My favorite tiny farm

Everyday on my stroll to and from the bus stop, which is about a 7 minute walk from my apartment, I pass by a random little farm in someone’s backyard.

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And walking past the farm is always the best part of my daily commute.

I don’t know who lives there, and I don’t know what’s being grown – I have no idea what it’s even doing in the middle of the neighborhood. Back in the States, it’s not too common to find random rows of produce growing along the street.

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But I don’t really need to know why it’s there – I’m just happy I stumbled upon it in the first place. No matter how rushed I am in the morning, or how tired I am in the evening after a long day at work, this little garden plot never fails to brighten my mood.

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(Also, can anyone tell me what kind of flower these are?)

English for Japanese 3rd graders: cookies and cola

English education in Japan usually starts in 5th grade, but Minoh – the city where I’ve been assigned to teach – has their students taking English classes as early as 3rd grade. Minoh even created their own English curriculum for 3rd and 4th graders, since there is no official designated textbook for students younger than 5th/6th in Japan.

So, I’m lucky – all of my classes for 3rd through 6th grade are written out in Minoh’s English textbook. Every lesson for the 45 minute period includes the topic/subject, expressions related to the topic, and target vocabulary words. It also includes a detailed schedule for activities, with time estimations and everything.

Every lesson has a similar structure. First, the teacher (either me, the other English teacher I work with, or the homeroom teacher ((yep, there are 3, sometimes 4!, teachers in the class at the same time)) greets the students, asks them the date, what the weather’s like, and how they’re doing. Usually students respond with I’m tired, or I’m hungry, but occasionally we’ll get a response like I am so angry!

Then, it’s phonics time. We’ll review English words that Japanese speakers have trouble pronouncing by saying the words out loud and asking the students to repeat them back to us multiple times. There’s quite a few sounds in English that students don’t know how to pronounce, like r and l and the low i sound, so phonics gives them a chance to improve their pronunciation. And the younger they can get pronunciation down, the better.

After phonics, it’s time for the actual lesson content. We start by either reviewing vocabulary and expressions from the previous week, or we’ll introduce new English words. Topics are drawn out for about 4-5 weeks, so students have an ample amount of time to practice hearing and speaking the target language over a long period of time.

These past several weeks, the 3rd graders have been learning the names of a bunch of desserts, like pudding and cake, as well as drinks. The specific desserts/drinks we’re required to teach are at the top of the lesson plan:

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After reviewing the words and phrases, it’s time for the fun part – games! We play at least one game every class, as a way for students to practice the material, and to keep them active, engaged, and entertained. English isn’t graded in elementary school – it’s more of an elective, like music and home economics. But, it is a graded subject in junior high school, so the intent of elementary English is to ensure students have as high of an opinion of English class as possible. That way, they’ll look forward to continuing their English education after graduating elementary. And playing games is definitely a way to keep their opinion of English high. (Or, neutral, at least.)

This week, we played Lucky Card game. In a nutshell, students get into groups and are given a set of mini vocabulary cards. Each student then picks two cards, shows their neighbor the cards and ask, ‘What do you want? and their neighbor responds, ‘I want_____’ and chooses one of the two cards to take in their own hand. The dialogue continues until the teacher says stop. Then, the teacher picks one card out of the set and calls out the vocab word on that card. Students holding that card get a stamp! (Stamps are a big deal – getting a stamp is probably the highlight of English class for most students.)

IMG_E7387Usually, review and a game or two should take up the 45 minute class. Once the bell rings to mark the end of that period, the students pack up their things, say goodbye, and English is finished for the week.

It isn’t much, but hey as long as the students are learning something – and having fun – I’m happy!

Kitano-Cho: brick houses with fish scales roofs

Kobe is my favorite city that I’ve visited in Japan so far. It’s friendly, approachable, and brimming with an energy I can’t quite describe. One of the things I appreciate most about Kobe is that it not only respects traditional Japanese culture, but pays tribute to its Western cultural influences as well. One of the places in Kobe that is the perfect example of the West/East dynamic in the city is Kitano-cho, which I had the chance to tour on my first trip into the city.

