Sunday, July 5, 2009

Chapter the Fourth in "Sherry/Sharon's Big Adventure:" Kyoto, Nara, dance lessons, and Independence Day

Just got back from the grocery store, where I bought sushi for lunch, a box of "caramel-flavored" cookies (hey, they taste good, whatever flavor they are), deodorant (I could only find the spray kind), and corn flakes. They actually carry Kelloggs here, but it really small, really expensive boxes, so store brand it was for me.

Banal, yes. . . but I feel better every time I successfully locate something in a Japanese grocery/convenience/health store. It makes me feel less like a tourist and more like someone who actually lives here, albeit for a short time. I think one of the perks associated with being a tourist is the constant feeling of slight bewilderment and awkwardness because you're far away from how you know how to do things and nothing is quite like you expect it to be. It's an educational feeling, and I think by being kind of unbalanced you learn more than you ever possibly could while safe at home, but sometimes it's nice to feel a little stability. Knowing I can wake up in the morning and have corn flakes for breakfast is, I guess, one definition of stability.

It's a lovely Sunday afternoon, and I am not going out, even though I probably should. I'm kind of tired from previous adventures, and I know I will be traveling the next three weekends, so it's fairly easy to justify sitting around, updating my blog, and maybe studying Japanese a little.

Last week I made plans to meet with a "host family" through the MIT Japanese Wives Group, so I am having afternoon tea next Thursday. The lady, who I have not yet met in person, wrote me several emails in excellent English, but she claims her English is "not very good" so perhaps we will practice Japanese. (I hope she can deal with my Japanese, which is a little worse than "not very good.")

So. . . adventures.

Section 1: Enter Kyoto! (京都に行きましょう。。。)

Last weekend was the MISTI Japan intern trip to Kyoto, the historical capital of Japan from 794-1600 (from Wikipedia -- take with a grain of salt), when the capital then effectively became Edo, what is now Tokyo. Kyoto, as I may have previously mentioned, was largely spared from bombing in World War II (as compared to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, obviously, but also in comparison to Tokyo, which was completely leveled by traditional bombing) which means that many of its historical monuments, temples, and houses are relatively intact. (As intact as developers have left them, anyway.)

The plan was for us to take the night bus down at 10:30 on Friday night and sleep (ha!) on the bus until we arrived the next morning at 6:15 or so. I, being the scaredy pants that I am about traveling (and about Shinjuku, the station from which the bus left), arranged to meet with Bianca at Harajuku at 9:30 and then continue on to Shinjuku. Just for orientation's sake, Harajuku, Shinjuku, and Shibuya are all stations on the JR Yamanote Line (which I previously mentioned -- it goes around central Tokyo in a big circle.) Shibuya is in the southwest edge of the circle, and leading off it in a southwesterly direction is the Den-en-toshi line, which leads to where I live. Harajuku is one station north of Shibuya, and Shinjuku is another couple of stations north of that. Harajuku, as I have a probably previously mentioned, is a small-ish station, with only two exits; Shinjuku is bloody enormous.

This meeting up went successfully, and we got to the bus station early enough to get snacks at Starbucks and sit around and gossip. (SO GLAD I had Bianca with me. The bus station was on the other side of an enormous street past lots of construction and also sort of underground. I don't think Bianca understands why I was intimidated by the Port Authority bus station in NYC, so I suspect this is nothing special for her.)

There were some other MISTI interns on the bus, but my seat was in the front left corner, sandwiched in between sleeping people who got kind of annoyed when I reclined my seat too far. One of the other interns was literally five minutes late, and she missed the bus and had to buy another ticket. Oy.

I had foolishly brought my laptop, which I blame on a communication failure by my boss. What I got from him was that he wanted ALL TEN of the lighting simulations done by Monday; what he actually meant was that he wanted one lighting simulation done that I had already finished. Anyway, I tried (and failed) to do work on the bus; the rocking back and forth (I was on the top floor of a double-decker) made me quite nauseated. I also tried, and sort of failed, to sleep during the 7.5 hour bus ride from Tokyo to Kyoto; I woke up about every two hours falling out of my seat. Yuck.

