Hey, everybody. It's been a while. Let me fill you up on what's been happening for the past week or so.
P.S. I am totally writing this post while on an airplane from Narita Airport to SFO.
Saturday afternoon (March 17) I took a Shinkansen up to Tokyo, where I proceeded to get completely lost in Tokyo Station. It was exciting, and reminded me that I hate Tokyo Station. But, fortunately, after a bunch of aimless wandering, I managed to find the correct subway line to take me to my hostel in Asakusa.
The next morning I hopped on a subway to Ueno Station, where I met with Karen and Alyssa and Sara and took a train up to Utsunomiya in Tochigi Prefecture. In a stroke of good luck, Steven and Michele, who were traveling separately, got on the same train (and the same car!) as us partway through the ride, so we spent the ride catching up and swapping stories. In Utsunomiya, we met up with Ashley, the last of the Fulbright Fellows going on the Nikko tour. (Alex and Nellie had other plans.)
...as it turned out, the tour name was kind of a misnomer, because we only wound up going to Nikko for the last day. It was more of a Tochigi Prefecture tour.
Also, the tour itself was...odd. We had been told it was being organized by the Tokyo Fulbright Alumni Association, but I don't think I actually met anyone on the tour from TFA. Instead, the tour turned out to be organized by ICCLA, which is a long acronym that I can't remember, except that it's International something something something Association, I think. (I am a boss at remembering acronyms.) Also, it very quickly began clear that the people organizing the tour were less interested in us seeing Tochigi Prefecture than in everyone else seeing that we were seeing Tochigi Prefecture. Thus, we often stopped just long enough to take a picture to prove we'd been there and then were all hustled back into the bus. Awkward.
Even more awkward were the three (THREE!) reporters who came to interview us over the course of the tour, who wanted us to talk about our FEELINGS and how CRAZY EXOTIC Japan was. Um. I've been living in Japan for more than six months. It's not that crazy exotic.
Oh, also, they only really wanted to talk to the white people.
On the one hand, pretty much everything on the tour was free, which was incredibly nice, but on the other hand, the amount of overall weirdness was...weird?
No such thing as a free lunch, I guess.
Anyway, yeah, the tour.
Our first stop was the Tochigi Prefectural Office in Utsunomiya, or, more precisely, the restaurant at the top of it.
The view from the top was pretty nice.
Although it would have been nicer if it hadn't been raining.
So then we hopped on the bus and rode over to Oyaji, which is a temple in Oya. Oya is famous for Oya stone, and one of the women on the bus told us a super cool story about Oya stone. Apparently, when Frank Lloyd Wright was building the second Imperial Hotel, he had wanted to use a stone from somewhere else in the country, but it turned out there wasn't enough to make the hotel. So his second choice was Oya stone.
Everybody said he was crazy, because Oya stone is somewhat similar to pumice. (It was made by a volcanic explosion a long, long, long time ago, and then it was covered up by water, because apparently Oya used to be underwater?) It's soft and easy to carve, but it's not particularly strong and it has weird holes in it, and, anyway, who has heard of Oya stone?
But Frank Lloyd Wright was adamant and he bought Oya stone and built the hotel out of it. Or most of the hotel. He decided to build the actual support beams out of a much stronger stone and build all the visible sections out of Oya stone.
Anyway, the work (as always) took longer than expected, and the guy who had commissioned Wright was pretty ticked at him, because this idiot architect was building a hotel out of weird stone and it cost way more than it should have and was taking longer than it should have and Wright wanted to put a giant lotus pond in front of the hotel to serve as an emergency water supply to put out fires? Who DOES that? So Wright wasn't even invited to the grand opening of the hotel.
Not that it mattered, because on the day before the hotel was supposed to open, the Kanto Earthquake occurred, and most of Tokyo was leveled...except for the Imperial Hotel. So the Imperial Hotel was used as a kind of hospital until things could be normalized and suddenly people realized that, hey, maybe this Wright guy wasn't as crazy as they originally thought, and maybe Oya stone was actually pretty okay.
Anyway, have some pictures of Oyaji!
That's what Oya stone looks like. Incidentally, the temple is built into a mountain. It's famous for a bunch of images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, which are carved into the mountainside.
Look at that STONE.
Anyway, I don't have pictures of the carvings, because we weren't allowed to take pictures, but I do have some pictures of the (very rainy) gardens!
There were a bunch of white snake statues around the gardens. Not sure why.
So then we headed across the street, to see the Heiwa Kannon (peace Kannon).
She's pretty tall.
You can climb up to stand a little below her shoulder level.
Climb, guys, climb!
So then we hopped on the bus AGAIN and rode to see a tea ceremony demonstration.
It was a truncated tea ceremony, because if he had done a full ceremony, it could have taken several hours. But he was a pretty clear speaker, which was nice. There tend to be people who are good at talking to foreigners and people who are just excessively bad at talking to foreigners (because they talk too fast, use weird slang, try to make half their words in English and fail, etc.), and he was definitely one who was good at talking to foreigners. The tea and tea sweets were good too!
So then we (meaning the white people) were interviewed by this reporter from the Asahi Shinbun, and Sara and Steven were quoted in an article. And I use "quoted" very loosely, because none of the quotes in the article are direct quotes, because the reporter didn't really bother taking notes, so she just kind of made stuff up.
...the academic inside me is dying.
Anyway, after that we headed to a hotel where we ate really delicious strawberries from Tochigi Prefecture and met with our host families. My host family was the Yamaguchi family, who are an older couple and AN AWESOME HOST FAMILY. Seriously, you guys, they were AMAZING.*
That evening, their daughter and his husband and their three daughters came over for dinner. The daughters were 4, 3, and 1, and seemed to be terrified of me for the first hour or so, but by the end of the dinner the one year old was sitting on my lap and the other two girls were trying to convince me that hoshigaki (dried persimmons) were actually potatoes.**
Speaking of, THE FOOD. Oh gosh, so much good food. And, of course, everyone kept trying to get me to eat more because I was so skinny. I ate so much delicious food, oh geez.
After the kids went home, I was talking to my host family and my host dad casually mentioned that he had a friend in Toyota City who was a priest, and maybe he could pull up his contact info if I wanted. And I said, "YUS, PLEASE," and next thing I knew I was on the phone with a priest in Toyota City. I'm going to call him again when I get back to Japan in April and we're going to set up an interview!
Like I said, my host family was pretty cool.
Also, I got to sleep on a futon with one of those warming things*** at the foot of the futon and it was AMAZING.
So that was the first day of my Nikko tour!
*To be fair, all of us had amazing host families. The host family situation was pretty much brilliantly done and the best part of the tour.
**My host mom brought out hoshigaki for dessert, and one of the girls picked one up and said to me, "This is a potato."
"That's not a potato!"
Then the other girl picked up one and said, "This is a calendar."
"This is an elephant!"
"This is a whale."
"This is a notebook."
They kept trying to convince me that the hoshigaki was increasingly ridiculous things, so I finally told them that they were wrong and it was a obviously a giraffe.
***You guys, what are they called? None of us (Fulbright Fellows) could remember the name. They're not bed pans...but they're not warming pans either... I think pans are involved????? They're in Harry Potter, so I should know this.