Kitano-cho is a historical district in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan, which contains a bunch of foreign residences known as Ijinkan, which were built during the Meiji and early Taishō eras of Japanese history  when foreign merchants and diplomats settled in the district after the Port of Kobe was opened to foreign trade in 1868. Through both exterior and interior design, the Ijinkan provide a beautiful and harmonious display of western and eastern culture by blending the two together.

Originally, there were about 300 houses, but most of them were destroyed or dismantled over time. Today, about 10-20 (the houses open and close sporadically throughout the year) of the former Ijinkan are open to the public as museums. IMG_8967

For its historic and cultural value, in 1980 it was designated under the “Important Preservation Districts for Groups of Traditional Buildings” act by the government.

Most of the houses charge an admission fee between 550 to 750 yen, while combination tickets are available to see multiple houses. The houses open to the public include those built for residents from England, France, Italian, and the Netherlands, as well as a house built for the former Chinese Consulate (my favorite by far!).

I wanted to see the insides of several mansions, so I bought a ticket that was about 3000 yen. It seems steep, but I’d say it was well worth the price to see the houses’ interiors, which show how western and eastern culture not only influenced the houses’ architecture, but their residents’ lifestyles too.

Here’s a slideshow of some pictures I took of the district!

 

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And here is the link to another article about the district in case you’re interested in learning more about each of the houses.

When a flower field visited Osaka Station

I still have no idea what the occasion was, but a few weekends ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful, and intricately-organized flower garden above JR Osaka train station. I don’t live in an area where flowers are abundant, so being able walk through fields of fresh flowers in full bloom was a welcome treat. I wanted to share some of the photos I took (though they by no means do the flowers justice). Hope you enjoy! ^_^

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The wonders of conbini drinks

In Japan, convenience stores are called コンビニ、or conbini’s. And unlike convenience stores you find in the States – ie, dingy 7-11’s with a questionable selection of hot dogs on display or the off-name liquor stores you you might see at the corner of an intersection – these conbini’s are always impeccably clean, well-organized, and literally, convenient. They’re fully stocked with every kind of product you can think of, from perfectly hard-boiled eggs, pre-cooked edamame, and vacuum-sealed chicken breasts ready to be sliced up and tossed over a salad, to kitchen and cleaning supplies, to bathroom products and toiletries, you name it. There are even individually packaged white cotton t-shirts for the ever-sweaty salary man.

But, although I am a big fan of hard-boiled eggs that I didn’t have to cook myself, I’d have to say that my favorite thing about conbinis are the drinks.

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True, drinks definitely don’t sound as fascinating as the packets of pre-cooked Thai curry in the ready-made-foods aisle, or the essential oils and incense sticks on display next to the ties, but the thing I love about conbini drinks is just how many options there are!

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Walk into any store and you’ll find walls stocked with sodas, teas, juices, drinkable yogurts, even fresh-pressed juices. Every conbini usually has the same selection of brands, but I’ve stumbled upon a few that have limited edition drinks too, and one chain even has their own line of much cheaper, store-brand drinks.

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By far the most extensive selection is the coffee (though tea comes in close second). There are about a thousand different types of coffee drinks – coffee mixed with half and half, coffee with milk, coffee with milk and sugar, coffee with milk and no sugar, and so on. And of course, there are tons of classic black options too. I can’t say that it compares to the freshly brewed stuff you get at sit-down cafe’s, but for 118 yen each, I’d say they taste pretty good.

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And as if walls of canned coffee aren’t enough, there’s also a separate refrigerated section where you can find an even greater selection of lattes, along with lots of different flavored teas, milk-based drinks, and smoothies too.

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Yup, even Starbucks coffee and tea lattes have made their way onto conbini shelves. (The Matcha latte isn’t anything special though – way too milky!)

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Every time I stop by a conbini, I make an effort to buy a new drink each time. My goal is to try every single type of drink available! (Well, all except for the carton of straight wheat grass powder.) Considering just how many drinks there are, it looks like I have a long way to go.