As my boss put it, riding the night bus is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. . . every time after that you just take the train.

We arrived in Kyoto Station at about 6:15 AM. I had thought everyone would take the bus, but it turned out some interns had taken the Nozomi Shinkansen (super fast bullet train) and arrived several hours earlier, so they had been hanging out in the station for most of the night.

My first unpleasant "cultural experience" occurred when we trooped into the public restroom to use the toilet in the station. They had "Japanese-style" toilets only.

"Japanese-style" means a hole in the ground that flushes. You SQUAT. And there is no toilet paper.

Grandma Dyer, if you are reading this, you probably are shaking your head and asking, "Well, what's wrong with that?" I will tell you what's wrong with that. It's one thing when you are in the timber and ANY kind of building is a 30-minute hike away. It's a completely DIFFERENT thing when you ARE in a bathroom in one of the most hyper-modernized countries in the world and they expect you to SQUAT. WITHOUT TOILET PAPER.

How is this supposed to work? I have heard it is "more sanitary," but that is BULLCRAP. Sure, your butt doesn't touch anything, but your pants have to when you take them off, unless you want to get stuff on them (shudder, shudder.) Also, what genius thought it would be a good idea to invent a toilet that requires you to aim when the "you" in question is NOT MALE???

Anyway. I used one once. I am never using one again. Ever.

Also there wasn't any soap.

So we met up with our "tour guides," Michael and Mitsuko Barker, a couple in their 60s, outside the station (next to the blow-up Astroboy.) Michael went to MIT back in the day, and they've lived in the Kansai region for 10-ish years. They piled us on a tour bus and gave us onigiri, which were sort of an unpleasant surprise. I DO NOT understand the Japanese predilection for putting mayonnaise on EVERYTHING. I like mayonnaise. I DO NOT like mayonnaise on sushi, pasta, rice balls, stir-fry, pizza. . . the list goes on of things I personally consider to be inappropriate that I have seen mayonnaise slathered on here. Mary Beth would say this is cosmic vengeance for abusing mayonnaise in the U.S. Anyway.

We drove to another station for our NEXT traumatic cultural experience: THE PUBLIC BATH.

Let me say right here that I think it is pretty darn cruel to stick interns on a 7-hour bus ride where you know they're not to sleep worth a crap, and then pick them up and take to this second-most-hideous Japanese invention (after the squat toilet.)

So the public bath was located in the basement of this building, which I think was a train station or something similar. I, in my defense, didn't quite understand what this consisted of. I was pretty sure it involved being naked, but I wasn't sure how much naked, the timing of the naked, and how many people got to see me naked.

We put all of our stuff in lockers, and they handed out numbers to the interns. It was pretty crowded, so we had to wait a while. At this point the other interns started telling travel horror stories, primarily about Chinese bathrooms and the things that could possibly happen to you in them. (Note: At least in public park bathrooms that are just a big tank underneath the stool, I never seen MAGGOTS WRITHING AROUND IN THE SLOP, as one girl had when visiting relatives in China. That story was disgusting; I'm sort of hoping the one about the girl who went to the bathroom while eating out with parents in China and was found half an hour later with all her organs cut out wasn't true.)

Then they admitted us to the public path locker room. It was at this point that I suddenly understood three things:

a) There was no robe provided, as in many descriptions of huro/onsen (public bath/public bath in a hot spring) I had read.
b) There was no towel larger than 1' x 2' provided.
c) We were, in fact, supposed to get naked in front of each other and a bunch of strange Japanese women without benefit of a towel, waltz into the next room where the showers and big hot tub thingy were STILL NAKED, wash up, and sit in the big hot tuby thingy WHILE STILL NAKED, SUPPOSEDLY RELAXING AFTER A LONG BUS RIDE.

