Category Archives: Culture

Blue Valentine’s at Nara Park

Nara Rurie Illumination’s main attraction, Winter Tanabata Road, at the Kasugano International Forum .

The week of Valentine’s Day glowed anew as the annual Nara Rurie illumination event was held nightly from February 8 to 14, 2019 in the surrounding areas of Nara Park (奈良公園), Todaiji Temple (東大寺), and Kasuga Taisha Shrine (春日大社). Although it offers a romantic scene and is popular among couples, this event is not dedicated for the celebration of Valentine’s Day. It is actually for honoring the “happiness corridors” (しあわせ回廊, shiawase kairō), which are the pathways connecting Todaiji temple, Kasuga Taisha Shrine, and Kofukuji Temple (興福寺): Nara’s three important sacred sites. “Rurie” (瑠璃絵) is a term meaning “azure corridor,” which alludes to the Silk Road trade where azure, a blue-colored mineral was introduced to Japan. It has ever since been regarded as a sacred color associated with happiness. Illuminating the “happiness corridors” with a sacred azure hue has then been a tradition to bring happiness and clarity of mind in prayer for its visitors.

What a deer sight among blue lights.
Visitors hanging tanzaku on the trees (left). Early bloom of pretty plum blossoms also get attention (right).

Located at the heart of the area is Kasugano International Forum, which houses the main event attraction. Named the Winter Tanabata Road, it is a garden covered with of blue and white LED lights. Not to be missed are some deer prancing amidst the lights, which in no better way represents Nara Park. Entrance to this main attraction can be either free or paid. The free-zone gives access to a remote viewing of the LED-clad gardens, while the paid area allows a close up experience for a minimal fee of ¥500. As a form of ticket, visitors are provided with a tanzaku (短尺), which is an apple-shaped paper where they can write wishes. The tanzaku can then be hung on trees situated at the end of the Winter Tanabata Road.

Other events outside of the Kasugano International Forum includes special night admissions to the surrounding museums, shrines and temples, Fortune Cocoa selling (or しあわせココア – shiawase cocoa) , Lighting Yorukagura (光の夜神楽, a sacred Shinto dance), and Sky Lantern Anniversary event. Capping off each year’s event on Feb 14th is a ten-minute fireworks display at the Kasugano Park to commemorate the Nara Park anniversary (turning 139 years this 2019).

Visitors can’t get enough of the sea of blue lights.

This annual tradition, now on its 10th year, is just one of the many events that are held within the vicinity of NAIST. Aside from visiting famous tourist attractions, students should not miss cultural events such as the Nara Rurie in order to absorb and appreciate Japanese culture.

Exploring Ikoma City’s Secret Gems

NAIST hosted a grand gathering of international students from several universities across northern Nara to explore and experience the hidden treasures of Ikoma.

Indonesian students from NAIST enjoying the bus ride to Takayama Bamboo Park

Whenever people ask me about my university and I tell them that it’s in Nara, they automatically reply, “Oh, you live with the deer!” They are making either one of these two assumptions: (1) that my university is in Nara City or (2) that the entirety of Nara prefecture is home to the deer, both of which, unfortunately, are incorrect! The Nara Institute of Science and Technology (NAIST) is located in Ikoma, a city to the very northeast of Nara Prefecture, sharing a border with Osaka. It is not the most touristy place in Nara but it does have its secret gems that the city can be proud of!

Group photo outside the main prayer hall of Chokyu-ji Temple (長弓寺)

My handmade bamboo tea whisk (chasen/茶筅) which I get to keep as a souvenir!

Last November, NAIST, together with the Nara International Exchange Promotion Committee, sponsored a tour that included international students from several universities in northern Nara: Nara Women’s University, Nara University of Education, Hakuho Junior College, Tezukayama University,  and Tenri University. The tour has a three-fold purpose: (1) to promote understanding of Japanese culture through cultural experiences and activities in Ikoma area; (2) to deepen exchange with international students from other universities; and (3) to interact with local children through the Templish activities.

Participants from the Nara Women’s University

First, the participants learned the craft of making bamboo tea whisk, or chasen (茶筅), which is produced exclusively in the Takayama area. The technique of making bamboo whisks follows the isshi-soden (一死祖伝) tradition which has been passed down through several generations.

Demonstration of the entire process of making bamboo whisks from small bamboo tubes

Participants having a first-hand experience of the craft of bamboo whisk-making!

Dianne, a student from NAIST Division of Materials Science, making some final touches to her hand-crafted tea whisk

After this, we experienced and enjoyed a Japanese tea ceremony. We prepared the matcha by whisking with the locally crafted chasen (茶筅). We also toured around the Takayama Bamboo Park which is a very calming and serene area where one can discern and meditate.

This lady facilitating the Japanese tea ceremony and serving delicious matcha

Students enjoying matcha that they whisked by themselves!

