Final Student Reflections from Kyoto

As this is posted the group has returned to the familiarity of the National Olympic Village in Tokyo. Students are anticipating completing their final projects and visiting their favorite areas of Tokyo one last time before we depart on Saturday. Today’s post contains some of the student writing based on our five days in Kyoto.

Benw ma-inspired breakfast

Ben Winick’s photo

Will Grant on Japanese Architecture and Dress

It is far more common to see examples of traditional Japanese architecture and dress in the city of Kyoto than it is in Tokyo. The latter seems to be an organism that constantly sheds old skins and modes to rebuild its identity, while maintaining the integral underpinnings of Japanese culture and codified interpersonal relations. Kyoto, on the other hand, might also be modernized (one doesn’t have to wander far to see the all-too familiar Burger King, McDonalds, or H&M clothing line) but has retained far more of the traditional buildings, structures and habits of ancient Japanese society. Without exaggeration there are probably more Buddhist or Shinto shrines—each dating back centuries–per square mile than Starbucks in Manhattan, which is saying something. There are whole districts, such as the winding streets that lead up to the Kiyomizu-dera temple, where classic Japanese architecture is preserved and people live in traditional styled homes. The temples themselves are maintained impressively and demonstrate many of the old aesthetic qualities such as iki (subtle elegance) and furyu (stylish elegance). Kiyomizu-dera, for example, had many pleasing and geometrically balanced roofs that demonstrate simplicity complemented by intricate details as well as opulent gold colors. Walking up high on the hill and being surrounded by the presence of tranquility and natural spirits, one feels a part of the ukiyo or “floating world” described in the Edo period of Japan. There is sensory and emotional delight experienced as well as a sense of detachment from the rest of society when one comes to this place of worship. Traditional Japanese customs are preserved also in terms of style and fashion, as we have encountered many individuals wearing fine kimonos with stylish patterns and interesting compositional aesthetic elements. Many display iki and elegance with their detailed patterns and bold flamboyant colors.

Blog 5 img 1 - William Grant Blog 5 img 2 - William Grant

Blog 5 img 3 - William Grantphotos by Will Grant

Clark Gegler on Shigaraki Yakimono Village & Eating Pufferfish

Note from Christie: The Japanese word for pottery is Yakimono. Yaki=burnt or barbecued and Mono=Things.

Yesterday was another amazing day, going up into the mountains to find the pottery village; even though it rained all day it could not stop us from finding the Cultural Center. On the way up to the village, as we passed the mountains I could see why they are so prominently featured in the artwork with steam rising between them– it was awe inspiring. The outside of our train was highly decorated with art by students from an art college and was only two cars long. The Ceramic Cultural Center and Park was really cool with huge industrial furnaces and massive pieces of ceramic artwork on display. I had the good fortune to meet one of the artists who was coming back to lunch and she gave us a tour of the studios.

There were tons of tanuki sculptures around where we traveled and as we left the train station we saw a bunch arranged to look like they were saying farewell. When we finally made it back to Kyoto I decided along with a fellow student to go out and test our might against the fearsome pufferfish and enjoyed a nice plate of pufferfish sashimi and sushi, with some plum and pufferfish sake. While it was a bit expensive (the whole meal cost about $30 for 3 small plates and 2 drinks) I wholeheartedly recommend people try it because the taste is like nothing I’ve ever had before.

ClarkPic4Clark’s selfie with a Tanuki

image_2Ben Garrett’s photo of the train

Emily Motter on Japanese Language and Shodo

Japanese language is not something that I gave much thought to before I came to Japan. In fact, I never really thought about Japanese culture in general. I am not an anime person and I never really liked Japanese food, so I never had a medium to really get started looking at Japanese culture. Since being here, one of the things that has really captured my attention is the Japanese language in its verbal and written form. After adapting kanji from the Chinese in order to have their own written language, the Japanese have since put a large emphasis on the art of writing. There are three different alphabets, and each one has a different background. I think the language itself is interesting, but what I really love is shodo, or the way of calligraphy. There is an art to writing out Japanese with a brush and ink. Just like every other art form in Japanese culture, a person must specialize in shodo in order to master the skill of good calligraphy. Having such skill really says a lot about a person and his/her personality. It goes back to the idea in Japanese culture that beauty is found in the little everyday things, in the way something is made. Yes, calligraphy was on display at the Tokyo National Museum but it was originally just a part of everyday life, just like our handwriting. There is an emphasis on presentation that I really admire in Japanese culture because it makes little things beautiful and interesting. Art is everywhere rather than behind guarded doors where you can look but you can’t touch.

Emily Motter’s Reflection on Japanese Gardens

I tried my hand at finding my inner zen at Ryoan-Ji. Zen gardens are heavily integrated with typical Japanese culture. The Japanese have certain rituals for everyday things, and so of course there is a ritual in how to keep a rock garden. One must rake the rocks every day into a new pattern, and this is used for the ritual of meditation. There was also an overwhelming sense of wa (harmony) there if you were able to get to a quiet place to really take in the beauty of the garden. I thought about the number of different life forms living in one small area and how that is world-wide, not just exclusive to this one garden. Eli, at the beginning of the trip, made a joke about how it is amazing how moss grows because somehow the roots of a tree make the perfect habitat for another lifeform to grow. Though this was a joke, I do think there is something beautiful in that. In this garden, people from all over the world were coming to see and share an experience, living in harmony for a brief moment in time.

Katie Godowski on the Tea Ceremony

The tea ceremony was the calmest and most relaxed 45 minutes of my life that I have felt for the past few days as we have been constantly going about. It was a simple ceremony in a back alley in a room that was cream colored with wood paneling. The two women wearing kimonos  went about their tea routine, talked us through what they were about to do and shared the history of the ceremony. The group of 11 people sat quietly and watched the beautiful ceremony being conducted. The elegance of the ceremony as well as the rusticity were perfect, as both of the women in kimonos have been doing tea ceremonies for years, even went to school for it. The young kimono wearing women subtlety mentioned not to talk about politics or religion as those are not calming things, but to talk about the art and culture that surrounds us every day.