I took off my shirt and my skirt (I still had shorts on.) Then abruptly I said, "I can't do this."

I started getting dressed again, unfortunately realizing as I was doing this exactly how grimy I was. I had not envisioned this, so I hadn't changed out of my Friday work clothes -- I assumed I would be getting clean Saturday morning. Oh yeah right.

So this, combined with a desire to not be the lamest one, made me get undressed and, using my miniature freaking HAND TOWEL to cover up the most pertinent bits, rush into the bath room and claim a little stool facing the wall and a low showerhead. At least they had the decency to provide body wash and shampoo.

You're supposed to be completely clean and rinsed off before getting into the actual huro, the hot-tub thingy. It's supposedly more of a "relaxation" thing that a "clean" thing. Right. I am still skeptical. I would like to mention, in case this picture isn't vivid enough in your mind, that, as a moderately overweight American white woman, who has all the body-image issues that generally go along with that group of people, getting naked in front of a lot of tiny Japanese women is right up there on my list of greatest fears with being trapped in a hole with my arms immobilized (which happened later this trip) and getting stopped by the police and questioned (which happened later that week.)

I got clean. I sat in the tub in a modified fetal position. Luckily only one Japanese woman was in the bath at the same time as the interns, and she left after a few minutes (probably because of how loud, obnoxious, giggly, splashy and goofy we all were.) It was pretty awkward to start with, but after a while we started chatting (all while carefully not looking anywhere in particular.) There was a cold tub in the corner, for people coming out of the sauna, which several of the girls jumped in, causing a small tidal wave of cold water.

I'm guessing that whatever Japan's gender issues are, female body image is not one of the major ones. :P

Nothing else that day was quite as traumatic. We continued on to Kinkaku-ji, or the "Golden Pavilion," which was okay but kind of commercialized and crowded. It's a Buddhist temple with some nice gardens, which you can see pictures of on my Picasa account. I wish I had bought John one of the "safe traffic charms" they were selling though. Next was Daitoku-ji, also a Buddhist temple, which a little better, except that we couldn't take pictures of the inside of the temple buildings (lame!) They had us recite a life-affirming Buddhist tract, except they had us recite it in Japanese, which meant that I ended up saying mostly, "Mm blah blah mm mm watashi mm blah blah ki blah blah mm mm yes what?" We also looked at these rock gardens (also couldn't take pictures) which were basically fine gravel spread over a space with a porch-like wooden deck around them and large, bizarrely shaped rocks strategically placed throughout that we were supposed to interpret as mountains, waterfalls, ships, turtles, or cows (the last one was the biggest stretch.)

Next came the first truly awesome part of the trip, the visit to Geoffrey Moussas's house. Geoffrey is an architect who was trained at MIT who mainly works in Kyoto restoring old machiya-style houses.

Machiya (町屋 or 町家, miraculously both characters I know, meaning “town shop” or “town house” respectively) are traditional Japanese wooden houses that have been developing for the last couple hundred of years. Geoffrey's restored house is actually about the same era as the row house I live in in Boston (built in 1915, about 90 years old) and not a whole lot older than the central portion of our house in Iowa (although built by much wealthier, and arguably classier, people.) The layout, however, is dramatically different than either that of a wealthy or not-so-wealthy American house of the time. In Fenway House, built by a well-off (if not ridiculously rich) lawyer, you originally entered into small vestibule (snow-catcher), which linearly leads into a hall, with the dining room just beyond – you can see the other end of the dining room from the front door. The kitchen downstairs is downstairs, and the entertaining parlor upstairs. In my house (originally, anyway), you entered directly into the kitchen/living room/dining room.

