Monday, August 31, 2009

Mt. Fuji Fire Festival

Festival Highlights

The Mt. Fuji Fire Festival is held every year on August 26 to mark the closing of the Mt. Fuji climbing season. The history of Fire Festival is based on the story of the Goddess Deity of Mt. Fuji “Konohanasakuya Hime no Mikoto” who becomes pregnant and is accused by her deity husband of being un-faithful. To prove her innocence she locks herself in a room of the shrine and sets it afire. If the child lives it will show her dubious husband that it is indeed his child because it could supernaturally endure the heat. According to the legend, the goddesses’ child was born in the middle of the flames, which proved to her husband that he was the father. The flames made by the taimatsu torches represent the fire started by the Goddess of Mt. Fuji to prove her innocence. The goddess enshrined in Fuji Sengen Shrine must be taken out of her home and carried around the streets of Fujiyoshida in order that she learns the value of the city, and decides to keep the volcano from erupting for another year. The goddess' soul is transferred from the shrine into a portable shrine called an “omikoshi,” and is carried through the streets in Fujiyoshida local men.

The day of the Fire Festival, two Mikoshis (portable shrines) are carried out from their protective shelter at Suwa Shrine and tied to large shoulder beams (see photo of mikage mikoshi). The first of these portable shrines is called “myojin mikoshi” meaning “shrine of the great god” and is in the shape of a miniature shrine. The second is a one ton replica of “Mt. Fuji” called “Oyama” or “mikage mikoshi,” meaning mirror (image) of the mountain. As the Mikoshi are carried through the streets of Fujiyoshida at the Fire Festival, there is a rule that Myojin Mikoshi takes the lead and Oyama Mikoshi follows. Extra shoulder beams are prepared in case one splits and breaks. Traditionally, the carriers of Oyama Mikoshi stop for a break and throw the mikoshi to the ground three times. They do this to raise spirits, create a bond between the carriers, and to appease Mt. Fuji so that it doesn’t erupt in the coming year. For more information go to: - this is where I picked up a lot of the background information about the festival.

We really lucked out with the weather this year - the high that day was in the mid-70's and dropping by sundown. Which was a good thing because once the taimastu are lit the temperature in the street rises dramatically. The taimastu measure close to a meter wide at the bottom and 3 meters high and run the length of the street where the festival is held. In between these large torches are smaller wood stacks (see photo) - some I understand from our guide, are put there by families that have been following this tradition for more than 500 years. It really is a street on fire and at times quite hot. I was amazed as an American, that these fires are all in the open, there are no protective barriers surrounding them. The streets were packed with families, children, strollers, dogs - it was fun to be a part of a tradition where the focus was on the shear joy of the festivities and no worries about potential lawsuits.

Culinary Palates Stretched

The street vendor part of this festival stretched our culinary palates. I have to hand it to Mitchell, Walker and Wrenn - they are truly good sports. Mitchell, Walker and I tried some sort of interesting deep fried balls that had octopus in them - see photo. Yes, those are baby octopus and yes, Walker and Mitchell can proudly say they ate the entire thing - head and all. Wrenn, bless her heart, kept trying but had more misses than hits that night - but she was game to try things. Mitchell and I tried the grilled fish on a stick - at least we think it was some kind of fish ... quite chewy so I'm not so sure about the source (photo below). The kids all had a Japanese version of crepes which was actually funny because all 4 of us are standing there trying to figure out how to tell this vendor our order and she finally pulls out an English menu so all we have to do is point. The counter to that experience was later in the evening a curmudgeonly Japanese gentleman was selling fried spaghetti and so the kids all decided to give that a try - except we didn't realize that there were 2 different kinds - so Wrenn pays and then the guy just stands there with his hands on his hips waiting. Of course Wrenn didn't know what he was waiting for, so I come over and realize the Kanji are different and figure he has 2 different kinds but beats the heck out of me what they are. So while we're standing there looking like confused foreigners a very nice Japanese couple comes up and a rapid fire exchange of Japanese ensues between them - the gentleman from the couple turns to us and says "Soy sauce," "Garlic" - aahhhh! We thank him profusely and he and his wife turn and disappear into the crowd. That's one thing that has struck me in the short time we've been here, the Japanese are very nice and willing to help even when not asked. The Fried Spaghetti with Garlic was a hit by the way.

It was a long day, we did not return to Yokosuka until midnight. Again, loads and loads of walking. But it was fun, there was an ever so brief break in the cloud cover and we caught our first glimpse of the side of Mt. Fuji. Until next time, sayonara.

Earthquakes and Typhoons - Oh my!

