughed and waved. O school boys. As we mosey’d up the street we immediately saw little stands selling different things. I bought a tea pot with two cups and I tried Takoyaki for the first time! Takoyaki is little dough balls made with octopus in the center and Japanese mayonnaise  on top.

Takoyaki– (very heavy in the stomach.)

I also tried octopus on a stick. It was very tough and chewy but pretty good.

We indulged in everything that caught our fancy this night. Candied grapes, snow cones, sashimi, all of it. We continued the short trek to the town and did some more searching around, then people started lining the streets just in time for the parade. Two small children saw J and me and ran away from us pointing and shouting. I guess they had never seen white Americans before. I smiled, and finally felt what it was like to be a complete foreigner in a different land. It didn’t bother me much.

A few short minutes later the parade began. It reminded me of the small town parades from back home but the best part was they would march down the street pushing a small stage with music and a guy talking in a microphone. At the end of the street they would wheel the stage around and head back changing the music and the guy in the microphone. They did this about four times until the parade came to an end. I loved it.

Parade Dancers

After the parade ended we climbed the hill to the Buda Temple and then walked over and up farther to the lantern festival pyramid. It was the biggest lantern pyramid I have ever seen!

GINORMOUS!

The festivities carried on into the night and I watched some karaoke, which led into a traditional Japanese dance off. It was awesome. Some of the dancers were really great the traditional dances were mesmerizing. After the dance competition it had grown very dark outside and a fire works display was about to happen. There were only a few more trains scheduled to pass through and J and I didn’t have anywhere to stay so we decided to skip that part of the show because by this times 1,000 of people had arrived at the town for the lanterns and fire works. We ran to the train station and were there just in time because I train was stopping. We jumped on and headed home. I fell asleep almost immediately I was so exhausted.

It was a great night! I made a new friend, I saw the tallest lantern pyramid in Japan, I watched a traditional Japanese dance competition, and I tried 4 new foods I have never had. Amazing!

P.S. I would just like to point out that societies are not very different. Girls on one side, boys on the other, as always. haha.

The Goto Islands- A chain of five islands in the East China Sea

So what do you do on your first weekend once you’ve arrived in a completely foreign country to live? Explore of course. At least that’s what I decided. It was a “Go Big or Go Home” Situation and I didn’t want to disappoint.

On Saturday morning I woke up and just decided to randomly catch a Ferry to the Goto islands. What are the Goto Islands you ask? The Goto Islands are made up of 140 islands but there are five main ones: Fukue-jima, Hisaka-jima, Naru-shima, Wakamatsu-jima and Nakadori-jima. The interesting historical tidbit about the Goto Islands is back in time when Japanese people were embracing a Christian lifestyle it was illegal to be Catholic and the Goto islands was the last stronghold for Catholic people before it became legalized in the 19th century. There are many beautiful catholic churches throughout the islands and that is something I would like to do next time I come back.


The Ferry Ride Over: I arrived at the Ferry station around noon because I didn’t know exactly where I was going and how I was going to get there. No one could understand what I was trying to do so it took me almost 20 minutes to buy a ticket because I didn’t know how to ask for the main area of the Goto Islands. Thankfully a woman was helping me and she called her English teacher for me to translate what I was doing and where I was trying to go. I just love the culture here!

Shortly after I had got my ticket we began boarding so I guess I got there at a good time because I didn’t miss the ferry. When we boarded there were just 4 open nicely carpeted areas with blankets and pillows in stacks. Everyone took off their shoes, neatly placing them in lines in the pathway and then they grabbed blankets and snuggled in for a nap on the carpeted area. A group of older men were eating lunch while relaxing and I was just looking around in astonishment. In America you could never go to sleep with your purse lying around because someone would surely steal it. But not here. People were just setting laptops on the ground and falling asleep.

I just went along with them. I grabbed a blanket and laid down falling asleep shortly afterward. The Goto islands are small and quaint and I would love to go back. I will have to actually take my car next time so I can travel through the islands. Once the Ferry arrived we debarked and I started just walking around and exploring. There were some little shops open and at one of them they were selling ice cream and candy!

 

Arriving at the Islands.

