Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lights, Temples, Speeches, and Holidays

As the nights get longer and the days shorter, people of every country that I have visited in my life attempt to brighten their moods by lighting streets, trees, churches, cathedrals, houses, and such with beautiful colorful lights. As you may guess, the Japanese are no exception to this rule; they light up their houses, streets, and everything else. And, instead of lighting churches and cathedrals, which Japan mostly lacks, they light their Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Lately I had the chance to witness a few of these light-ups, and given how stunning they were, I will tell you more about them.

So as not to forget to look in the shade below the candle, I will start with the closest lit-up thing around me, the Christmas tree at Doshisha’s Imadegawa campus where I go to school. It is a living evergreen, probably a cedar, which stands majestically in the middle of the road near Doshisha’s gate. Its roots are completely covered by asphalt and, because I have been seeing it every day, I never really noticed that it was there. Until they lit it up, that is. It has been shining since the 20th of November or so, making the cold nights at school a little warmer. There is also a similar tree at Doshisha’s Kyotanabe campus, which I get to see every week when I go there for Hiking Club running practices. Both big, and both unnoticed until they were lit up, these two magnificent trees were shadows below the candle which now became the candle itself.

The Christams tree at Doshisha. It is there always, but only now I noticed.

The lighting of Kyoto’s countless beautiful temples and shrines in another example of the many light-ups which I witnessed lately. Because the Japanese visit temples and shrines mainly in the fall season to see the splendid colored maples, and in the spring to enjoy Japan’s famous blooming cherry trees, the light-ups are a great way for shrines and temples to make some last-minute buck. After they are over, the dry season comes for most Japanese religious establishments with the one exception of New Year’s Day. Thus every temple and shrine is trying to make profit out of this last opportunity of the year. With my \500 ready, I went to see the illumination of the Kiyomizu Temple, one of Kyoto’s symbols. Standing in the mountains East of Kyoto, the Kiyomizu temple provides a great view of the city during any season. But what I saw that one December night was quite unique and spectacular. The red maples gave off an orangey glow as they were lit up by yellow lights, and the view of the temple and the city of Kyoto was just unforgettable. Of course the temple was packed as always, but compared to the lighting up of the city of Kobe it was almost empty.

The lit-up Kiyomizu Temple and the view of Kyoto.
The lighting up of the city of Kobe, known as the Kobe Luminarie, is one of the most important winter events in the Kansai area (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, and Nara). Kobe is located just west of Osaka, about two hours by train from Kyoto and three hours from Nara where I live. The purpose of the Kobe Luminarie is surprisingly not to make money; it serves as a reminder of the 1995 Kobe Earthquake which killed over 6400 people and destroyed most of the city. A set part of the city is closed off from traffic every night for two weeks, and the streets are marvelously decorated with light arches and castles, and a mystical, calming tune is playing to enhance the already magical experience. Luminarie, which happens every year, was designed by an Italian artist, and the lights were donated by the Italian government as a sign of compassion for those who died in the earthquake (that’s where the name Luminarie comes from). All kinds of foods, including the famous Kobe beef, are sold in the streets during the event. As I mentioned above, the streets were immensely crowded; after all, according to Wikipedia, 2-5 million people visit the Luminarie every year! To manage such enormous crowds, the police make their presence more than obvious. Policemen and policewomen are everywhere and shout into loudspeakers instructions to the river participants. They tell them to follow the person before them slowly, not stop for too long to take pictures, and always finish their sentences with Keigo: Gokyoryoku kudasai, please honorably comply. To make it even more obvious that the police mean what they are saying, there are prison buses on almost every corner, ready to take hundreds of non-complying citizens to the nearest police station. But given how complying the Japanese are, there was no need for the police to use the prison buses that night. Thank god we’re not in Greece. All in all, Kobe Luminarie was magically beautiful and totally worth spending the six hours on trains that Friday night to see it.

A light castle at Kobe Luminarie.

 Kobe Luminarie.

Prison buses at  Kobe Luminarie.
The last event I am going to talk about, the German Christmas market in Osaka, has less to do with illumination and more to do with entertainment. It happens every year under the famous Umeda Sky Building and offers all kinds of German foods, drinks, and crafts. I went with a bunch of my Japanese friends and one Swiss friend and enjoyed the atmosphere under the huge Christmas tree in the middle. Though everything was expensive as hell, we bought delicious Bratwursts, gingerbread hearts, and mulled wine, and climbed to the top of the Sky Building above us. There we were presented with a breathtaking night view of the city of Osaka, all lit up and colorful.

Me and my friends on top of the Sky Building, Osaka.

View from the Sky Building.
On another note, my winter break just started about two hours ago when I finished my last Japanese exam. Today we have a potluck party at a Japanese friend’s house, and on the night of the 25th, me and Masa are going snowboarding for two days to Akarura, a beautiful ski resort north of Nagano. After that I will probably spend the New Year’s in Kyoto with my host family, and then I am hoping to visit Yuki, a Colby friend from Tokyo. School starts again on Jan 6th.

One final thing worth mentioning is that this Sunday I took part in a Japanese language speech contest in my hometown, Seika-cho. Out of the nine participants, I won the third prize for my speech about over-development of Japanese mountaintops. If you are interested and can read Japanese, here is the link to a report about the event, with photos of me: 

Me speaking at the speech contest.

I Hope you all have a great winter break (or a nice summer for those on the southern hemisphere)! Merry Christmas!

PS: Currently I am in the middle of preparing an end-of-the-year special post, so stay tuned!


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