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Good thing I have all year.

Tengu Festival – the only time child abuse is welcomed

Picture a rainy Saturday morning. I’ve just finished getting ready – I washed my dishes after breakfast and started a load of laundry. I’m planning on making a quick trip to Daiso to pick up a few cleaning supplies, like wipes and fabric softener. I have clean the bathroom, buy groceries for the week, and finish up a blog post on my to-do list: your classic, uneventful Saturday. But, as has been a recurring theme for my weekends in Japan, it ended up being the very opposite.

The moment I stepped outside, I came face to face with who I immediately thought to be a member of the Japanese mafia…

He was wearing a long, black robe and, to my horror, a mask – a bright red mask, with menacing eyebrows and an absurdly long nose. A little farther, in the middle of the street, stood a group of three other people dressed in the same black robes and horrid, nightmare-inducing masks.

All I could do was stand, stiff with fear, hoping this masked stranger was not actually a member of a terrorist group, or a hired assassin, or an FBI agent who’d come to arrest me for illegally throwing my trash out at convenience stores… But luckily for me, he was none of those. He simply offered me a nod and then meandered toward the other masked men, who I realized – now that I’d finished overreacting – were laughing and cracking jokes with each other.

Later that day, I eventually learned that the people I’d run into were dressed up for a festival that was happening that night in Minoh called the Tengu Festival, held in honor of Japanese spirits known as tengu.

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If you aren’t familiar with what a tengu is, (I definitely wasn’t) here’s an excerpt from its Wikipedia article:

Tengu (天狗, “heavenly dog”) are a type of legendary creature found in Japanese folk religion and are also considered a type of Shinto god (kami) or yōkai (supernatural beings). Although they take their name from a dog-like Chinese demon (Tiangou), the tengu were originally thought to take the forms of birds of prey, and they are traditionally depicted with both human and avian characteristics. The earliest tengu were pictured with beaks, but this feature has often been humanized as an unnaturally long nose, which today is widely considered the tengus defining characteristic in the popular imagination. Buddhism long held that the tengu were disruptive demons and harbingers of war. Their image gradually softened, however, into one of protective, if still dangerous, spirits of the mountains and forests. Tengu are associated with the ascetic practice of Shugendō, and they are usually depicted in the garb of its followers, the yamabushi.

I read online that Tengu Festivals are widespread throughout Japan in the fall. Most festivals typically include a parade featuring impressive statues, as well as Japan’s classic festival street food. Minoh’s annual festival, though, is actually a little different – when the sun starts to set, men dressed up like tengu gather at a specific marked location. And once the locals have arrived at the same place, these tengu start hitting people! Yes, I’m serious. They run around hitting everyone.

They carry these bamboo sticks with tapered ends and hit anyone they can find on the head – usually, children. Apparently, if a child is hit on the head by a tengu, that child receives lifelong blessings. And women receive good fortune too – supposedly getting tapped by a tengu blesses them with fertility and successful kids.

Of course, I was super fascinated, and a bit horrified, by the thought of kids getting struck by middle-aged men, so at around 5pm that evening I found my way to the location where the tengu were expected to gather. It wasn’t hard – all I had to do was follow the sound of high-pitched screams.

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I arrived at the gate, and proceeded to watch one of the strangest events I have ever seen in my entire life.

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Exactly as the internet warned, men dressed up in tengu attire started running up and down the street and attacking people of all ages – from toddler to teens to middle aged women – while onlookers simply pointed and laughed and recorded videos on their phones. I too, took lots and lots of videos, which I plan to keep forever in case I’m ever in need of a laugh. (Sadly, I’m not able to upload the videos to the post, but shoot me an email and I’ll send you some!)

The festival was mainly intended for the kids, since they’re supposed to receive the bulk of the blessings, but the most memorable part of the festival was watching the parents, who were either taking pictures of their sobbing children or pushing them, literally pushing them, into the tengu’s path!

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Though some children were running from the masked men in terror, other, braver, children walked right up to the tengu, asking – begging even – to be hit on the head. And the tengu were happy to oblige.