In this machiya, the front door actually opens into a very small garden open to the sky, with stalks of bamboo growing in the corner and a basin of water, pink and gray rocks, and a few flowers on a stand. Here you make a sharp left turn and climb a few steps into the “entry hall,” where there was a bay window made of translucent paper, glass, and wood, a piece of calligraphy sitting in the corner, and a large vase of red flowers. Nothing else. We left our shoes on the steps between the front garden and the hall and turned sharply again, this time to the right; we could then look through a central room with a cabinet through a dining room with a low table to the back garden. In most machiya this front “hall” was actually a shop, but in this case the family who had built the house had also built the house next door, where their wood mill was located. Tucked in a sort of closet in the left portion of the center room were the stairs to the second floor, on which was Geoffrey's architectural office, one bedroom, and a balcony overlooking the garden. The front room and the back room were both floored in tatami mats, woven of some kind of fine grass with a smooth, slightly undulating texture that is very nice on your feet. The kitchen is tucked behind the front garden, actually a two-story space that is about a foot lower than the rest of the house, to allow heat from cooking (and smoke – the chimney was only added in 1950-something) to rise through a small glass window in the roof that opens by a pulley.

The back garden is perhaps the most beautiful part of the house. A narrow roofed porch (veranda?) wrapped around it in a backwards L, giving the impression that it was just another very green room in the house. Screens made of horizontally hanging split reeds sewn together down the edges blocked the sunlight on the porch somewhat, presumably so it would still be enjoyable to lounge about (in one very narrow lounge chair) without glare in your eyes. The upright of the L led past two small rooms, one containing the tub, the other the toilet. I can't imagine it's particular enjoyable to take a bath in the winter and dash back through the cold to get into the main house, but it's very elegant. The garden itself was very neatly trimmed, with flagstones, lots of ferns, a stone Japanese-style lantern, and a fountain consisting of a stone hollowed out at the top and large piece of bamboo constantly refilling it. On the flagstones sat a small rock wrapped around with rope; this is apparently the traditional symbol that a garden is only for looking at, not walking in.

It was pretty cool. We got to walk around and touch pretty much everything and wiggle our toes on the mats. There's something architecturally profound about layers of space and exit and entrance in stages tied up in that house, and maybe I'll figure out precisely what it is and how it works in a couple of months or years (or decades, sigh).

Then was lunch. I had sashimi and a variety of other things that were not as tasty. Sashimi, if you are not familiar with it, is sushi without the rice – i.e. slices of raw fish, in this case tuna. I love tuna. I in general love sashimi (no octopus, thank you very much.) I won't try to convince the collective readers of this blog, many of whom I believe do not tolerate fish in any form, of the merits of this food, but rest assured it is delicious. Other things on my plate included pickled purple something-or-others (most Japanese meals are served with some kind of pickle; this was probably some kind of beet), which were okay, and a cube of squishy gooshy nasty tofu, which was NOT. I have encountered very little tofu that I find delicious or even acceptable.

My lunchtime dose of awkwardness occurred when one of Michael Barker's Japanese students who was accompanying us on this trip, after being seated across from me and watching me eat my meal for a few minutes, commented, “Chopsticks are very difficult to use, aren't they?” I stopped, somewhat mortified. I suppose it is possible he wasn't commenting on my lack of finesse with the aforementioned utensils, but that conversation fizzled before it ever started.

After lunch we went to Heianjingu, the largest Shinto shrine in Japan. It was. . . very red. And very large. There were a lot of gardens with ponds and lilies behind the main temple complex, as well as some scary looking turtles (which another intern informed me later are supposed to be very tasty) that looked suspiciously like snapping turtles.

Then. . . Kiyomizudera, possibly the most awesome temple ever!