There are numerous steps to how a tea ceremony is done, from how the hot water is made (using coals) to how to stir the green tea the correct way. Each step is precise and well done with almost a fluid brushwork, as it is smooth and flowing. Once the ceremony was over, we all got up and thanked the women and left. We all talked about how it was a relaxing few minutes, but once we walked back into the busy street, it was almost as though the event did not happen.

IMG_3012photo by R. Wilmot


Benjamin Garrett on Visiting Fushimi Inari Shrine

Today we went to Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine in Fushimi-Ku, Kyoto, Japan. It is dedicated to the god of rice, Inari. It was something else, unlike any other shrines we saw. The hundreds of torii gates there were donated by businesses and they went all the way up a mountain leading you to the top of the mountain. The fox statues (Kitsune) there guarding the gates are regarded as messengers of the kami Inari. There are two main theories on how these kitsune became Inari’s servants. One is a myth from Buddhist text, from the 14th century, telling of a family of foxes who traveled to the shrine at Inari mountain to offer their services to Inari. The request was granted and they were placed at the shrines. The second theory comes from the behavior of living foxes. They are often seen in and out of fields of rice during growing season, eating rodents that would otherwise eat the rice. Their behavior pattern gave foxes an image of being guardians of the field. Also, the fox’s color looks like a ripened grain of rice, as well as their tails looking like a grain of rice. This all adds to why there are foxes guarding the shrine. This shrine was beautiful, so much flowing orange it overtook you as you made your way through the torii to the top of the shrine. The more you hiked it, the more vegetation appeared, bamboo and seemingly endless woods all around as I continued to hike up. Once we made our way to the top, we purified ourselves with the sacred water and hiked up the steps to the shrine there. The view there was something else. You could see all of Kyoto and the mountains that surrounded it. We rang the bell and paid our respects. We then decided to continue our way down.

Isaac Alam on Japan & Religion

As our days in Kyoto came to an end we ended it with a big finish, by going to one of most famous places in Kyoto. We went to the Fushimi Inari Taisha. Seeing all of the colors and so many people stopping to take pictures was an experience. By that I mean many people are inspired by the location and what it symbolizes for them. I feel as if some people go for historical reasons, but some people go because they have a spiritual connection with who they are praying to and what wishes they want to be sent out for good karma, energy and vibes. This is very touching and amazing to see, when you get to see how people pray and how different it is. I saw many people stand in line to pick up what looked like a stone but also marble ball. They would put their hands together and then say a prayer, then pick up the ball once and place it back. People would also do another prayer and ring a bell and after they were done they threw money. Also you are able to donate and get a paper that says your future and a brief way of saying what’s ahead of you in life as well. I get the feeling that people do this because it makes them feel like something will connect along the way if they put it out there for a god to see or just energy to the world. I believe in that and if you put your mind on something that it can happen and everything will work out the way you want it to. Visiting this temple really made me want to figure out more about Shinto objects–what little things at shrines mean and their symbolism.

isaaxPhoto by Isaac Alam

Ray Lounsbury on Fushimi Inari

Our morning started with yet another fantastic banquet for breakfast. After eating we headed to the station to board a train that would take us to Fushimi-Ku which is a series of shrines built into the side of a mountain. A large network of trails take visitors up the hill through countless toriis which are gate like structures which are typically red or orange. Having donated a specified about of money visitors could have their name and birth date carved into the side of these gates. There were about 5 stops along way which led to the summit each having a nearly identical restaurant.

There were many tourists from around the world but the majority were Korean or Chinese. It was tough getting around because many of these people were oblivious to the fact that the left side is the correct direction of travel. Many paths felt like Indian traffic jams. The most important part was everyone seemed to be relaxed in the serenity of the moment. I happily took pictures of countless fellow guests and they were happy to return the favor to me. So many Japanese were thrilled to hear I was from New York. Their faces lit up like lightning when I told them. They would excitingly yell out “New Yoooork????!!!!!!!

IMG_3039IMG_3043IMG_3050IMG_3052photos by R. Wilmot


Refections on the Second Week- Christie Herbert, Academic Director

Academic Director Update

We all arrived in Kyoto fairly well acclimated to the basics of Japan: the time, the food, the money, the transportation—all of the myriad systems that at first seemed so foreign. Students now routinely bow, say “sumimasen,” and get up to give their seats to elders. They are comfortable moving around and exploring on their own. We all joke that we often order or eat food without knowing what we are getting, or find we are on buses or trains or streets going the wrong way and need to turn around or get off. What strikes me most about these experiences is how open the students are to all of this, and how good they are getting at navigating, problem-solving, and waiting. Waiting becomes an opportunity to study the life around us—the people, the vending machines, the train schedules, life.

Just before we left for Kyoto, I told the group that we were at that dangerous point in the trip where the first honeymoon phase was over, and people were tired and could easily lapse into irritability, impatience, etc. What Ruth and I stressed was how important it was for them to learn how to be patient, how to take care of each other, how to accept their bouts of anxiety or anger, and move together as a group. We joked that each person was allowed one unfortunate moment per day. In short, we wanted them to experience a kind of Japanese way of moving together as a group. They have done this beautifully, to a student.

It’s an interesting challenge to facilitate a curriculum while moving around as we are. I view Kyoto as a time for students to engage in new ways of looking, reflecting, and connecting what they understand about Japanese culture with its pervasive aesthetic and design ethos. Some are finding it easier to capture their experiences visually than verbally, but I push them to do both. I want them to train a zoom lens, both literally and figuratively, onto the details in the art and design all around them, from modern graphics in a restaurant to the tile on the end of a temple roof. And then they can zoom back out and think about how everything is making sense to them, emotionally and intellectually—particularly given the comfortable lodgings we are currently in. The juxtaposition of so many historic and preserved places amid the din and roar of a modern city creates a kind of dialectic of movement and stillness, dark and light, quiet and buzzing, green and neon, ancient and new, reverential and slurping noodles, etc. I am working hard to avoid teaching to a clichéd view of Japan, and have talked with students about such things as Japan’s dubious environmental record, and some of the darker aspects of WWII. Today we heard about the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, and had a discussion about this over breakfast.

