A bath to bring good fortune

I was walking home when I saw him. An older man with a worn-out hat, crouching down with a bag of wet leaves. He was carefully folding them in small, tight bundles and displaying them in a white foam cooler. I saw a small handwritten sign with ショウブ 100円 (shobu) written out in clumsy letters. No one seemed to be stopping by and neither did I. I've walked past him almost every day during the Golden Week holidays and wondered what this tired old man was selling, but felt too busy to stop. 

When my 72 seasons app updated yesterday, it changed to When the First Frogs Call and mentioned the seasonal activity for the next few days would be to bathe with iris leaves, or shobu, 菖蒲 on Children's Day こどもの日. As it happened to be Children's Day, Josh and I went back down our shotengai 商店街 to find the man selling his bundles. We picked up two and he gave us one extra (no charge) as a "service" サービス. One thing I love about buying from individuals here is that they'll often give you something extra or round down the change as a service to you for buying locally. He gave me a big smile and I cried a little later thinking about that smile and wishing he didn't have to sell wet leaves on the side of the road for extra money. I noticed on the way back that a few of the florists in our area were selling iris leaves too and I just hadn't noticed them before. 

72 seasons chose a really beautiful haiku for this season. 

Iris bath

the iris leaves gather

around her breasts

I loved the imagery of this woman sliding into a hot bath and the iris leaves rushing forward to cover her as the water ripples away. While I don't have the beautiful cedar tub I pictured in my head, I wanted to recreate this scene as best as possible. As I ran the hot water, I unwrapped the little packets to discover we had been given a few sprigs of mugwort よもぎ along with the shobu to help ward off evil spirits. The steam that wafted into the air took on a pleasant medicinal smell as the mugwort hit the water. I put my head back against the tub and thought about this tradition that Japan has been doing for hundreds of years to protect their children and to send evil fleeing from their homes and I felt a tenuous connection to this history even if I'm not Japanese. 

The hot water felt good even if I'm not sure how completely I banished bad spirits. When I woke up this morning, the US still had a Republican government and had sentenced so many to a life of sickness and death so I guess it didn't work that well. Nothing is going to fix that evil except good work, perseverance, and loud voices. I encourage all of the Americans reading this to join me next week in calling our senators to tell them if they don't vote no on the upcoming health bill we'll be seeing them at the polls in 2018. But in the meantime, if your heart feels heavy and you feel like crying, it's ok to slide into a warm bath and close your eyes. 

If you'd like to read a bit more about the reasoning behind iris leaves and mugwort and some Japanese trivia, this post was informative. 

Roadtrip Film

Things have been a bit quiet in the Some Cat from Japan household recently. I've started a new job and this has been an adjustment from the last 6 months of downtime. A much more morning- heavy schedule has left me a bit brain dead. 

For a about a year and half now, we've been dabbling in film photography after a decade long hiatus. Josh has a really beautiful Olympus OM-1 that he's used on and off the last 7ish years, but when we moved here, we just assumed it would be impossible to get/develop film. We were kind of wrong because, at least in Osaka, it's pretty easy to have film be a hobby. We aren't taking a lot of film photos because every time that shutter sound clicks I think "ok that's 50 yen down the drain." It's kind of weird to think of photos in terms of cost.

When we went on our roadtrip last winter, I figured there was no better place to document on film than the American Southwest. While I have a Contax TVS that I routinely use, I decided to flex my skillz and only shoot with the OM-1. While these aren't the best photos ever, I'm happy with how some of them turned out. I thought I'd share a few of them with you while I get the rest of our trip together and figure out how to get up at 5 am for the first time in my life. 

You may have noticed that film page up there in the top right hand corner of this website. I'm sharing some of our better shots up there from our trips and daily life if you're interested. I'm not going to mention every time I update it so click on it from time to time if you'd like. I've got the photos from the Southwest trip on there as well as a few others I've taken in the last 18 months. These photos were taken with either my Contax TVS or Josh's OM-1. We just acquired a Nikon F3 and I'm pretty excited to get out and shoot a test roll or two on that baby.

Thanks for reading and staying patient with us! 

Staying at a Koya-san Temple

A phone alarm jarred me from a deep sleep. The faintest bit of light was coming across the sky, but all I could really make out were the lumps of blankets where my roommates slept on either side of me. I closed my eyes for another minute or two as I gathered the will to leave the depths of my warm futons. The sliding glass door to the patio had been left cracked open and the rain was pitter pattering on the tile roof of this old building. I sleepily wished my friend wasn't there so I could snuggle closer to my husband under the futon blankets, but we had an appointment to keep with a few monks. It was time to get up. 

I was talking to a friend about our respective stays at a temple, or shukubo 宿坊, on Mt.Koya 高野山 and our wildly different experiences and it got me thinking about how I never actually shared what our overnight stay was like. As I LOVED our night in a shukubo 宿坊 and the vegetarian cuisine they served, shojin-ryori精進料理, I thought I'd share where we stayed, how we booked, and what we thought. 

When my best friend from college came over to visit us one summer, I really wanted to give her a few unique experiences while also getting a chance to do new things for us. While we'd been to Koya-san twice already, I had never stayed overnight in a temple and it was something I'd always been really intrigued by. A friend of ours said that it was one of the best weekends trips he had taken and that sealed our plans. 

I tried booking directly online in Japanese as many of these temples are bookable on places like Jalan.net, but all of the more affordable shukubos appeared to be full. Some of the plans I was seeing were over 20,000 yen per person, which was far out of our budget for this trip. Because I was trying to make a reservation so last minute, I decided to try booking through Koya-san's temple lodging website in English and luckily they found us a place for their lowest available price (around 10,000 per person). We were booked at Honno-in 本王院, one of the smaller temples on Mt.Koya. They don't have a website and there's not much information on them in Japanese or English. 