This temple is, unfortunately for those reading here, a temple made magnificent primarily by its spectacular scenery (i.e. beyond my linguistic and typing powers.) Try looking here for pictures. It occurs in approximately three levels that progressively move up the side of a mountain that looks over Kyoto. Apparently “taking a jump off Kiyomizu” is a phrase which means you are really committed to something – no kidding. The highest level of Kiyomizu looks out on a drop of about 100 feet; once you made the decision to jump, there would be a pretty low chance of survival. :\ In a more positive vein, you can see all of Kyoto from Kiyomizu; the whole city is surrounded by mountains. Extremely tall, slender trees (which doesn't seem remarkable until you're standing a half-mile away looking up at them) line whatever part of the mountainside the temple buildings don't occupy. There are a variety of shrines, presumably primarily Buddhist (tera or dera (寺) = Buddhist temple), including one of a black lacquered Buddha with red clothes and a bizarrely squished face (which falls neither in the category of “fat happy Buddhas” or “tall elegant Buddhas” – it was pretty squarely in another group known as “weird.”) I'm not really sure if shrines are a universal facet of Buddhism, or if the Japanese just adapted Buddhism to their already-present religious architecture of Shintoism. Ritual purification, with incense or water (this is the rinse right hand, rinse left hand, rinse mouth, let water slush down the handle of the dipper routine) seems to occur in both types of temples.

Also fascinating and weird, and as yet still unexplained to me, were the hundreds of tiny Buddhas lined up along the paths, all with little new(ish) red cloth aprons tied around their necks. Kinda creepy, to be honest. . . I have been accused of developing Buddhaphobia.

Look at the pictures. . . it's hard to describe, but it was beautiful.

Then. . . dinnertime, which was a disappointment. I had ordered something that I thought I recognized, and discovered that was indeed not the case at all. I ate my three small pieces of tempura and my rice and spent 20-ish minutes poking the various incarnations of tofu sitting on my plate. I Do Not Like tofu. During this time the Japanese students at our table taught us several rude words and phrases, the only one of which I remember is “ahou” or “idiot.” We reciprocated by trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to explain what “flaming” meant colloquially. Other things that came up during the conversation included “chikan” (perverts who feel girls up on crowded trains) and the addition of warning noises to cell phone cameras in Japan to prevent upskirt photography.

Are we mature? No.

The girl next to me was eying my tofu, so I traded for the rest of her rice. Win!

We checked into a “Super Hotel” in Nara, which super nice. The weirdest thing about this hotel was that the bathroom was actually one continuous plastic piece – the tub was connected to the sink was connected to the toilet was connected to the walls. It also featured the far end of Japanese toilets from the squat toilet, i.e. a high-tech monster with a heated seat (yuck), a bidet, “flushing noises,” and a high-pressure jetstream of water (haven't had the nerve to use any of the last three options yet) installed in the toilet. Unfortunately, no iron was provided, so I ended up pretty wrinkly the next day.

The other guys and dolls headed out to do karaoke, play cards, and get soppingly drunk (in a couple cases). I was lame and went to bed at 10:30, after claiming I was going upstairs to do work (well, I thought work /might/ happen.)

Section 2: Attacked by deer! (Shika ga kamimasita. . .)

The next morning we were supposed to meet at eight and head out to see the attractions of Nara, the capital of Japan BEFORE Kyoto. This did not quite occur as planned, since a number of the other interns were still suffering from the choices they had made the night previous. However, this meant I had plenty of time to eat ridiculous quantities of the provided pastries for breakfast, which was one up on the previous day, day of mayonnaise and noodles on a bun for breakfast (yuck, sigh.)

We took the bus to Todaiji (東大寺 – all it means is “big east temple.”) Now, if not for Kiyomizudera, this would definitely be the Most Awesome Temple Ever. We were warned about its awesomeness, and we were still Astonished and Delighted.

Todaiji is famous for several things. One, it's the largest wooden building in the world (and it used to be larger; the two statistics they gave us was that there were over 1000 tons of tile on the roof and that the wood used in the house could build 30,000 Japanese houses.) Two, it's been around for a super long time; it was built in 794-ish. Three, it has one of the largest statues of Buddha in the world (and it's even higher up on the list, they told us with kind of grim humor, since the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas found in Afghanistan.) Four, THEY HAVE HOLY DEER!

These deer are a little smaller than your average Iowa white-tailed deer, golden-colored, and spotted. There are at least a hundred of them in the park directly in front of the temple. The Buddhist monks at the temple (of which there are only twenty now, decreased from several hundred in years (many years) past) feed them twice a day, so they're all pretty fat. There's no fence keeping them in the park – presumably the people in Nara just know they have to drive carefullly.