 

I ended up getting hit by a tengu too! It didn’t hurt at all, like I thought it would. But I’m pretty sure that he was going easy on me… I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of the other tengu targets woke up the next morning with bruises on their heads.

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The festival was short, but it’s become one of my favorite memories in Japan! Not only do I have a new story to tell, but I also have a long line of successful children to look forward to, thanks to a masked stranger and his magical bamboo wand.

The freshest ice cream you can find in Osaka

I am a big fan of ice cream.

I mean, who isn’t, right? And that’s why there are tons of articles on where to find the best ice cream in Osaka – from the creamiest, the healthiest (whatever that means), even the tallest – because everyone in the area wants to know where to find the best scoop or swirl of frozen sweetened cream the region has to offer.

As I scanned lists of the most frequented ice cream shops, I noticed that every single one included a place called ‘Shiroichi.’ So of course, I had to see for myself why this one shop in particular always happened to be featured without fail.

This past weekend, I found an opportunity to take the 45 minute commute out to Shiroichi in Shinsaibashi, a neighborhood in Osaka popular with locals and foreigners alike. Arriving in Shinsaibashi, my friend and I walked along a main street lined with high-end brand name stores, and then meandered through several alleys of pubs and European-themed cafes before arriving at Shiroichi’s front entrance.

I was surprised at how tiny the shop itself is; there’s barely enough room for more than a few people to stand inside. I was glad to have arrived late, since anymore than 5 people waiting to order at a time would’ve led to a line overflowing outside.

Like the size of the shop, the menu is also small. There’s only one type of ice cream – 生アイス, or ‘fresh ice cream’ in English. I don’t even think it has a flavor. You can order a simple serving in cup or a cone for 420 Yen. Though the ice cream is good enough on its own without the help of toppings, there are also several options on the menu that include added ingredients, like coffee, milk, and soybean powder. My friend ordered 珈琲(加糖), or sweetened coffee in English – which is a serving of ice cream with iced cold brew poured over the top.

I had trouble deciding on what to pick for a while, but I ended up opting for the 黒蜜抹茶 (kuromitsu matcha), which came with Matcha powder, a scoop of sweet red bean paste, mochi rice balls, pumpkin seeds, and a drizzle of brown sugar syrup (kuromitsu) over the top. It totaled out to be 680 Yen.

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After my first bite, I could tell why Shiroichi receives such impressive ratings and reviews. According to its website, the store uses only wholesome, all-natural organic ingredients for both its ice cream and its added toppings. And I don’t doubt it – I could really taste the difference in flavor, texture, and quality. Rather than using cream and additives, the shop instead uses nonhomogenized milk with a high milkfat content, which gives the ice cream a much lighter and delicate texture. It wasn’t excessively creamy, and wasn’t too sweet either. All of the components were perfectly balanced, which made for a refreshing, and memorable, treat. 680 Yen is a lot for a serving of ice cream, but I’d say it was well worth the price.

There’s also a Shiroichi in Shibuya, Tokyo, which is a bit farther from me. (By about 7 hours.) But for those who happen to find themselves in Tokyo, I highly recommend stopping by the Shibuya location for a life-changing swirl of the freshest ice cream you’ll ever taste. Though, be warned – you may never be able to go back to generic, store-bought ice cream again.

 

 

Japan just doesn’t do dryers

IMG_7438Yup, that’s a picture of my wet clothes. They’re clipped to a 100 Yen rack that’s hanging from the curtain rod in my room.

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Though I do have a washing machine in my apartment, I don’t have a dryer, so I have to hang up my clothes after I wash them. And according to my fellow apartment-dwelling friends in Japan, they don’t have dryers either. There’s just not enough room in our tiny, 16m2 homes.

At first, I assumed the lack of dryers resulted from a lack of apartment space. But then after a few days of walking around the city, I started to notice that houses (and big houses!) too had clothes hanging from their balconies. So it couldn’t be attributed to space alone.