Honno-in was a little difficult to find. We accidentally went into a beautiful temple first and were like "whoa a hundred bucks will get you far here" but the nice monk politely told me I was at the wrong temple and pointed out Honno-in across the street. While not as immediately impressive, Honno-in is a beautiful little temple founded in 1158 and has all the small details I love about old Japanese buildings like wood floors - smoothed by a hundred years of slippered feet, glass - wavy with age, and the soft scrape of doors sliding open and closed. The monk that greeted us did not speak a lot of English, but I think if you don't know any Japanese you'd be fine here. We were told about dinner times, he took us to our room to drop of our luggage, and we went off for the day. 

I'm not sure about the more expensive temples, but at the less expensive ones, they are not run like ryokans. Monks are not pouring you tea or pulling your futons out for you. There was tea and crackers out on the low table for us, but we had to prepare it all ourselves. I can't remember very clearly, but I think we set up our futons as well. We had dinner at the temple around 6:00 and were ushered into a private tatami room with beautiful lacquered tray tables set with one of the most delicate, lovely meals I've had in Japan. I'm the first to admit that I'm not a huge fan of seafood, organs, or weird parts of fish. If you've ever eaten kaiseki-ryori 会席料理, you know that you will come across at least one of these things in Japanese haute cuisine and this makes it hard to enjoy it, even if it is beautiful. As shojin-ryori is all vegetarian, I could eat all this stuff and not be worried about encountering something that made me uncomfortable. This dinner was one of my most memorable meals in Japan. Koya-dofu 高野豆腐 is a tofu that monks make from sesame paste (I've heard the monks in training are the ones forced to grind the sesame seeds down into a tofu paste.) It's not easy to find outside of the monk vegetarian cuisine. If it was easier to find, I'd be eating it all the time. I do have to be honest that Josh and our friend weren't as overwhelmed by deliciousness as I was, so your reaction to a completely vegetarian meal may not be as strong as mine. During dinner, we noticed there were other groups eating in different rooms, but we never interacted with them at all during our stay. 

We were told to use the baths before 9:00 or 10:00. I don't remember if there was a sign-up sheet, but we were the only two people in the bath area. It definitely was not a fancy onsen room, but it was a communal bath with wash stations and it did use mountain water. We were sufficiently relaxed. We turned in early because we had signed up to go to a morning ceremony at 6:00am. 

Ok I have to be honest and say that while I was glad to experience a morning prayer session, sitting in a backless chair in a dark room with a monk chanting in rapid fire Japanese with incense burning and bells ringing at 6:00 am is torture. I was nodding off the entire time and I hadn't expected the ceremony to be an entire hour. We were there with a few older Japanese people and another foreign guy. The other tourist kept taking flash photos of the ceremony and all 3 of us quietly kept scooting away from this rude dude so we wouldn't be associated with him. I get wanting to document something beautiful and special, but seriously? Flash photography during a prayer ceremony? We were able to take part in the ceremony with some coaching by our Japanese co-stayers and afterwards could exam the room in greater detail. Breakfast was around 7:00 a.m and it was just as delightful as the night before. I do wish places like this wouldn't serve so much extra rice because I'm sure that entire extra serving they give gets throw away most of the time. 

It started raining so we skipped any further sightseeing that day. We checked out and made our way back down the mountain. 

I've talked to a few people about their overnight trips at Koya-san and it seems that enjoyment varies depending on what their expectations were for the stay and the specific temple. If you're expecting to be living that esthetic life and helping the monks, you will be disappointed. I did have one girl tell me she did this as part of a study abroad group, but I've never seen any info about this being advertised. Most shukubo are essentially minshukus in a temple. Almost all but the most expensive have shared baths and toilet areas. Food is eaten in a common area. You don't interact with the monks much outside of services, check in and check out, and meal times. We were allowed to wonder around the temple and the grounds, but there were places that were clearly off limits to tourists. I loved Honno-in, but other people have told me they didn't enjoy the temples they stayed at so do some research. If you book with the shukubo association, you don't really have a choice with accommodation, so if there is a specific place you want try online or directly through their website. If you speak some Japanese and are interested in trying out monk food in a temple without the stay, try booking with Jalan.net for a day trip out to Koya-san for lunch prepared by the monks. 

very old instagram photo 

very old instagram photo 

While I've written two different posts on Koya-san and this post is specifically about our temple stay, below are some photos of our trip I took that I like and want to share. We visited on the first day of the Obon season in August and this was probably the busiest I've ever seen the graveyards. Not busy with tourists, but busy with monks cleaning, giving offerings at graves, praying, and lighting candles at each grave. It gave a very lively appearance to an otherwise somber place. 

I have a very clear memory of our way back home. We were sitting at a bus stop and it was pouring rain. I had been looking at the stop across the street and remarking at the very large German family sitting there all wearing shorts and sneakers and remembering how a British friend of mine rather snootily told me only American tourists dressed like that. I was going to message him about it when I saw that Robin Williams had died. All 3 of us were in shock, like everyone else in the US was, and we sat there in the rain on mountain in Japan talking about our favorite movies of his. It's strange how strong certain memories are. Things I'd rather remember, like the feel of my dad's hands in mine fade, while I remember mundane things people said still quite clearly. Our minds are like graveyards and specific memories like graves. No matter how well we care for those headstones, they fade and crumble until no one remembers who was buried there in the first place.  

Want to see more Koya-san? Click here and here