Ikenobo Arrangement #6

I honestly don’t remember this lesson (it’s from awhile ago). This week just enjoy the before and after. Maybe you can find the differences and the potential lesson in the arrangement.

Looking at my first attempt again, the big green leaf really bothers me now. It’s too tall.

I really taking pictures of arrangments from the side. It gives you a whole new perspective. From the front, the plum branches look like they are all tangled together. But from the side, you can see how they are angled and layered.

Arr 6 compare

That leaf though. I need more confidence to cut down those big long leaves. In the end, I found the lesson. Cut the leaf.

See you next week for the next arrangement!

Weekly Ikenobo: Arrangemnet #2

Ahh arrangement #2. This was my second week of lessons and the first time I would be alone with my new teacher. Well not totally alone. I was wasn’t the only student studying under her. Sometimes, there are women there taking lessons or finishing up when I arrive. Time is very flexible.

I arrive after work and I sit and chat with my teacher and others students over black coffee and numerous treats that the teacher lays out for us. I haven’t figured out exactly where all the food comes from but I think most of it is omiyage (souvenirs usually in the form of individually packaged treats) from her travels or her students. At 88 years she is still quite active.

This process is both a source of stress and relaxation. Part of me wants to go in, do my thing, and get out, but the coffee and chatting helps break the ice and forces me to speak Japanese. At first, I’m always tense and quiet but soon I relax and jump into conversations or answer questions.

I think this a part of traditional culture in Japan; giving treats and snacks that is. I have been given tea and coffee at meetings with my schools, the fire department, and even in a Chinese medicine shop while waiting for my friend. It’s polite, thoughtful, and slows you down. In the West, you are often on the go and straight to business. Taking time to sip tea and nibble on a sweet treat doesn’t take away from business or your goal but instead gives your time to others and maybe unconsciously shows your commitment and respect to them. It’s abstract and roundabout but most of the Japanese traditional culture is like that – especially ikebana.

Don’t believe me? Ikebana at its core is meant to be appreciated and admired, often during tea ceremonies, which can take hours. It reflects nature with all of its beauty and imperfections. A Western bouquet is full of the brightest and most beautiful flowers and greenery. Ikebana embraces the imperfections of nature. Nothing is symmetrical, you will rip and cut leaves and branches to create a sense of space. You imagine how wind would shape the growth of plants (this is sooooo difficult to get right). You must take your time to examine your flowers and create a small scene of nature inside a tiny ceramic world. There is no one single answer but you must around stand certain key elements that make an arrangement good.

As a beginner you kind of flounder around trying to figure out how you are supposed to put it together. You are taught a few basic lessons but then you are on your own. You must take your time and a try and use the lessons you were first taught. The real lesson begins after you finish your attempt and yes I meant attempt. There have been many times I had no idea how to use a certain flower or branch. Those times I usually ask the teacher to teach me the best way to manipulate the branch (its usually a branch). Your teacher will then observe your arrangement and make changes. Sometimes the changes are small and other times it barely resembles what you first created … like this:

Arrangement 2

Next week I delve more into what actually makes an Ikenobo arrangement and some of the lessons my teacher has taught me. See you next week!

Karatsu Kunchi: Feasting and House-hopping

Food and alcohol are undeniably an important part of Karatsu Kunchi. Locals open their houses to family, neighbors, friends, and even strangers to come and spend a little time eating and drinking. Most of the women and some of the men in the family will work tirelessly to prepare a variety and large quantities of food. Every year ALTs are invited to the homes of co-workers and friends. One house we visit always has an elaborate spread of local food.

Kunchi Feast
This giant delicious fish was the centerpiece of the entire meal! Photo courtesy of Jess 2014

The centerpiece of the feast is a large fish called Ara あら, or seabream in English. Families save up money all year-round for this massive fish. One fish can cost several hundred to a couple thousands of dollars. No corners are cut when it comes to a Karatsu Kunchi feast.

Kunchi Ara 17
Japanese Seabream in the centerpiece of a Kunchi Feast

People never stay too long as they will probably visit many houses during the festival and there are many mouths to feed. The alcohol is always flowing and I usually bring a decent sized bottle of sake to the houses I know I’m visiting as a gift to help replenish supplies. Beer is always on hand as families tend to stock up on crates of beer.