It is exciting to talk with students and find out all the ways they are learning and growing from this experience. Tomorrow we return to Tokyo to the Olympic Village and our now beloved little village of Sangubashi. We will spend Monday morning in the classroom pulling all of our Kyoto experiences together to write/produce the second project. Hard to believe we’ll be on a plane heading for the U.S. at this time in one week!

– and just a few of the hundreds of photos Christie has been taking….



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Student Reflections – Kiyomizu Temple, Tea Ceremony and Shigaraki

Ben Winick on Japanese Temple Design as Microcosm of Japanese Aesthetics

When you first look at them, Japanese temples and shrines seem to be an odd mix of austere and garish. As was the case with both Yakasa Shrine and Kiyomizudera (Clear-Water Temple), the two holy sites we visited on Thursday, temple and shrine buildings can embrace an aesthetic of wabi (deliberate imperfection, and the appreciation of that imperfection) and iki (austere, subtle beauty) on the one hand, and display aspects of furyuu (lit. “courtly beauty”) and karei (lit. “flowery beauty”; sumptuousness, bordering on ostentatiousness) on the other. These styles can be seen on neighboring buildings – if not on the same building! For example, at Kiyomizudera, one of the pagodas in the front courtyard of the shrine was painted in stripes of neon red-orange on each “tier” above the base, and the lintel below each was marked with brightly colored – almost psychedelic! – abstract patterns. At the same time, the unpainted wood on that pagoda was wet from the rain and beginning to show its age, and occasionally inlaid with subtle gold filigree. These two very disparate styles, rather than clashing, actually seemed to compliment each other – and both actually held deep spiritual meaning. The neon red-orange is used across Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Japan, as it is believed that that particular color will attract kami (spirits and gods (both large and small)); the unvarnished wood, on the other hand, is aligned with the Japanese concept of mono no aware (loosely translated, “the pathos of transience”; the bittersweet sadness in knowing that everything eventually fades.)

IMG_2969R. Wilmot IMG_3273 copy DSC_0407C. Herbert

Acadia Stevens on Kiyomizu dera Temple

Today we went to Kiyomizu Temple a Buddhist temple which was a fifteen minute walk from are hotel. The temple is an impressive feat of architecture as no nails were used in its construction. The purpose of this was probably to further connect those that come to the temple with nature. The entire construction of the temple is meant to bring you closer to nature. There are trees and various plants lining the walkway in order to shield the visitor from the view of the material world. The path leads the visitor further and further from the view of the city and closer to nature. Soon you are unable to hear the noise of the city and are instead surrounded by the chirping of birds, rustling of leaves, and the roaring of the water fall. No food or water is allowed in the temple complex. This is deliberate, in order to make visitors better appreciate the simpler things in life like food and water. After the long walk through nature where you let go of the material world you are rewarded at the end of your journey with stands that offer you the chance to purchase water and a hot meal. I found this trip to the temple to be interesting in its difference from the others we have visited. This temple was the most secluded of the ones we have been to visit so far, the other temples while separated from the main roads by walls and fences, were still just a stone throws away from the hub of life. Kiyomizu was so separate from the main roads that you have to walk ten minutes to get to the main road. My favorite part of this visit would have to be the food. The Pizza Meat Bun while tasting nothing like Pizza, was none the less delicious, especially after the long walk around the temple. Some times the simplest things like good food with friends, can turn out to be the most wonderful.


Ben Winick on the Tea Ceremony

During class, we’ve talked a lot about how important ritual is in Japanese culture, and this deeply ingrained aspect of Japanese culture is apparent in tea ceremony. Though we only saw and participated in a (very!) abbreviated form of that particular ritual, every action undertaken by the woman leading the ceremony was highly deliberate and clearly well practiced. All of the implements used to make matcha (a suspension of ground-up green tea leaves in hot water) were repeatedly cleaned using a red cloth (which, we were later told, is used to ritually and spiritually purify the tools); each time the leader picked up the hot water ladle, she held it in front of her and just looked at it (as she later told us, this is called “regarding the tools”); and every action taken in the preparation of the tea was repeated over and over. All of this was only in preparation for the first bowl of tea! The tea bowls themselves were emblematic of the aesthetic concepts of wabi and ma (lit. “an interval of time and space”; has various meanings, but the most important in this case is asymmetry). The bowls’ shapes were often irregular at the rim, or glazed in broad swatches of color – but each bowl had a clearly designated, intricately designed front, and the glazing was never splotchy or sloppily applied. I would love to learn more about how these bowls are designed and created! IMG_3014 IMG_3013

Arianna Guirola on the Tea Ceremony

Chanoyo, in Japanese, means tea ceremony and SadoChado means “way of tea”. The way of tea is a preparation made with a green powder called matcha. The way that this type of tea is prepared during the ceremony represents harmony, respect, tranquility and purity. Tea was introduced in Japan during the 6th century by a Buddhist monk who brought matcha from China. This monk personally prepared tea ceremonies to the Emperor Saga, which led to the order of beginning to grow tea in Japan. Wabi-Sabi is a style used in traditional tea ceremonies while using simple and rustic teacups. During the tea ceremony and all its aspects allows the experience to open people’s spirit, appreciating the simplicity and natural surroundings of tea drinking.

 When entering the room where the tea ceremony took place, I noticed that the utensils to prepare the ceremony were arranged in an orderly way. The arrangement looked artistic and natural and gave me a pure and tranquil feeling. The quiet in the room inspired me to follow this peacefulness with respect and harmony. The room was very simple, decorated with a calligraphy scroll on the wall, a vase, and the tea utensils placed on the floor. These simplistic decorations created a tranquil environment with the garden view outside. The host explained to us how the tea ceremony takes place and the types of materials used to prepare the tea. She talked about the four spiritual practices which are, Wa, Kei, Sei, and Jyaku. Wa represents harmony between the guests and the host and how that harmony. Kei represents respect, making everyone who attends the tea ceremony have the same rank, Sei means purity, which introduces an open and kind heart. Jyaku signifies tranquility which leads to selflessness. These four spiritual words represent the “Heart” of Sadou. When the host started the ceremony, the group sat still and quietly. It was very calming how the host prepared the tea, not making any noise when she grabbed the utensils. After preparing the tea, she cleaned the bowl and the other utensils she used. She then put the matcha tea in the bowl, added hot water and stirred it with a back and forth motion. She then started handing out the tea and when she finished, she cleaned and put the materials back in their place. I personally did not enjoy drinking tea, but this experience made me appreciate the art and the delicacy of the practice.