It’s not just Minoh that happens to be a dryer-less community either – walk around any neighborhood, anywhere in Japan, and you’ll find apartment after apartment, house after house, even some shops and restaurants, with clothes hung over the rails and clipped to standing hangers in the yard.

Japan just doesn’t do dryers. Don’t ask me why, because I have no idea.

Not having a dryer has been a difficult thing to get used to. It’s actually been one of the things I’ve struggled with the most in getting acclimated to living in Japan. First, I don’t like the idea of putting my clothes outside. It kind of freaks me out. There are bugs outside! What if a cockroach or a beetle or a SPIDER wandered onto my balcony and found its way into one of my socks and then laid a bunch of eggs inside without me knowing? What if it starts to rain out of nowhere?? Then I’d have to wash my clothes all over again… And I’m not taking that risk! So instead I have to hang up my clothes inside my apartment, on the curtain rod beside my bed.

Another big reason why I’m not a fan of this dryer-less lifestyle is that my clothes get super duper wrinkly when they air dry – especially my cotton T-shirts. Which is hard, because my entire wardrobe is largely made up of cotton T-shirts. I’ve been trying to flatten them out before hanging them on the rack, but it hasn’t been too effective. Technically, I could iron my clothes after they’ve dried, but so far I’ve been too cheap (and too lazy) to buy myself a proper iron and ironing board.

And lastly, hanging up every single article of clothing on my rickety drying rack has not been that enjoyable (socks are the worst!). I’ve heard that hanging clothes is supposed to be soothing, but to me it just feels tedious; I’m used to taking all of my wet clothes out of the washing machine and throwing them into the dryer in less than a minute, and then coming back to a lovely pile of warm, clean, freshly laundered clothes half an hour later. But now living in Japan, I have to wait a good 12+ hours before my clothes are dry enough to take down from the rack and hang back up in my closet.

But hey, I suppose it’s better than nothing, right? My clothes may be wrinkly, but at least they’re clean… Granted, using a washer alone may take some getting used to – and I’ll probably feel the need to write another complain-y post about the subject again soon – but I’m sure that in time, I might even learn to prefer drying my clothes the all-natural way.

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Emphasis on the might.

 

Relearning how to take out the trash

In the States, trash is trash. I’d throw my trash into the closest can I found and wouldn’t think twice about it. Sure, I’d try my best to recycle, but if there were no recycle-specific cans available nearby, then I wouldn’t go out of my way to find one…

…which is a big reason why living in Japan is a lot more challenging than I’d thought it would be.

After arriving in Minoh, MAFGA (the organization that facilitated orientation for JET’s and has since been helping me and my fellow English teachers get accustomed to living in Japan) gave each JET about 100 20 liter trash bags, specifically for 燃えるごみ、or burnable garbage. Each city in Japan has their own trash bags, often with the city’s name marked on the front. These are the only bags accepted for disposal on trash days. Minoh’s looks like this:

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See the long list of rules at the bottom?

So yeah, there are multiple trash days. 3 per week to be exact…

And this is where it gets complicated (as if wasn’t already complicated enough!).

Tuesdays and Fridays are the days for burnable garbage – paper, plastic, cardboard, food waste, etc. At first I thought twice a week seemed excessive, since in the states there’s only one pickup day per week, but the time between Fridays and Tuesdays actually feels like ages to me… The difference is that I don’t have a large trashcan outside where I can throw out my bags full of food waste, like I did in the States, so I’ve been forced to keep my trash inside my apartment until I can dispose of it on trash day – banana peels and all.

Every apartment building has its own designated trash collection spot. My apartment’s spot is on the sidewalk along a main street to make it easier for the garbage truck to make a quick stop.

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The garbage truck comes promptly by 9am, so it’s important to take the trash out before then. The other day, a sign was posted next to the collection area that reminded people, in aggressively large print, to take their trash bags out before 9am on the appropriate days.

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Ah, lovely pictures of garbage.

As for un-burnable garbage, that can get a bit trickier: the first and third Wednesday of the month are the days for recyclable plastic bottles, while the second and fourth Wednesdays are aluminum/glass bottle days. (Yeah, I know, I forget all the time.)