Sashimi Platter
A beautiful presentation of sashimi

Sometimes you get spontaneous invitations from friends going to other houses or running into people you know. Last year I ended up in the house of a firefighter who was friends with one of my teachers. There we got a front row seat to the hikiyama parading through the neighborhood.

Food Platter

For Americans and Canadians, think of Kunchi as a Thanksgiving of sorts. Everyone is celebrating the good fortune of the year and show their appreciation by sharing food with not only family but the community and strangers as well. After pulling the floats, the men hop between houses in their home neighborhoods and those of their friends. Children and teenagers visit their friend’s houses or hang out at the food stalls downtown.

Top of Food Platter

Kunchi house fair is usually made up of raw and cooked fish, shellfish, rice balls,  hamburger steaks, sushi, tempura, bread, fruits, and cooked vegetables. This year I was fortunate enough to be invited to a very important house. The husband was a leader for one of the floats and he knew one of my teachers. We spent a good time chatting and eating delicious food. As we were leaving we thanked the wife and other women for the food.To my surprise, she gave each of us a hand embroidered dish towel and cute squid shaped sweet called youkan. It’s like a firm jelly and it pairs well with strong green tea.

Yuzu flavored youkan, a traditional Japanese sweet, in the shape of a Yobuko squid.

Karatsu Kunchi is my favorite festival in Japan. I love the food and hospitality that is given to old friends and strangers alike. As an ALT, Kunchi is the time I really feel like I am a part of the community. For foreigners wanting to experience Kunchi for themselves, I don’t recommend just popping into any old house. Enjoy the parades and the delicious stall food. But if you get an invitation, I recommend stepping out of your comfort zone and take the chance to experience a true Karatsu Kunchi.

Karatsu Kunchi 2017 Album

Check out my pictures from Karatsu Kunchi 2017. The first slideshow is from the first night. Sorry if some of the quality is bad, all of these photos were taken with my iPhone.

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Day 2: The Sand Pull and too many people.

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And finally, a couple videos I took during the first two days of Kunchi!

Return to Ikebana: Arrangement 1

After a year I am returning to Ikebana. I am excited to get back to my flowers. Originally, I was taking Ikenobo classes at the local community center in my neighborhood but it became too expensive in the long run.

after a few months of quitting the community program, I found out that one of my Japanese teachers knew the woman who taught the community class. At first, I was embarrassed because I hadn’t given any notice to the teacher (which is kind of a big no-no). I explained to her that it had become too expensive in the long run especially if I missed classes. She understood and over the following weekends she started dropping hints about me starting Ikebana lessons again. A comment one week, an ikebana magazine the next three – from the ikebana teacher, and finally she mentioned that the teacher also hosts individual lessons at her house.

I was immediately interested and flustered. The ikebana teacher had told my Japanese teacher to offer the lessons to me and tell me that she wanted to keep teaching me. It was impossible to refuse after that.

Later that week, we went to her house for the first greeting and lesson. The atmosphere was much more traditional and formal, the lesson taking place in a large tatami room with beautifully carved wood beams and my Japanese teacher walking me through respectful Keigo greetings which I don’t remember how to say.

After the greetings and agreeing on when lessons would take place. My re-instated sensei instructed me to grab a bundle of newspaper-wrapped flowers just outside the front door and get started.

I was familiar with this process as it was the same at the community center. Greeting the teacher, grab your flowers, make your arrangement, and finally call for the teacher to critique your work and give you tips and lessons. And if you are like me, snap some before and after pictures with your phone.

I was surprised to find that I wasn’t too rusty. I still have a long time before I can make arrangements like my teacher’s. But that comes with time and a good teacher. I’m excited and thankful to be given a second chance. I won’t waste it.


Arrangement 1
Side-by-side comparison of my attempt and my teacher’s lesson



JLPT Failure: Life Lessons, Culture Clash, and Sunburn

Life will send you important lessons to learn. And sometimes life has to send them again because you didn’t learn your lesson the first time. That is what happened last weekend when I went to take the N4 JLPT. I studied for months and took two Japanese lessons per week so I could pass the exam.

I was confident in the visible growth in my Japanese. I could understand and respond to everyday conversations. I could read a lot more kanji than when I took the exam the first time. Overall, I just felt better about my ability to pass the test. And this time wasn’t going alone. My friend Itty was also taking the N4 with me.

It was the two of us and four other ALTs taking various levels. We decided to carpool with two other ALTs to save money and gas. We arrived about 30 mins early but because examinees are not allowed to park at the university we had to walk about 15 mins to the test building. And that’s where life reminded me:

Assuming makes an ass out of you and me.