tea ceremony 3Arianna’s drawing

William Grant on Japanese Culture

While out and about in the bustling streets of Gion we had many chance encounters that could be described as memorable cross-cultural experiences. Firstly, when we stopped in the local McDonald’s for some members of the group to refuel, we happened upon two ladies dressed in full kimonos and other traditional Japanese garb ordering Big Macs. The juxtaposition of the kimono, which resembles and symbolizes ancient insular Japanese culture that has been preserved through its strong national identity and detachment from Westernization, with the most typically Western and modern of meals was both comical and a sign of the times. As the sun began to set over the river, shouts followed by chants of hundreds of people came from the near distance. These turned out to be the organized chants of a protest demonstration that comprised of untold numbers of Japanese citizens who were mostly senior in age. They carried signs and shouted into loudspeakers aggressive and defamatory exclamations against Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, who was attempting to create a standing army despite the constitution drafted after the Second World War specifically prohibiting this mode of action. It was fascinating to rationalize both how recent the war was and what its effects and America’s intervention in Japan has had on the Japanese culture and psyche. Surprisingly it seems as though these senior citizens who quite possibly lived first hand in the American-controlled post-WWII Japan are strongly in favor of the legislation and anti-imperialist doctrine established in that time period. While our lessons in Japanese culture and core values have proved educational and useful, it is where Japanese diverge in their behavior from these norms that proves most interesting to me. Tonight, as the torrents of rain finally subsided and the night assumed the tenderness and energy of Friday, I decided it would be fitting to explore some hidden corner of Kyoto and try to find an experience that would confound traditional Japanese culture rather than affirm it. I found a pachinko and videogame arcade complex and felt the atmosphere to be exquisitely anti-“wa”: at A-Cho, competition evinces harmony, individualism trumps teamwork, and there is something quite antisocial and escapist about the vibe of the place. Though it seems counter-intuitive that amongst the cacophonous noise, flashing lights and incredibly stimulating sensory overload, one can find solitude and tranquility it is apparent in the arcades scattered around Japanese cities. In the Great Gatsby, Daisy claims that in small parties “there’s no privacy.” Only when one is lost in a sea of noise, bodies, huge hunks metal, wiring, and flashing lights can one truly blend into the atmosphere as a non-entity. When you walk up through the floors of various fighting, mecha, dance and rhythm games there is not the regular greeting you find in department stores or the friendly calls of shop assistants. Nobody turns their heads, hardly anybody even notices your presence. Here, formalities are disposed with and ignored—the experience is between you and the machine, and the informality and loudness of the atmosphere is exactly what makes it enticing and perfect as a getaway. At one point, I had a difficult time attempting to uphold the traditional Japanese values of wa (harmony) and sasshi (indirectness) while also wanting to satisfy my personal desire to play on the only pokemon machine that a 40 year old man had been hogging for over 2 hours. Clearly, etiquette falls by the wayside in a venue as outcast and niche as this one. I sat 10 yards away staring at my phone, hoping that my body language and indirectness would hint to him in the right direction, but he was enjoying his own experience and unaware of his surroundings/ how he was impacting other people. Very un-wa, very un-wa indeed. And where was the Enryo? After 30 minutes I decided to be the brash, direct American and asked—with the aid of google translate of course—whether I might play one single game. Sure enough this was taken literally, and the man was hovering behind me as I finished the only game I played. He was all too eager to resume playing, and didn’t even return my gratitude when I bowed and said “arigato gozai mas.” I appreciated the cross-cultural experience for the fact that it didn’t hold up to the textbook definition of Japanese culture, and that people let down their guard and outside face in a particular setting.

Eli Moore on Visiting the Shigaraki Ceramic Park

Today I visited the ceramic cultural park in Japan. While there I was able to see a contemporary art exhibit as well as get a look at the studio on site. Pieces from the exhibit as well as many pieces spread around on site showed many of the concepts we have learned about since coming to Japan. Many of the pieces took inspiration from nature. The large vortex looking sculpture titled wave looks like a whirlpool. The subtle scaly texture on the inside and the earthy tone give an almost living feeling to it. The subtlety of the texture, the flamboyance of form, and the inspiration from nature perfectly reflect aspects of Japanese aesthetics. Outside of the cultural park, ceramics were found everywhere. Sitting down to lunch, wheel thrown ceramic cups were given out along with a matching wheel thrown bottle of water. Noodles came in beautifully uniquely glazed bowls. All aspects of food from the taste and look of the food to the accent of the utensils used are an art form.

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photos by C. Herbert

Ben Garrett on Shigaraki-Yaki Town, one of the Six Ancient Kilns/Pottery Towns in Japan

On our down day, I went with Christie, Eli, and Clark to visit the pottery village of Shigaraki. It was something else, and we managed to pick up some great gifts for people as well as going to the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park. We saw the work of ceramicists from all over the world, and even met some of the ceramicists doing residencies there. It was a great place full of so many different kinds of ceramic art from artists such as Guido Mariani, Takemi Shima, and Toro Okamoto. It made me want to be making pots. Shigaraki-Yaki town is about 1,500 feet above sea level and surrounded by the Shigaraki Mountains. Porcelain is produced here, and is one of Japan’s best clays. The Shigaraki-Yaki Porcelain began about 1,200 years ago during the time Emperor Shomu built his palace in Shigaraki. Since then, water jars and seed jars were made in the Kamakura era (1192-1333), tea bowls in the Muromachi Era (1333-1573), tea canisters and sake bottles in the Edo era (1603-1868) and since then, during the Showa Era, charcoal braziers were its chief products. Today flower pots, garden wares, tiles of various kinds, and ornaments such as the raccoon dogs, Tanuki, have become popular and are a sign of good Luck.