Thanks to those of you who tried to contact us and make sure we were all fine with the recent earthquakes. The first one we felt was while we were all sitting at the Navy loaner table playing Uno (see previous entry) - it was Mitchell, Walker and Wrenn's first earthquake. It's been 20 years since I've felt one and honestly I could have waited another 20. They freak me out a bit. But the kids all thought it was cool and Jeff - God love him - could just not seem to help himself from popping up and rushing to the computer to the USGS website to find out where was the epicenter and what was it on the Richter scale. When he started to work on the "time/distance/depth/how long till we felt it" scenario I checked out ... is this what really smart people do for fun?! Uno's more my speed. Says a lot about our marriage I suppose - it's all about balance right? Just FYI friends and family, the next time you hear on the news that Tokyo has had another quake go to this website and you can find out more info - like how far the epicenter was from Yokosuka - it is truly amazing how quickly the information comes up on the site and yes, it is fun being married to someone who is just that darn smart.

The next earthquake was in the wee hours of the morning. Of course I was up - my internal clock has always gotten up with the sun and around here that's really, really early - Land of the Rising Sun and all that. So it sort of surprised the heck out of me when all our cell phones started to beep off - now that was freaky. I turned to Jeff and said what the heck is going on (or something close to that ... it's a family website after all). He grabbed his cell and said "earthquake." Sure enough just about that time the floor started rolling. Now I really don't care for those kind - at all. The shakers, they're o.k. - but the rollers, those are unnerving. So it turns out our cell phones have earthquake alarms on them - those darn Japanese are amazing! The alarms go off 10 seconds before the earthquake hits - honestly, I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not. There is something to be said about ignorance and bliss.

We had another smaller quake last week - since I get up so early my lucky husband gets to be enticed out of bed every morning with a cup of coffee in exchange for walking/exercising with me when the rest of the base is still asleep (that's not entirely true - there are plenty of active duty personnel out running the base). If the coffee doesn't do the trick then our faithful canine will - all I have to say is "walk" and she'll be in Jeff's face until he moves toward the caffeine. So we were out walking, and the alarms go off - let me tell you, when you are walking right next to Tokyo Bay, that's not exactly my spot of choice when that darn thing goes off (I mean wouldn't you be thinking large body of water + earthquake = tsunami?). We both looked at each other and I know we both thought "run for home?" but all was well, the kids never even felt it and I guess this is just part of life in Japan. Get a grip, on something, like a doorjam? A little bit of research on the web and I discovered that Japan has 1500 earthquakes a year, but luckily for us the area we live in only gets around 2 a year over 5.0 - I feel just so much better now. Right.

So in case you all are tracking a hurricane on that side of the world it is Typhoon season here in Japan. Yup, Typhoons, Earthquakes, Rainy Season ... now what did Jeff entice me here with? Oh I remember now ... something about Mikimoto pearls. As I keep telling him, they are getting bigger and longer with every trial and tribulation - the boys told him he'd better hurry up and buy them before they get any bigger or longer. So it's the first day of school here for us and I think great - yes, yes of course I will miss them - well, I probably would have missed them at some point today except that Walker called me at 11 and said they are releasing everyone from school early today because of Tropical Storm Krovanh and could I come and pick him and Mitchell up? So much for getting the rest of our household goods finally put away.

So we have Gale warnings and Jeff just called to say he'll be the on call doc tonight since he's the only one who lives on base in his dept and can get to the hospital within the 20 minute requirement in this weather. He muttered something about increased delivery's during low pressure systems ... add that to the fact that it's 10 months since the carrier GW arrived here and well, you do the math. They were already projecting record numbers of babies being born here in August/Sept so it could make for quite an interesting night for him.

Well no interesting photos this time around. Now that I've finally gotten the techno stuff worked out (I hope) I have several more posts coming. We got a new Cleary Bus - yes, it's Green like our Suburban. So more to come on driving in Japan "on the wrong side of the road" as well as our trip to the Mt. Fuji Fire Festival this week - keep checking back. Till next entry - Sayonara.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Patience is a Virtue (I'm still working on it)

As the title implies I've needed more than my usual dose of patience lately ... this entry was from 2 weeks ago and between my technology struggles and receiving our household goods shipment my patience has been tried mightily at times. As Jeff says "my patience bucket is empty." Perhaps I need to look into the teachings of Buddha ...