Upon arriving at the building we see a giant board with the exam levels and their assigned room numbers. We read, N1, N2, N3, N5……but no N4. This was the exact building I took the N4 exam in last year. I was sure this was the place. Our test cards said Saga University on them. We thought we might be in another building. A few Japanese women were at the door so we asked them if they knew where the N4 exam was.

Her response (translated) was as followed:

“The N4? Oh, dear. It’s on the Nabeshima campus.” She looks at her watch. We asked her where that was. “It’s a twenty-minute drive north.”


We were flabbergasted. How? How could we have made such a mistake? We only had fifteen minutes before the exam started and if you aren’t in the room when the door closes you are disqualified from taking any part of the four-hour exam. There was no way we could make it in time.

The real irony here is that I had been nagging my friend to sit the N2 exam she had signed up for but didn’t want to take. She sat the exam while I sat in a park. We had wished them luck and then found a shady park to wallow in for four hours.

We weren’t angry. We were disappointed, embarrassed, and resigned. Both of us are well traveled and travel teaches you that things go wrong. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you prep or double-check, sometimes things don’t work out and you have to deal with your lot. This was an avoidable human error. You learn your lesson and move on.

The Cultural Difference

As we sat in the park we reflected on our situation. I started to fall into the trap of “at an American test, they would have tried to keep the test in the same building or at the very least on the same campus. Why would you move only one level to a completely separate campus? That’s really stupid.”

Itty reminded me that there was a cultural difference here. One that he experienced in France. In both Japan and France, the test examiners have the final say. It doesn’t matter what is convenient for the customer because you have already paid for the product. If you want the product you paid for (in this case a test) you will go where ever they tell you to go. End of story. Didn’t read the instructions properly? Not our problem.

In America, if the building didn’t have enough room for all of the examiners they would probably try to move it to a nearby building or find a new test site that could accommodate everyone.

Neither one of these thoughts is wrong. They are just different.

I made an honest mistake by assuming this Saga University was the same campus as the Nabeshima medical campus and that even if it wasn’t in the same building it would be in the area. So, I learned my lesson. I will read the entire test card next time. I will look up the address on a map. I will arrive at the test site an hour in advance just to be safe.

And maybe next time I pack some sunscreen, too. Just in case I get stuck in a park again for four hours at high noon. I look like a lobster.

On the bright side, I wasn’t alone.

After the Rain – Ouchi Ajisai Matsuri


Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long for the rain to come. In the week after my first trip to the Ouchi Hydrangea Festival, it rained. By Friday, the rain had stopped and I dashed over to Ouchi after work to enjoy the refreshed flowers in the evening light. Along the way, I picked up Jess and Jhanice and the three of us went up the trail.

The thing about going to see the hydrangea on a weekday after work is that nothing is open and almost no one is there. On the weekend, there are a small 200 yen (about $2) to enter the festival and that fee goes towards helping the community. However, since the road to the falls is public and people live on that road it’s open all the time. The downside is that all of the food, craft, and plant stalls are packed up. On the weekend we had seen the stalls so we weren’t too disappointed to find them closed.

We began the walk up the road. Along the why we passed the hills, river, and gazebos surrounded by the blues, purples, whites, and pinks of the hydrangeas. Many of the plants had started to bloom since the rain. The flowers looked much more lively. When the festival is open there is a bus that takes people directly to the waterfall.


There is a small parking lot at the waterfall but I didn’t want to miss any of the flowers. Instead, the three of us took to the road on foot. We passed a few houses and a restaurant. At some point up the road, you can choose to follow the road or take the hiking path. The hiking path is pretty. It takes you across the river and up the mountain. It’s about a 500meter walk either way. We decided to stick to the road as the ground would be slick from the rain, the sun was beginning to set, and we didn’t want to brave any of the giant spider webs.



Even the climb up the road is steep so if you plan to walk up to the waterfall then make sure to walking shoes. Once at the top we took a few minutes to rest in front of the waterfall.


While Jess and Jhanice continued to rest I made my way up the stairs to check out the small shrines and Buddha statues that lined the steep stairway. It was my last stop before heading home. I love the waterfall but love exploring small shrines and finding secret sacred spots. The last time I had visited was winter when nothing was in bloom and I was asked by an old grandma to help carry jugs of water to the shrine at the top of the staircase. Every time I visit the waterfall I make sure to stop by the shrine.