For the first few weeks, I didn’t know how to recycle un-burnable garbage, because MAFGA had only given JET’s bags for burnable garbage. I had no idea what to do with all of my bottles, and I didn’t have the guts to ask for help. So I would throw out my bottles at random cans in front of convenience stores. But then I learned that recycling your bottles at convenience stores is actually illegal! There are even outdoor video cameras pointed at the trash cans to scare people off. (So if I end up getting arrested in Japan, it’s probably because I was caught on one of those cameras.)

I wasn’t all that interested in getting arrested, so instead of continuing to break the law, I decided I’d have to figure out how to recycle properly.

On a Wednesday morning, I walked out to the sidewalk where the garbage gets picked up to see how everyone else was doing it. I didn’t see any bags, but I did see several baskets filled to the brim with crushed cans. I figured out that people just bring out their cans and bottles and dump them out into designated bins. (Which is why MAFGA didn’t give us bags for cans.) The bins kind of look like this:

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So, I wouldn’t say that I’ve mastered the art of trash in Japan just yet, but I at least know how to recycle my leftover bottles without committing a felony.

A stroll through Kyoto

Kyoto is unlike any other city I’ve seen – never have I been anywhere as beautiful, as captivating, and as distinct as Kyoto, Japan.  The heart of tradition, it protects and preserves the aspects of Japanese culture which make the country’s character unique.

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This past weekend, I visited Kyoto for the first time. Since I’d never been to the city before, and knew very little about it, my friends and I joined a free walking tour of Gion.

Gion is a traditional entertainment district in the center of Kyoto. Woven throughout the famous district are streets lined with shops selling traditional Japanese craftwork, like chirimen craft and handmade ceramic bowls, as well as traditional Japanese snacks.

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But what I found most interesting about Gion is the fact that it is also Kyoto’s most famous geisha district.

The tour guide led us to several ochaya (teahouses), where maiko and geiko entertain guests, for up to thousands of dollars. You can tell if a building is a tea house by the metal plate outside the door, and by the wood engravings which list the names of the geishas-in-training who live there. (See the picture below.)

According to the guide, there are only 300 geishas in Japan – all of them live and work in Kyoto.

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The kanji on the metal plate read お茶屋, or tea house.

Though Gion is well regarded as a hub for entertainment, there are temples and shrines located throughout the district as well, which make for an interesting change in both scenery and atmosphere. Sometimes temples – big and small – will spring up at random, near the edge of an alley or even in the middle of a shopping center. While on the tour, our group found ourselves occassionally wandering onto sacred grounds, which I suppose is the norm in a city that’s the center of traditional Japanese culture.

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One of the temples that we stopped by had an area dedicated to Jizo statues, which are stone carvings wrapped in pieces of brightly colored fabric that are often found at temples or shrines.

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The tour guide explained that these traditional Buddhist statues provided solace to Japanese women who suffered from a miscarriage, as the statue was believed to protect and prevent unborn children from going to hell. It’s believed that as the babies did not have the chance to build up good karma on earth, ‘Jizo’ helps smuggle the children into the afterlife in the sleeves of his robe.

Good karma seemed to be a common theme at the temple – because beside the Jizo statues was a large collection of Sarubobos.

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Sarubobo literally translates to “a baby monkey.” Saru is the Japanese word for monkey, and bobo is the word for baby in the Takayama dialect. The sarubobo is associated with a protection from bad things; in Japanese, the word “leave” translates as saru, so possession of a sarubobo means that bad things will, well, saru. The monkey-shaped charms are all burned at the end of the year, though, so visitors will have to return to the temple at the start of the year if they want that bad thing of theirs to stay away.

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After meandering along a few more vendor-lined streets, the tour came to a close, and the other tourists in the group went off to continue exploring the city on their own. Though brief, I’m glad I opted to take the tour – I ended up learning so much about traditional Japan through only a tiny glimpse of Kyoto.

I’m excited to go back soon, so that I can discover even more about the country I’m beginning to call home.