Sunday, August 17th

It has been a bit of a quiet week here as we’ve continued to tread water while we await our household goods. So what do we do without our things … lots and lots of reading, we play Uno and we’re currently working on the hardest darn jigsaw puzzle we’ve ever had (I’m not sure we’re ever going to finish this one – it’s 1000 pieces and there are only 2 shapes, I’m not kidding). It has been nearly 10 weeks since we’ve seen our things and when you do without all that you take for granted on a daily basis it certainly makes you consider what’s the essence of your belongings. But it appears that our wait is nearly over, we finally received word that our things will arrive Monday. So we’re all happy – Jeff hasn’t seen our things since December 17th when he left the states and he says the thing he’s missed the most was our bed. For me it comes down to 3 items our Cuisinart Grind and Brew (I so can’t wait for a decent cup of coffee in the morning), our bed and finally my Dansko’s (because I have come to loathe my athletic shoes that I’ve worn everywhere for the last 3 weeks – and the one thing you really need here are some really fabulous walking shoes). For Walker it’s the computer – he’s already volunteered to set it up for me tomorrow – I’m guessing he has ulterior motives and wants first dibs on playing Civilization. For Wrenn it’s “Nana’s” wicker daybed (probably the most fought over reading spot in our house), some good lamps to read by and our comfortable sofa. And for Mitchell it was the sofa and the computer.

We did manage to go make another trip back to Kamakura on Saturday. This week is the week of O-bon – where families all over Japan travel back to their ancestors’ homes. The streets of Kamakura were packed. We fought our way up to nearly the end of the shopping district to finally find ourselves a chopstick shop so that we could all choose our individual chopsticks. After much deliberation over length, weight in the hand, pattern/color, we walked away with 5 pairs of chopsticks. We could all use a bit more practice at home before making any more chopstick gaffes in restaurants – there is an etiquette to follow re: chopstick use, but I’ll save that one for another entry.

After the chopsticks and a visit to another ice cream shop – no baked sweet potato at this one so I tried the green tea – we headed to see the Great Buddha or Daibutsu, outside of Kamakura. This cast-in-bronze statue is the second largest monumental Buddha in Japan and was started in 1252. For more information on this historic site visit:

Recommended Reading

Untangling My Chopsticks by Victoria Abbott Riccardi. A nice, easy read about one woman’s journey in Kyoto for a year to study kaiseki, the refined form of cooking that accompanies the formal Japanese tea ceremony. If you plan to come to Japan and participate in a traditional tea ceremony this is a must read – it not only gives the history of the ceremony but helps the reader understand all the nuances and symbolism behind this centuries old ceremony.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bon-Odori - Paper Lantern Festival

This weekend in Kamakura they celebrated the Buddhist All-Souls Festival when the ancestors return to the earth for a few days. Nagoshi Festival on the 7th, Risshu-sai Festival on the 8th, and Sanetomo Festival on the 9th make up Hachiman-gu Shrine’s biggest event of summer. During this major festival, 400 lanterns (bonbori ) are lit in order to guide the spirits to earth. These lanterns with pictures and calligraphic works written by prominent scholars, actors, novelists and other cultural professionals in Kamakura are lit throughout the shrine grounds. This event was quite stunning and I’m glad the kids and I decided to venture out without our resident tour guide and managed to get to and from Kamakura by train without a hitch. Here’s our take on the Risshu-sai Festival, which is the night we were there – if you plan to visit us at this time we’ll be taking you there, because I can’t wait to go back.

Semi-shigure Shower of Cicadas

Did I mention it’s Cicada season here? I’m not sure but they sure seem louder here than what I remember in Maryland – as we got off the train and passed by the little store that has the Manekineko - Happy Cats (see picture) those darn Cicada’s were ear deafening, I guess we were experiencing a Cicada shower. I found the Haiku by Basho and thought it was perfect – no matter what century it was written in!

So with the Cicada’s humming their rather loud tune in the background we hit Dankazura Street which is a lovely cherry tree-lined promenade that leads to the entrance of Tsurugaoka-hachiman-gu Shrine. As we neared the entrance it became more crowded and Walker and Mitchell made it through the pedestrian crossing but Wrenn and I did not – by the time we crossed and caught up with them Walker had already been engaged by 4 Japanese young ladies who were busy asking him questions and writing down his answers. Mitchell with all the brotherly support he could offer had bolted from the scene. So the girls finished up asking their questions and then asked to take our picture with them – clearly it was some sort of school assignment – but we didn’t mind. I’d been warned - this happens frequently to Gaijin. Anyways, once arigato’s were out of the way we proceeded to the main area where the lanterns were and we could hear the rhythmic beat of the Taiko drums in the distance. The drums had a powerful rhythmic beat that drew you in – I could feel my feet moving a little quicker, I just had to see these artists performing this powerful compelling music. Sadly for me just when we arrived in front of the performance area they stopped – but they will be high on my list to see next year.