And that begins my excursion to the Ouchi Hydrangea Festival to an end. I’m glad I was able to return after the rain. Almost all of the hydrangeas were blooming and I enjoyed all the colors. It’s amazing that there are so many flowers in the area. The bushes at the bottom were obviously planted on the hill but the bushes at the waterfall are wild and overgrown. It was a beautiful sight. If you ever find yourself in Kyushu in June please make your way to the small town of Ouchi, you won’t be disappointed. I guarantee it.


Ochi Ajisai Matsuri 2017


I apologize for the lack of posts this month. I caught a bad bug earlier this month and was out of commission for about a week and then I had to play catch up at work. On top of that, we are preparing for the arrival of our new JET ALTs in Saga! It’s an exciting time for new JETs as everyone is finding out their placements. So will out further ado – ON WITH THE POST!

I am excited to present the Ouchi Ajisai Matsuri!

Ouchi is a small town on the outskirts of Karatsu City. Driving through it doesn’t look like much it holds one of my favorite spots in Karatsu, the Mikaeri Falls. The Mikaeri Falls are accessible year-round but the most popular time to go is throughout June to view all the Hydrangea. It’s so beautiful that the folks in Ouchi have made a festival out of it. In Japanese ajisai means hydrangea, and they are popular flowers after sakura and wisteria.


Japanese hydrangea typically blooms during the rainy season. In Kyushu, hydrangea reaches its peak in June. Ouchi runs the Ajisai Matsuri for almost the entire month of June. Unfortunately, like many places around the world, Kyushu has been hot and dry. On the weekend my friends and I went, well into June, it had yet to rain. It was a hot and sunny day and lots of kids played in the river, but the flowers were suffering. We did our best on a tight schedule and a hot day.


Friends nerding out over the genetics of a hydrangea bush with multiple colors. You know, normal stuff.


Be warned, going on the weekend means traffic. There is only one road leading to the festival so it’s busy. Police direct traffic efficiently so the wait isn’t too long. After parking, we decided to grab lunch at a house advertising soba noodles. This house is right next to the road and surrounded by recently planted rice fields. The family runs a small lunch spot in the front tatami rooms of the house. All of us order the soba lunch set. The coolest thing about this lunch set is that it’s two servings of noodles cooked on a stone roof tile.

After waiting in traffic and enjoying an extended lunch, we realized we didn’t have a lot of time left before we needed to return for David to catch the train. So, we took our time with the front half of the festival and vowed to come back after it rained.


Stay tuned for Day 2 of the Ajisai Festival, where I return after the rain and get some gorgeous pictures of te hydrangea around the waterfall!

Check out it here!

June Reading List: JLPT Prep

I can’t believe May is already over. And I can’t believe there is only one month left until the JLPT Test in July. I’m not sure if I’m ready. My Kanji recognition has gotten better and my reading is faster but is it enough to pass the JLPT N4 test? June will be spent Studying my butt off so I don’t fail again.

During intense studying, I believe it is important to have an element of fun or find a fun way to study. For me, that is reading. I love to read and I love all genres (except maybe horror, but maybe I just haven’t found the right book). Japanese stories are no exception. I love reading manga and I can hope that one day I am able to read popular light novels and the classics.

So, for the month of June, I have picked out four books to read in preparation for my upcoming test: Baba Yaga, Majo no Takkyuubin, Koe no Katachi, and Barefoot Gen.

June Reading List

The first book I have chosen is Baba Yaga which will be an interesting read because it’s a Slavic folktale translated into Japanese. I bought the book last year in Nagasaki at the Inori no Oka Picture Book Museum. If you are ever in Nagasaki I recommend stopping by. The first floor in a children’s bookstore and the upper floors are the picture book museum.

Baba Yaga, as I said before, is a Slavic folktale. She is usually depicted as a ferocious old woman who flys around in a stone mortar wielding a pestle and lives in the forest in a cabin standing on a single chicken leg. She has played many roles as a villain or ambiguous helper, but whatever her role I look forward to reading this picture book.

The second book is Majo no Takkyuubin 魔女の宅急便  (lit. Witch’s Home Delivery Service) or better known as Kiki’s Delivery Service in the West, made famous by Studio Ghibli’s movie adaption. I didn’t know the movie was based on a book of the same name. It blew my mind when I stumbled across the books (that’s right, it’s a series!) when I lived in Sapporo. At the time, it was impossible for my to read this children’s book. But now I’m ready to tackle it again. It’s still an ambitious read but I like the challenge.