Seven Lessons of a Tanuki/shigaraki lasr oneRaccoon Dog (from a hand out we were given at a pottery shop)

1. A sedge Hat (Be always careful not to become bankrupt.)

2. A charming Face (Affability is important to a merchant.)

3. A big paunch (Be quick in decision.)

4. A ‘Sake’ Bottle (Being Satisfied with a Simple meal calls virtue.)

5. An account book (Trust first.)

6. The testicles (Money will come and multiply by a wise use of it.)

7. A large tail (The end crowns all.)

Student Reflections- First day in Kyoto

Students have been asked to submit blog posts each day we are in Kyoto.   Ray Lounsbury begins by giving us an overview of Wednesday’s excursion.

Raymond E. Lounsbury

Today our group spent the day visiting a bamboo forest, Kinaku-ji and Ryoanji Temples, all of which were very powerful experiences. We started by exploring the bamboo forest which was adjacent to a cemetery with train tracks running through the middle. Japanese graves are very different from those found in the west. There was no grass and the tombs were raised about a quarter foot off the ground and all had equally large markers which were made from stone or wood with the exception of a very large one in the center which was likely for someone who was of high social status. A carriage service was offered that would take people though the forest. Many people were fascinated by the busy railroad that went through the center. A train passed about every two minutes.

After exploring the forest I ate a roadside lunch consisting of noodles and octopus dumplings. Many people had ice cream or a snow cone for dessert. Having finished, two of my fellow students joined me to walk to the Buddhist Zen garden while the others waited for a bus. To our amazement, we arrived at exactly the same time. The Zen garden had a lobby where people would remove their shoes and display tickets. Around the corner were two lowered platforms where the gardens sat. The first resembled an ocean with a few islands in it. The stones were raked horizontially in flawless lines. Guests sat on the edge and meditated. The other garden was full of moss and trees resembling a rainforest. Not as many people were gathered here. Both locations were equally relaxing as I let my mind go and enjoyed the smell of incense. The Buddhist temple also featured a massive coy pond and lots of foot trails through the woods. This serene environment clearly embraced the Buddhist model of peace, reaction and simply letting go. It was easy to be in the moment and only focus on the self.

Lastly, we went to Kinaku-ji temple which was on a beautiful lake surrounded by lots of plant life and trails. The temple is constructed of wood and is completely covered in gold leaf. Hundreds of people were lined up on the opposite bank to take photos. I must have been asked 15 times to take someone’s picture. People were able to walk around the temple but not go inside. Only a handful of high ranking officials have been able to enter. There was a large gift shop and tea house that people could enjoy. It was clear this was very formal setting, because everything was kept spotless and well-dressed employees gave guided tours.

Eli Moore

We have learned much about Japanese aesthetics over our time in Japan. Many aspects of these aesthetics are drawn from nature. Yesterday, we went to a bamboo forest and I noticed something that seemed very familiar. I have seen this plant depicted in many different pieces of art in my time here from kimonos to ceramics. The abstraction of nature is often used as an aspect of Japanese aesthetics. Mono-no-aware, the idea that the impertinence of thing is beautiful, is also commonly found in art taken from scenes of nature. A common use of mono-no-aware is depicting the same scene four times once during each season to show how much it changes. Closely related to mono-no-aware is an appreciation for a naturally rustic look. This is often used in stoneware pottery to create perfectly imperfect art. Walking around in parks, I have noticed how wildly and asymmetrical trees grow round here. Asymmetry is yet another aspect of esthetic design that has been taken from observing nature in Japan.

DSC_0240C. Herbert

Ben Garrett
Today was our first day in Kyoto and we went to the bamboo grove at Arashiyama and walked around. I always wanted to see the bamboo here. We found a little temple there which had this moss garden on the inside that caught my attention. It had a rustic old little bridge there, with a one flower growing out of the stones underneath the bridge. This, to me, seemed to capture the essence of wabi-sabi. The empty space of moss around it seemed to capture the wabi, the imperfection, and the ma, the negative space, giving it a sense of incompleteness. The subtlety of that calmed me. I stopped for a minute and it seemed that all the suffering in my life was put on hold.

At the Ryoanji Rock Garden

Benjamin Winick

Ryoan-ji (Ryoan Temple) encapsulates several aspects of Japanese design and aesthetics, even when you only look at its famous rock garden. First and foremost, it exemplifies the many aspects of ma (usually used to mean “an interval in time and space”). The arrangement of larger gray rocks among the smaller white rocks covering the ground of the garden is heavily asymmetric; the smaller white rocks and larger gray rocks are used as “negative space” in contrast to the patches of green grass sitting underneath the large gray rocks; and, (appropriately) much like the Buddhist concept of mushin (emptiness), very little of the garden was occupied by anything other than the white rocks. The rock garden also is deeply steeped in a sense of shibui (lit. “astringent”, but used to mean “subtle, refined beauty”). There is no sense of ostentatiousness or “loudness”; instead, the garden possesses only subtle amounts of color, and does not call attention to the most detail oriented pieces of its design, like the patterns raked into the smaller rocks by the monks each day.

DSC_0279 C. Herbert

Ben Wincik Ben Winick Ben WinichPhotos by B. Winick

Isaac Alam

The Ryoanji Temple was such a beautiful experience, I have never witnessed Japanese architecture like that before with so much meaning to it and so much effort and time put into each thing that was created. I also was amazed about how much they represent what they believe in by portraying it in their art and things that they build. What intrigued me the most was a unique wash-basin of stone or named “Tsukuabi.” Each time I go to a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple, I see this symbolic fountain that people pray with and drink from, which is a very interesting purification ritual. But the “Tsukubai” at Ryoanji is made with amazing stone that is shaped in a perfect way along with the 4 Japanese characters as well. The four characters have a Zen Buddhism type of feel to it, and the saying on the stone translates to “I learn only to be contented” or he who learns to be contented is the one that is rich in spirit and within himself. Even if you are very rich you are still poor if you are not content. I learned that the topic of being content or at peace is very important to the Zen spirit. This relates to everything we have been learning about Japanese aesthetics and culture as a whole.