. . . and they are TAME. Well. . . In a manner of speaking.

You see, one of the delightful tourist traps invented by this temple is that there are about ten different little booths outside the temple selling DEER BISCUITS (or “bambi cookie,” as one lady called them. I just about cracked up and fell over.) The deer know about the deer biscuits. Mysteriously, they do not try to raid the stands. Instead, they act pleasantly friendly (if you're reasonably well-behaved they come up to you to be petted, and in the case of one girl who apparently smelled really good, rub their antlers on you) until you purchase said DEER BISCUITS. They are especially friendly during the purchase of the DEER BISCUITS. Keep in mind these are not hungry deer. They are fed TWICE A DAY like little cows.

When the DEER BISCUITS are purchased. . . they attack!

We were warned, but couldn't believe it until we saw it. . . the deer (particularly the larger, fatter male deer) will converge on any foolish tourist holding a package of deer biscuits and try to knock the biscuits out of their hand, jump up and grab the biscuits, eat the tourists' clothing and personal articles, and even knock the tourist down, as happened to one of the Japanese students with us when he was a kid.

This, of course, does not deter anyone from buying the deer biscuits and risking deer molestation.

Our guide, Michael, had to hurry us through the park, for (I hope) understandable reasons. We wanted to pet the deer, feed the deer, take silly pictures with the deer, make silly noises at the fawns. . .We went through a gate with perhaps the most remarkable statues I have seen yet in Japan, of two enormous guardians (enormous like two-three stories tall enormous) with ferocious faces, hair drawn up in high tails on top of their heads, robes draped around their waists, and hands held up in a “do not pass go” gesture. They looked kind of like terrifying genies from Arabian Nights. Presumably these are to intimidate the deer so they don't harass religious devotees.

They had arranged for a Buddhist monk to speak to us inside the temple, for which they had set up a bunch of chairs on the temple veranda to the left of the main temple. They unfortunately had one of the Japanese students do the translation for the talk. I say unfortunate because although his English was really good, he got embarrassed SO EASILY. As in, if he couldn't translate a single word, he would turn red and bury his face in his hands, even crouching down into a modified fetal position to hide his face. Some of the other interns has postulated that this is indicative of a Japanese attitude toward learning – if I can't do it perfectly, I don't want to do it at all – but I'm not sure. I think I would have been just as stressed if someone had asked me to translate from English to Japanese.

So. Buddhism. I know/knew almost nothing about Buddhism, so I'm going to guess most of the people reading this blog don't either. Buddhism is, from what I can tell, almost diametrically opposed to Christianity in a number of ways. First of all, it coexists with Shinto, the native Japanese believe in gods/spirits/animism, and in a lot of ways complements it. As the priest put it, Shinto is about reverence for things you can't change, like the sea, earthquakes, and storms, while Buddhism is about changing yourself to better deal with the circumstances around you. Buddhism, as they put, won't save you; it depends on you acquiring enough knowledge and self-discipline to implement its teachings.

He explained this, perhaps unfortunately, by using an extended metaphor about being lost at sea in a boat and knowing which way to row because you know which direction the sun is in. The sun doesn't save you, but knowledge of the sun will. I don't now; it was a nice talk, but it was probably asking a bit much to expect a bunch of interns, all of whom except me got ~5 or less hours of sleep, to sit through a discussion of (however simplified for our benefit) philosophical nature. In any case, I was struck by how much his description of Buddhism differed in fundamental ways from Christianity – every preacher I've ever listened to has emphasized intensely how we can't save ourselves, how we must depend on God for everything, and how our only achievements come through God himself, not any actions of our own.