The first book is like the movie. It begins with Kiki leaving home on her 13th birthday to live on her own, find her calling, and become a real witch. I can’t wait to read about all of Kiki’s adventures.


My third choice is Koe no Katachi, literally means the voice’s shape or the shape of the voice. Recently it was made into a movie and I want to read it (and the series) before I watch it. I really don’t like the English title, Silent Voice. Let me explain.

The story is about the relationship between a young boy and a young girl. They meet in elementary school when the girl arrives as a new student. Except, she introduces herself by writing in a notebook. She is deaf and her classmates cannot sign. The boy bullies her throughout elementary school because she is different. However, the tables turn when they have parted ways and he finds himself the outcast in high school. And it is there they meet again.

“Silent Voice” isn’t a bad title. It’s just not that original. It does its job and gets the message across. I just think the Japanese title conveys a deeper abstract message about what the story is about. From just looking at the cover you can’t tell the girl is deaf but you know the story is about the relationship and communication between the two. The English title sort of throws it in your face. Silent Voice = someone probably doesn’t talk/has communication issues. I’m being nit-picky. I know that. It won’t stop me from being excited about reading the manga or watching the movie. I’ll just be slightly unimpressed with the English title.

Last but by no means least is Barefoot Gen. It’s the only book in English but I kept the Japanese theme going as it is the true experiences of author Keiji Nakazawa surviving the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It’s a hard and important read.

I was lucky enough to have introduced to this story during high school. It was an assigned reading for one of my English classes. It left a real impact on me, but I never got the chance to read the series as we only read book 1. This year, during Golden Week, I visited the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Museum and bought this book not only to read but to keep in my future classroom in hope that it will move my students like it moved me.


Wisteria Hysteria: Golden Week

Title courtesy of David

After the Sakura finish blooming in early March, you don’t have to wait long for another famous flower to bloom. Early May (AKA Golden Week), is the best time to see blooming Wisteria. Since I was traveling a lot during Golden Week I was able to see various places from Karatsu to Kyoto covered in curtains of purple.

For those of you unfamiliar with wisteria, it is a woody vine that is native to Japan. Its flowers hang in long tendrils of purple or white. I didn’t really notice it last year because I was in Hokkaido for Golden Week. But, this year I realized that you can find wisteria pretty much everywhere. It is a wild plant that will climb anything in reach. Many roadside trees sport splashes of purple in spring. It is also can live a long time. Some are over 100 years old!

I missed the wisteria bloom last year much to my mother’s display. So this year she sent me on a mission to send her pictures of wisteria from Karatsu Castle. Luckily, with the help of David, I went above and beyond my original assignment.

Kasuga Taisha Shrine, Nara

During Golden Week, David and I decided to pop over to Nara to do some sightseeing together. We both had been to Nara before but never together. We spent the day looking for things we had yet to see. I finally explored the back stretch of the park, and we after visiting Toudaiji we stumbled on a special hall which I will be posting about soon, but I had the honor of introducing the Kasuga Taisha Shrine to David.

I visited last year and I was keen to show David it’s famous hallways of lamps, but to my surprise, it is also famous for its wisteria. Mind blown. This is why you have to travel during different seasons. Who knows what gems you might find? Some of the wisteria is well tended and other vines are allowed to roam free in the trees.



A well-kept wisteria in Kasuga Taisha


It has taken over this giant tree


Keep an eye out of my Golden Week posts, I will post the rest of my Kasuga Shrine pictures soon

Various Shrines in Shiga Prefecture

Nara wasn’t the only place celebrating the blooming wisteria. Many of the shrines across Japan hold viewing events that help raise money for shrines or thelocal community.

Wys BF

Karatsu Castle, Karatsu (duh.)


Karatsu Castle’s Wisteria is over 100 hundred years old and is a designated natural monument to the city. The boughs cover a wide veranda at the top of the stairs. For most of the year, the tree provides a leafy shade from the sun. But that changes in spring when the curtains of purple Wisteria provide a beautiful welcome to Karatsu’s “dancing crane” castle.


Almost at the top (of the main stairway)



The base of a 100-year-old vine is bound to be gnarly



Wisteria flowers can grow to over one meter in length!


You can find a brand new white wisteria further into the courtyard.