Acadia Stevens
Today we went to visit the Ryoan-ji Zen Garden. The entire complex from the rock garden to the koi pond exuded Wabi, Sabi, and of course Zen. From the moment you walk into the complex everything around you encourages you to leave your worldly detachments behind for the simplicity and purity of nature. This nature that is all around you is fleeting and ever changing so you need to pay attention in order to see its beauty. For example the koi in the pond are beautiful, but they are constantly moving and changing positions so that they will never be in the exact some positions again. I loved the koi! I could have spent all day watching them. For me watching koi swim around in a pond is like sitting at a rock garden. I feel at peace, I am able to empty my mind of all thought and just appreciate the beauty around me. It is a truly wonderful feeling.

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Meghan Beaton
Today we went to many different temples but the one that stood out too me the most was the one with the Zen garden at Ryoan-Ji. I liked this one because of the garden/ meditation area, and also the gardens surrounding it with fountains and a pond with koi and other animals. I also loved walking through the winding bamboo paths at the other temple.

Cara Emerson

In Kyoto so far I have seen a lot of the embodiment of Japanese aesthetics. Buildings, temples and shrines are surrounded by the peaceful nature of Japanese beauty. For example in the reading it talks about how these two Japanese princes constructed parts of Kyoto and were careful about the detail and sensitive about the material they used and where to put these places. When in Ryoanji Temple, the Zen Garden and the Temple complimented each other. The temple looks over a Zen garden and therefore when you look out from both sides of the temple I see jimi (somber and proper beauty) with the Zen garden. It is elegant in a way that pleases the eye, mind and soul of the person. In keeping with ideas of what proper beauty is, everything compliments each other. For example everything in the Zen Garden was natural colors from whites, brown, blacks and greys they all balanced out in different shades. The Zen Garden had a sabi feeling to it because it was just a lot of rocks in a pattern that was abstract and looked lonely. On the other side of the Zen garden if you walk around the temple you will see a transition between rocks and little garden. When you see the garden you automatically think of hade (bright and exuberant beauty) because when you turned the corner everything was so lush and green that was bursting with different colors of green. Also this part was wabi, because it has a rustic old look to it with all the trees, little pond and a wash-basin of a stone and compared to the Zen garden.

At the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji)

Arianna Guirola
Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion)/Rokuon-ji Temple is located in Kyoto of Japan. As the name suggests, the upper two levels of the temple are covered in gold leaf over lacquer. There’s also a phoenix covered with gold at the top of the shingled roof. Each level is built in a different style: the first level is built in the shinden style, which was popular during the 11th century imperial aristocracy; the second level is in the buke style of the warrior aristocracy; and the top level is in the Chinese zenshu-butsuden style. I found it interesting and eye opening to visit the gold temple, as it was a unique experience. It made me wonder how the Muromachi period (1337-1573) built the temple and how they were able to place each gold leaf in its place. I had never seen a temple covered with gold. Aesthetically, I appreciated both its very rustic features, as time has evolved because of its age, as well as how flamboyant the temple looks, covered with gold. It plays with the idea of nature abstracted because it’s contrasted by the big pond, the garden, and trees, giving the effect of solidarity. Inside the temple suggests emptiness Finally, the temple is elegant, beautifully designed and surrounded by nature. It embodies so many of the aesthetic principles we have been studying.

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Katie Godowski

No photo can capture the essence of what the beautiful Kinkaku-ji temple looks like. It might of been a cloudy day, but being in the moment is never dull when seeing beautiful and historic things. The temple sits on an island surrounded by lily padded water, and bonsai trees. I feel as if it would be a 1000 times prettier in cherry blossom season, but that just means I need to visit again. (click the link below for a beautiful photo of the temple that Katie took.)

Clark Gegler
Yesterday was a day filled with amazing sights. The bamboo grove was so peaceful and serene; I really enjoyed being able to walk through it and just let the scale of these giant plants wash over me. The Golden Pavilion was also a majestic sight—seeing it shining in the sun was awe inspiring. There were also lots of school children at the Golden Pavilion who wanted to practice their English with visiting tourists. They were really embarrassed at having to talk to a native English speaker, but I found that overall their English was very good. So far I think I enjoy Kyoto more than Tokyo because of all the historical buildings and culture that is here.

Emily Motter
After reading about all the Japanese art forms and different cultural values, it is almost impossible not to see the integration of the two where ever you go. At one of the temples yesterday, I saw this sculpture which I thought was the epitome of Japanese values blended into an art piece. There is the idea of everyone working together to make a whole society while maintaining a hierarchy of deference to elders and those who have higher positions than you. The different levels in the sculpture represent that social structure, but every piece is balanced and holding together to create a whole which is able to withstand time.

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Finally, students are noticing the principles of Japanese art and aesthetics even as they wander through department stores.

Will Grant
During our stroll through the Takashimaya mall we encountered rows upon rows of intricately crafted bowls and other ceramic pottery that were painted decoratively and often quite expensive. The prices ranged from 3,000 yen to 30,000 yen, with the latter often being comprised of fine lacquerware detailed with opulent gold designs. Even the cheaper bowls exemplified the aesthetic tenets of Japanese art and principles of creating something both functional and visually pleasing. The cheaper bowls capture the essence of Wabi-Sabi exceptionally. The colors are earthy and organic in tone and evoke an aged, natural quality. There is imperfection and asymmetry to the details on the surface and the shape of the bowls themselves that displays the age-old aesthetic Japanese concerns of controlled imperfection and “mono no aware”—the beauty of impermanence and the passing of time. The bowls are hand-spun with form and function both being held in equal esteem. The beauty of the object is connected to the idea that it will actually be used and degrade over time, although minimally. This means that the bowl you use each time is slightly different than the last and you are having a new and enriching present experience each time you drink or eat out of it. The present experience and interaction is heightened/beautiful because of its uniqueness and eventual passing.

Finally, a few pictures from Thursday’s trip to Kiyomizu Temple. As long as we have reliable wi-fi tomorrow we hope to post student reflections on that trip along with the tea ceremony experience.