I'll be honest and say that I don't know that this diametric opposition is a bad thing. It does seem weird to me, though, that the culture whose dominant religion has traditionally emphasized total reliance on God is the one which also emphasizes individuality and self-reliance, whereas the culture whose primary system of belief focuses on personal discipline and knowledge is the one that holds consensus and conformity in high regard. Go figure, I guess. :P


We then went into the main building where the Daibutsu is housed. This used to be three times wider before it was burned down in some war or another (I think) in the 1600s, but they apparently couldn't raise sufficient funds to rebuild it in its full glory. It is, as mentioned before, still the largest wooden building in the world. The only pieces of the temple that are original to the 700s are an enormous, elaborately figured bronze lantern in the front (enormous = ten feet tall), and the Buddha from about the knees down.

The Buddha is pretty impressive, but pretty standard as far as Buddhas go. There are two gilt Buddhas that are nearly as large flanking the biggest one, as well as a large multi-rayed sun sitting behind it with lots of tiny Buddhas ornamenting it. Two scary-looking general statues that are respectively squishing silly-looking demons, nearly as tall as the Daibutsu (which is over 30 feet tall and weighs more than a 100 tons) stand behind it. We were allowed to go closer to the Buddha than most tourists; we got to take off our sneakers, don slippers, and go up to the platform where the Buddha actually sits, about ten feet off the actual floor of the temple. We walked around the enormous lotus flower on which the Buddha sits.

After taking our requisite picture with the Buddha, most people flashing the peace sign, we went back down to the floor of the temple to visit Buddha's nostril.

Buddha's nostril is a hole cut in the base of the one of the temple's 3.5 (?) foot diameter supporting pillars (which struck me as a poor choice when I actually thought about it) which is the same size as the Daibutsu's nostril. It's a square hole about 1.5' x 1.5' foot cut through the entire pillar. It is apparently traditional for Japanese children (and intrepid (read: stupid) tourists) to crawl through Buddha's nostril and receive “seven years of good luck.” Right. So of course all the MIT interns, many of whom are small Asian girls or at least skinny, lined up to crawl through this hole. This did not strike me as a bad idea until there were about two people in front of me in line. It was about then that it occurred to me that a hole that a 100-pound girl could fit through was not necessarily a hole I could fit through.

I was really panicking by the time it was my turn. It somehow slipped my mind that the guy who had gone before me is 6'2” and correspondingly broad. When I got into the nostril, I didn't go in the correct diagonal fashion and got stuck for a moment. My arms were basically completely immobilized. I panicked.

Then all the little Japanese children waiting to crawl through Buddha's nostril learned a very bad English word. I won't type it here, but the little boy in “A Christmas Story” gets his mouth washed out with soap for saying it.

I scooted backwards so fast I probably left burn marks on the interior. The next guy squirmed through, who if I recall correctly was also about 6'2”. At this point my logic kicked in, and I realized that if two guys with as wide of or wider shoulders than me could get through this hole, so could I. (And of course, there is the ever-present fear on a group trip of being the lamest one.)

Sooo. . . I went in again. I got stuck again. I wiggled with my torso and pushed with my feet, as instructed, and kept moving forward. As soon as my hands appeared on the other side, I was hastily pulled through, my fellow interns/tour guide no doubt fearing another panicked outburst.

It was kind of traumatizing, yet weirdly fun.

When we returned, I bought a package of deer biscuits and was, of course, set upon. I ended up throwing some of them away to avoid being eaten, as they attempted to graze upon my dress, my hands, my wallet, and my educational booklet.

One of students missed the entire experience – he had been QUITE under the weather and ended up sleeping through the entire thing on a park bench, waking up to a find a deer staring at him.

We ate okonomiyaki – a truly delicious yet bizarre invention that involves noodles mixed with flour, eggs, and cabbage to form a fried patty, which is then topped with sauce and meat of various types (shrimp, squid, and pork seem to be prevalent) – for lunch. We went shopping, and took Japanese taxis, which have automatically opening doors. I bought some souvenirs and spent more than I meant to.

We got on the shinkansen. We went home. It was fun.

at top: "Kyoto ni ikimashou," or "let's go to Kyoto."

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