The middle day, Saturday, of the Bon-Odori festival in Kamakura is the celebration of the beginning of Fall. But with the heat index of 90 and the Cicadas permeating the rocks to paraphrase Basho, Fall seems more like wishful thinking to me.

While we waited for night to fall we wandered around Kamakura and visited several shops. One was a shop specializing in Kamakura-bori carving. This is a 700-year-old craft in which designs are chisled in wood and then lacquered in a special process. See the link for more info we also stopped in a little shop that specialized in Furokshiki – this is the art of folding and wrapping cloth into different uses, for wrapping gifts, storing or carrying items – see and of course to cool us off we had to go back to our ice cream shop where I got my fix on Baked Sweet Potato ice cream.

So with the window-shopping over and the ice cream cooling us down we headed back to the Festival area where it was now dusk and the lanterns were starting to be lit. It was absolutely lovely, the different colors of the illustrations glowing with the candle light. Many of the women were dressed in traditional Yukata – which is the cotton summer weight Kimono. While we meandered around we could see a crowd gathering and discovered that at 7 pm there would be another performance. Six women dressed in traditional Japanese Kimono danced a beautiful dance in perfect synchronization discretely clicking together vermillion colored blocks of wood that made it sound like they were snapping their fingers to a distinct beat. On their heads they had on a large circular headdress. Their bodies moved slowly and gracefully in perfect unison to the beat as their heads remained nearly still. In the background an unseen male sung a fluid and mournful Japanese tune that I have read is used to tell stories. It was absolutely mesmerizing. At the end of their performance it was nearing time for our train ride back and so we left for the station making one more circuit amongst the crowds to look at some of our favorite lanterns.

This will be high on my list to do again next year and I would recommend anyone planning a visit to this area in August to put it on their itinerary. Till next week – sayonara.

Recommended Reading

I just finished Street of a Thousand Blossoms by Gail Tsukiyama. It was a nice read, great background on the life of a Sumo Wrestler and again I learned a lot about how the everyday Japanese living in an area of Tokyo were affected during WWII. It is written by an American but worth the read if you’re planning to come visit. I’m awaiting my 10 books of Japanese fiction to arrive from Barnes and Noble and hope to keep the recommended reading going for all of my bookgroup groupies out there.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

First Impressions

A long hard journey,

Rain beating down the clover

Like a wanderer’s feet

Yosa Buson (1716-1783)

Youkoso (welcome)

Welcome to the Cleary Kazoku (family) blog. We hope you enjoy sharing our experiences while we live in Japan for the next 3 years, offer our observations on the culture as west meets east, and propose some “must reads” if you plan to visit us. Look for a new post every Sunday evening stateside.

Tsuyu (rainy season)

So a bit of observations on our first week here in Japan. It’s wet … and humid, and I mean really humid. I grew up in Atlanta and I lived outside of DC for 7 years, I know humid but I have never experienced anything quite like this. We are at the end of the rainy season and it has rained 9 out of the 10 days since we arrived here. And the forecast? More rain. We have 3 dehumidifiers in our townhouse; they run continuously and we have to empty them twice a day. Now that’s humid!


We went to a traditional Japanese restaurant where we had to remove our shoes and sat on tatami mats and selected a wide variety of dishes to try. Jeff and I are glad that our children are adventurous eaters – it was all very delicious but quite different from back home! Fried octopus, tofu, edamame, fish cakes, egg omelet with squid and finished off with tofu cheesecake and green tea ice cream with adzuki beans – all quite good. A couple of days later we took the train to Kamakura – a few towns over from Yokosuka. After visiting the shrine and temple, we stopped for some ice cream and while the kids played it safe and had vanilla, Jeff had sweet potato which was purple and I had baked sweet potato and vanilla swirl – yummy, can’t wait to go back for more. Finally, we tried a sushi restaurant that had the sushi plates conveyor belt style – you select a plate as it goes by – once you touch it it’s yours. The plates are color coded and go up in price according to the specialty of the fish. This was our first step beyond California Rolls – tuna, scallops, octopus, salmon – the boys were certainly game for trying different foods! For Mitchell, he liked the tuna sushi best and by the stack of 5 plates in front of him it certainly appeared that this restaurant will be high on his list to visit again.


If you plan to visit or want to learn more about Hiroshima, Mitchell and I both highly recommend the book Hiroshima by John Hersey. Given that I believe the only history that I learned of the Pacific Theatre during WWII was highly one-sided, this was quite eye opening.

I have already broken the first blog rule I learned re: length – and will strive to be more succinct next entry – till next week. Sayonara.

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