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Photos by C. Herbert

Our First Full Day in Kyoto

After a particularly tiring travel day yesterday we all woke up more refreshed and ready to explore this fascinating city.  After a diverse breakfast (everything from yogurt and toast to miso soup, rice, fish, roasted veggies and pickles) we traveled by bus to three major sights.  Students experienced the phenomenon of being crowded onto a bus only to discover that even more passengers could be squeezed on.  It was nice to be above ground traveling for over a half hour across town.  First stop was the Arashiyama bamboo grove where we were among tourists from around the world as well as a recently married couple (photo by C Herbert).


photo by R. Wilmot




After a bowl of noodles and ice cream for several students we took another bus to the famous rock garden at Ryoanji Temple. (C. Herbert)


We took a group picture on the steps leading to the temple building that houses the rock garden.(C. Herbert)



Christie asked the students to spend some time looking at the garden while thinking about what they have learned about Zen Buddhism and meditation. (C. Herbert and R. Wilmot)

Some students chose to walk from Ryoanji to Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion) while most of the group took yet another bus.  Kinkakuji was filled with tourists including a number of Japanese school children who had been given an assignment to practice their English with foreigners. (C. Herbert and R. Wilmot)





Students have an assignment to write several blog entries this week so as long as our wifi connection is reliable we hope to be posting student comments over the next few days during our time in Kyoto. As always we appreciate your comments.

We’ve arrived in Kyoto

On Tuesday we awoke earlier than usual in order to complete the precise folding and collecting of dirty sheets and cleaning of our rooms before students had their final class meeting at the Olympic Center. Everyone had a specific task and the group did a great job.  


Emily and Arianna were two of our sheet helpers. 

After a final class to preview Kyoto assignments we headed to Tokyo station where we waited for our afternoon bullet train to Kyoto. 


Notice the lady in pink that cleaned the car in minutes before we boarded. 

We arrived in Kyoto about six and then took taxis to our Sunline Hotel in the Gion district. We were all thrilled to have more luxurious rooms after the spartan rooms at the Olympic Village. This morning we are ready for some major sight seeing. More about that later. 

Student Reflections

We apologize for the delay in posting this student work.  We’ve been experiencing intermittent wifi access.

Students in the 2000 level of the course wrote blogs this week.  Here’s a sampling:


Arianna’s Drawing

Arianna Guirola

Meiji Shrine is located in the central Tokyo in a town called Shibuya. It is interesting that it’s the largest shrine and a lot of people visit the shrine. Mostly people go to the New Year’s festival. Meiji is named after the Emperor Meiji, who died in 1912. I was very excited to go to Meiji shrine and it was my second time to go there. When we arrived at the Shinto shrine gateway that is called torii. I loved how the torii looked. The Torii is tall, archlike, and placed at the entrance to a Shinto shrine. It’s two slanting upright and two crossed-pieces and it is made of wood. Also it has three gold flowers that are called chrysanthemums. The flower represents the imperial seal of Japan. I also realized when I was about to enter the torii, I had to walk in diagonally not in a straight line. It took us 5 minutes to get to Meiji Shrine from the first torii. One interesting part of visiting the shrine was the ritual of washing your hands before entering the shrine. You first wash your right hand and then switch and wash your left hand and then wash out your mouth if necessary. Finally, arriving at the Meiji shrine brought me good memories of seeing it with my family and some friends in 2013. I’m glad that I came back to see the Meiji Shrine again.


Katie Godowski Photographs

Please visit her flickr page to see some more gorgeous pictures. Click on the photo.

Ben Winick

This is the first time I’ve visited Japan in just over 3 years. Not so coincidentally, I’ve neither studied nor spoken the language for approximately the same amount of time. While we are in Tokyo, we are staying at a youth hostel called the National Olympic Memorial Youth Center. (The hostel is operated on the former site of the Olympic Village for the 1962 Tokyo Olympic Games.) When we checked in – on our first full day in Japan – things hit a snag almost immediately. Ruth discovered that the hostel required that we submit a full daily schedule for our program in Japanese, in addition to all of the documents we had already submitted. Though Ruth’s ability to speak and read Japanese was still at a fairly high level, she was less confident in her writing skills. As I was the only other student who had identified themselves as having studied Japanese before coming on this trip, she asked me to help her render our itinerary into the required daily schedule. Hesitantly, I accepted, and over the following hour or so, we put our heads together to decipher kanji on maps, find approximate translations for phrases we did not remember, and so on. I surprised myself with how much I was able to remember how to write – and was disappointed by how little I understood of the conversation between Ruth and the office worker from the hostel when we submitted the schedule! Even as my limited conversational abilities have improved with more days of immersion, I continue to surprise myself with how much I remember reading and writing – translating the names of train stations while traveling has been a special treat – and continue to struggle to try and speak correctly when it’s needed. However, I’ve been learning how to leverage what skills I have effectively to navigate Tokyo on my own. (I was able to make my way to Sunshine City in Ikebukuro with only a vague idea of where I was going thanks to Google Maps!)

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Eli Moore: Connecting the Askusa Shrine and Senso-Ji Temple
Today I visited the Asakusa Shrine and the Sensoji Temple. Shinto shrines are built to be dedicated to kami, or spirits of nature. In 628 CE, two brothers found a floating bodhisattva statuette in their fishing net. A local landlord taught the brothers about the statue and together the three men built the Sensoji Temple. The Asakusa shrine is dedicated to the three men that founded Sensoji Temple and Ebisu, the kami of fishermen and luck, for helping the brothers find the statuette. The towering wooden gateway called the torii is decorated with shime-nawa, a sacred rope of twisted straw. The statue is a koma-inu, a sacred beast that wards off evil spirits from the shrine. The Sensoji Temple had many stores located on its sando ̅, the road approaching a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple. There were food vendors, trinket shops, fan and umbrella stores, chopstick shops, and a variety of other shops. I even picked up my own pair of chopsticks while I was there.