It was sooo sooo hot out that it was insufferable. The humidity and heat here really is hard to bear after being in such milder climates all my life. Even 114 degree heat in the Middle East wasn’t as bad as this was. I found a small temple and walked up to it and then I just walked around the neighborhoods to observe. There weren’t a lot of people out an about in the heat so I stopped at a shop to buy some noodle salad and a few pieces of sushi. I ate out on the back porch of the shop and then headed back towards the Ferry station because I wanted to make sure I caught the last one back. Along the way I was walking by the water and realized how clear it was. I could see Sea Urchins down there laying on the bottom of the floor. They say there are white beaches here and at the ferry station is a picture of the beaches. I just didn’t have good transportation to get to them yet but I’m going to go back.

This is how clear the water is!

After waiting for the Ferry teller to open the window back up, I tried to buy a ticket back to Sasebo. It didn’t go well. Unfortunately  I read the schedule wrong (I guess you can say that since I’m pretty sure I still can’t properly read the schedule even now) so I ended up renting a tiny room for $30 for the night. It had one tiny bed with an uncomfortable rice pillow, one small desk, and a shower and toilet, separated of course.  One thing I have definitely learned is that the Japanese culture is not worried about the comforts of the world. Their couches are itches and their beds are stiff. They are also very tiny and may not have the same problems Americans do. haha. I had quite a restless night but I was up early and I walked back to the Ferry station to catch a carless Ferry (A ferry that only transports people) back home.

When I was walking back to the base from the station I also walked by a pet shop and just had to stop in to see all of the animals. They had all kinds of different birds. I loved it!

[OBON] Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.-George Eliot

Obon. What is Obon? Obon is a Japanese holiday in which they celebrate the spirits of the ancestors whom have died. They believe that during this week of festivities their ancestors come back to celebrate their lives with the living family members and they remember and rejoice for the dead. In doing so they carry flowers and set them on piles, light incense with a Buddhist monk, throw fire crackers, wheel floats around with pictures of their ancestors on them, and make lighted lanterns to set in the water. I arrived in Japan on a Sunday and Obon was being held that very next Wednesday. Since I didn’t get my uniforms till Wednesday afternoon it made it very hard to meet people since I couldn’t even be seen at my job. All of the girls I was sharing a room with were gone at schools and I was spending the past few days alone. This left plenty of time for me to explore Sasebo and find out what Obon was all about.

On Wednesday I was still recovering from the jet lag but I set out on foot leaving the naval base behind me as I joined the crowds celebrating Obon. I didn’t know exactly where they were headed  but all of the Japanese people marched to a baseball field where they brought straw mats wrapped with flowers and floats with pictures of their deceased loved ones. As I was walking down the street I turned a corner and almost screamed because people were throwing firecrackers around a float and it scared the crap out of me! I decided to follow them because they seemed to be the life of the party. I think they became suspicious because they kept looking back at me, but I didn’t mind. I just smiled and nodded.

Then we got to the baseball field and there was already a large pile of flowers and straw mats with floats in the middle. It was a somber atmosphere and once you placed your flowers onto the pile you walked over to the monks and burned some incense and prayed. As I found out, it is very somber during the day, and as the night and celebrations press on, the drunk people start livening up the night singing and dancing. A guy from my ship showed me a video from last year of a Japanese guy who was really drunk, standing on tons of floats and lighting firecrackers off. I missed all that. After I left the baseball field I went and found a small diner that was making rice and noodles and had some dinner then walked back to the barge.

Preparing a mini Pire for the dead.

Watching floats walk towards the event on the streets while they throw firecrackers on the ground.

On Friday some of the girls from my ship were having a little get together to say goodbye to another girl who was heading back to America. They invited me along. It was awesome! We went to this place that the American’s call the Beer Garden and its on the top of this building that has a supermarket beneath it. I tried to take a taxi there but it failed miserably. The taxi driver dropped me off and I started walking and I called one of the girls for help and in the end I walked all the way back to where I got picked up in the first place. It was the most pitiful taxi ride I’ve ever had and it cost me 500 Yen.

Once I finally got there, I found out that you pay one fee and its all you can eat and drink. The food was okay but as far as the drinking goes I had my first experience with Chuhi’s [chew-high’s]. Chuhi’s are these flavored drinks made of Sochu which is a lil like sake but not quite, a dab of flavored fruit syrup, and some seltzer water served with a lime. I started drinking my first one (a peach flavored one) and was like, O come on this is so not even alcoholic at all. I mean not even a small hint. Then I had a second one (a lime flavored one) and when I finished that and went to stand up I realized that things were starting to swim around in front of me. I couldn’t believe it. I quit drinking them right then because I was walking back to the base and I didn’t want to get lost so I had no form of communication. They are so delicious!