Isaac Alam on Viewing a Shinto Wedding

At the Meji Shrine it was an amazing experience to get to be inside such a historical part of Japanese history. To witness something that is very important to history and has such a positive effect on many people is a great thing to experience. What intrigued me the most at the Meiji Shrine is when I saw a Japanese wedding for the first time in my life. It’s a very powerful thing watching two people from a different culture and country come together. Watching how two people make an agreement to love each other forever is a beautiful thing, but to watch it in Japan at the Meiji Shrine and watch how people in a different country do it, is something I will never forget. I paid attention to the format of the wedding and what the bride and the groom both were wearing. The bride was wearing a traditional white kimono that is called Shiromuku and the groom was wearing a montsuki which is formal and black and everyone also had on black. I learned that traditional wedding ceremonies are held at shrines which is very amazing to me. The style of the wedding is very rich in feeling and emotion to me and the way they dress is something I have never seen before. I am very blessed to have some type of part of the wedding.

Acadia Stevens

Today, June 16, we went to see a Shinto temple. The temple, while not elaborate, had this quiet, beauty, and elegance about it. Even though there was a sizable crowd the temple had this sort of hushed quiet about it was as though everyone was speaking in whispers. This appreciation for the beauty in simplicity is not a concept that we, as westerners have any sort of familiarity with. It is however a concept that is quite prevalent in Japan, one need only to walk down the street to see examples of it in just about every window they pass.

Acadia Meiji

Will Grant

Though Japan has been both modernized and westernized to a degree, the highly formalized and choreographed elements of their culture that stem back thousands of years are still apparent even today wandering around Tokyo. In our first class we discussed the elements and core tenets of Japanese social interaction—namely the concepts of amae, enryo, and interpersonal harmony. In even the more minor social interactions in Shinjuku, Harajuku or wherever we as a group have travelled these ideals have been prevalent and apparent. When I rudely interrupted a salesperson in a high end clothing store she apologized to me, assuming that she had made some mistake or gaffe in conversation that had prompted me to do so. The cashiers and service people all offer the highly formalized greeting of “ohio gozai mass” and a bow to indicate respect and appreciation, with at least an effort at sincerity and grace. This stands in stark and refreshing contrast to the soulless and hollow “have a nice day” we receive reluctantly from the cashier in our local American grocer. This concept also ties into Japanese concerns over aesthetic, another topic we covered in class and which permeates all facets of their life. Down to the more minute of details, the Japanese are concerned with presentation and the visceral experience being satisfactory and pleasing. Even what we might consider a menial task of making a crepe with ice cream is handled with the care, delicacy and focus of an artist wielding his brush or a brain surgeon handling his tools. This may seem like extreme hyperbole, but it isn’t as far off as you would imagine. All of these details and formalized aspects of life in Japan add up to create a sense of harmony, tranquility and visceral pleasantness that is quite altogether other from our expected and monotonous routine in America. There is a zest and care that is infused into even the more mundane actions and aspects of life—the street cleaner does not hesitate to flash a bright smile and most likely believes that his role is important in the grand scheme of society. This harkens back to another concept of the vertical hierarchical society in Japan, where all know their place and act accordingly with respect to superiors. Whereas Americans are very concerned with individualistic ideals and personal achievement (often at the expense of others) the Japanese are more interested in promoting this sense of harmony and collective advancement. Thus, even a worker at the low end of the totem pole sees himself as an important and invaluable cog in the wheel of society and understands that his role is important and no to be underestimated.

Clark Gegler

So far this trip has been amazing. It seems so cliche to say it but I am really enjoying my time here. The people are so kind and welcoming. As a non-Japanese speaker they always try and meet me half way with gestures and partial English. The shrines we visited were so cool, I am a huge fan of their architecture; unfortunately my camera died before I could document them, but I did get great photos of the Saki barrels and rope. Everyone on this trip is great with all different personalities and I am looking forward to spending more time to get to know every one better.


Ben Garrett

Today we went to the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan, the Asakusa/Senso-Ji temple. It was something else. Leading all the way to it were all these trinkets and pastry shops with these conveyor belts that cooked and dished out chocolates. As we got to the temple’s Sanmon, the main gate of the temple, rain began to pour down, hard. A lot of people got cover from the rain. I found cover at the te-mizuya, were you pour water on each of your hands and then bring it to your mouth so you can enter the temple, pure. Inside the temple was a ceremony of monks chanting to their golden shrine and people giving prayers and blessings. After I gave my prayer, I left the temple towards the koro-ya, a roofed pot with incense burning to fan onto yourself. All in all it was an experience, and was glad to be able to see this temple.

Emily Motter: The Buddhist Temple

Today was a really rainy day here in Tokyo! We made it through the maze that is the subway and train system. I am from New York City and have seen my fair share of public transportation but Tokyo is by far the most complex I’ve ever seen.  After three trains, we made it to the Asakusa Temple, which is a Buddhist temple in the Asakusa district. It is known for being the most traditional of Japanese architecture as not much was left after World War II so this was as close as we will get to traditional Japanese architecture in Tokyo. The Hondo is the main building of the temple which was my favorite. Since it was raining, many people were huddled under the gohai (the part of the roof that flares out at the sides). There is a large lantern hanging in the entrance as you walk up the stairs into the center of the building where prayer takes place. Inside people get their fortunes on pieces of paper, o-mikuji, and tie them to metal wires strung up around the temple if it was bad luck. This reminded me of yesterday when we went to the Shinto Meiji Shrine where I wrote a prayer on an o-fuda, a wooden tablet, and hung it on a structure built around a tree. The weather was not the best, but it made for some interesting footage! Check it out.

Ray Lounsbury

Today I spent the day with Kantaro Hargarawa who I met at boarding school about 4 years ago. Back in the United States, Kantaro would stay at our home during many U.S holidays when he could not go back to Japan. My family and I had him for Christmas and Thanksgiving about three times. Staying in our home and experiencing holidays gave him the full experience of American culture. Today is the first time I have seen him since Graduation of spring 2014. It was a thrill for both of us to be finding our way around Tokyo. We took the subway and walked around town ending up at the Tokyo sky tree. We were able to travel to the top and experience the fantastic view. For dinner, I ate with him and his best friend at an authentic Japanese restaurant where I learned allot about Kantaro’s life in Japan and that he would like to be a teacher for his future career. This is very impressive because being a teacher is highly respected in Japan. It was really exciting to share this cross-cultural experience.

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