The beer garden closed at 9 unfortunately but that didn’t stop these crazy americans, so about 15 of us walked down the street to the next bar which was called the Westerner and it was a sight to behold. All of these older Japanese women dress up like Westerner’s and they serve beer out of boot glasses. I had heard of it and seen pictures of it from other people who have been to Sasebo but there’s nothing like living it. We karoke’d and one of the guys in our group even sang a Japanese song. it was pretty outrageous.

Japanese salt shaker.

On Sunday I decided to go to the Goto Islands, but you’ll have to wait for the next post for that!

“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.”-Freya Stark

The Trip Over:

The plane ride to Japan can be summed up with these words: Tiresome, Cramped, Stuffy, Irritable, Vexing, Perturbed. And so exciting! I flew from Pittsburgh to Chicago with no problems, but the flight from Chicago to Tokyo was much more vexing. As soon as everyone had boarded the plane they delayed us for 15 minutes, then 20, then an hour, then 2 hours, then 3 hours! All because the baggage conveyors broke and they actually had to go under the plane to ensure that all of the luggage onboard was indeed headed for Japan. However, there was no way of checking all of the luggage that had not made it onto the plane. I should have taken that as my first omen.

When we finally took off there was little hope that I was going to be able to catch my connecting flight from Tokyo to Fukuoka, not to mention how long it would take getting through customs once we touched down. What made me the most irritated was sitting on the plane the 3 hours before take off. I was fidgeting and uncomfortable but I did get to see both the Avengers and Mirror Mirror. I slept off and on but I was just too excited to arrive in Japan that it was always for short periods of time.

Finally we arrived at Narita. I hobbled off the plane since my whole right side had fallen asleep and got into the line for customs. That took awhile. The best part of the journey was getting my first stamp in my passport! I have been waiting for almost 6 years for that. I didn’t know exactly which country would be first, since I pulled into all of the countries I have been to on a ship, so Japan was my first stamp! I then headed down to retrieve my luggage since I had indeed missed my connecting flight. Do you remember that luggage situation they had before we even left? Turns out that my uniform bag had never even left Chicago. Huge bummer…

I had to submit a lost baggage claims and once I got through that I asked about my missed flight. The man told me with little to no English and a lot of hand motions that I had been rebooked on a flight for tomorrow’s early afternoon. I was certainly confused because I had nowhere to go and was thinking about having to sit in the airport all night and how horrible that would be. Then that man got another woman who spoke better English and she told me that I could not stay at this airport because my flight was leaving from another airport in Tokyo.

They told me to catch a bus to a hotel they had booked for me, and then stay overnight and catch another bus in the morning to the other airport (Hadena Airport). Even though I was in a very bad mood, the woman was extremely helpful and friendly and she instantly made me feel better about my situation. I went and used a voucher they had given me to get a bus ticket and then I went outside to look for the bus station. In that moment, just after I had walked out of the airport into the hustle and bustle of the intimidating city, I knew I had come somewhere big. There were Japanese people everywhere and I had no idea what I was doing. This quote explains that instance perfectly: “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson. Another older man took pity on me and asked for my ticket and pointed me in the direction I needed to go.

When I got on the bus I thought it would be a few minutes but no, that trip was 2 hours long and finally I got to the hotel and practically collapsed on the tiny tiny hard bed with a “rice” pillow in exhaustion. The next morning I woke up and caught the next bus to the airport and 3 hours later I finally got onto my new flight to Fukuoka. All in all it took me 3 days to travel here with the time difference. Because I didn’t have my uniforms until this afternoon I haven’t done a whole lot since I can’t really walk around without them. I did enjoy my first sushi experience and went with a guy from my ship to Sushi on the Hill which is one of those places where everything goes around and around on a big circuit and you just pick the plates of sushi you want to eat. They had everything there! All kinds of things I’ve never seen and every bite was magnificent. I picked 5 different plates of different fish and was stuffed. Plus it only cost 525 yen which is like 5 dollars!

The Japanese people are extremely helpful and happy and calm and they are great to be around. Almost none of them in this little rural town speak English and I just walk around saying “Hi” “Hi” which means yes and domo which means thank-you. That’s all I know to say. haha. Its taking a few days to adjust to this new ship but I’ll have more stories about that later.