Group photo at the Takayama Bamboo Park

For the second part of this trip, we went to Chokyu-ji Temple (長弓寺), the only structure designated as a National Treasure in Ikoma and is dedicated to the Eleven-faced  Kannon Bodhisattva. Here, we had an amazing one-of-a-kind vegetarian lunch experience. Referred to as shojin ryori (精進料理), this vegetarian meal is traditionally prepared for the monks and is made purely from non-meat products such as vegetables, beans, and grains.

Vegetarian lunch set served at Chokyu-ji Temple

Participants enjoying every bit of the delicious side and main dishes!

This temple is also host to a volunteer event called Templish, where Japanese kids learn about Japanese culture through fun activities while learning English! The kids were extra enthusiastic and energetic that day because of the overwhelming number of volunteers that participated.

Templish reception area managed by international students from different universities

Hide-san giving an overview of the Templish activities prepared for that day. Look at how packed the room is!

We spent a bright, sunny afternoon playing both indoor (paper tower) and outdoor games (pass the message, paper plane-making). We also prayed at the main hall of the temple, a structure that has never been renovated or reconstructed in its 800-year history. Even to this day, all the lighting used in the halls is natural light! And as a practice, we ended up the Templish activities by singing the song “Country Roads, Take Me Home.”

Japanese kids receiving the “message” for the game “pass the message”

Both kids and adults trying out the paper planes that they made

This event gathered together many international students from different cultural backgrounds to have a deeper understanding of Japanese culture through various activities in the Ikoma area. It was also a great opportunity for international students from different academic backgrounds to build connections with each other and the local kids. Many students even want to participate in future Templish activities and they will be more than welcome to join us!

Interacting with the kids through Templish activities is a heart-warming and fulfilling experience!

 

One Groovy Afternoon: Mahoroba Dance Festival 2018

Culture and dance met onstage during the Mahoroba Dance Festival 2018, which was held last November 25th at the Nara Centennial Hall. This three-hour annual event started in 2009 as a pre-event for the 1300th anniversary of the Heijō transition capital, with an aim to showcase traditional Japanese culture, particularly during the Tenpyo era, through various types of dances.

Continue reading One Groovy Afternoon: Mahoroba Dance Festival 2018

A Day Trip to Nara’s Illustrious Past

NAIST continually offers opportunities for its students, especially international ones, to experience and be more immersed in Japanese culture, besides the world-class research and academic formation that it primarily provides. Last November, around 12 students participated in a tour around Nara Park and visited three historically and culturally significant places: Todaiji Temple, Kasuga-Taisha Shrine, and the Nara National Museum. Both Todaiji Temple and Kasuga-Taisha Shrine are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are extremely popular for tourists. And what makes this trip even more appealing? It was free and featured English-speaking guides! They helped us better appreciate the history and culture behind these incredible centers of Buddhism and Shintoism during the period when Nara was still the capital of Japan around 1300 years ago.

View of Nara City from Nigatsu-do Hall. One can easily recognize the roof of Todaiji Temple from here

Two of thousands of Nara’s famous deer dueling even with their antlers cut off

The students gathered in the familiar fountain in Kintetsu-Nara Station and were split into two groups, with each group designated an English-speaking tour guide.

The monk called Gyōki Bosatsu standing in the middle of the Kintetsu-Nara Station fountain

The first stop for this trip was Todaiji Temple (東大寺), which houses the Big Buddha (Daibutsu, 大仏), the largest bronze Buddha sculpture in the world! Todaiji is also known for being one of the largest wooden structures in the world. Here, we learned a bit about the history of Buddhism in Japan, and how it greatly influenced the Japanese society during the Nara period. We also learned about the significance of the pindola wooden sculpture just outside the Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden, 大仏殿). It is believed that if you have some pain in some part of your body and you touch the same body part of the sculpture, your pain will go away. For example, if your feet hurts, you should touch the feet of the pindola. That’s pretty cool, isn’t it?

Group photo just before entering the Daibutsuden

Todaiji’s Big Buddha, the largest bronze sculpture of Buddha in the world!

Wood sculpture of a devoted monk who is believed to possess healing powers

After this, we did a little hike to the east to Nigatsu-do Hall, which is still part of the Todaiji Temple complex. Here, one can admire an amazing view of the city of Nara. An important cultural event associated with repentance called Shuni-e (修二会), which literally means Second Month Service, involves the monks carrying burning torches in the balcony of Nigatsu-do Hall. People believe that when a spark of fire falling from the balcony hits you, then your sins will be cleansed. The tour guide mentioned that this ritual has been performed uninterruptedly since the completion of the hall around 770 AD, even during the war.

Nigatsu-do Hall during fall

The tour guide giving a short quiz about the Nara deer

The second stop for this cultural trip was Kasuga-Taisha Shrine (春日大社), which is built on the mountainous area believed to be the home of the Shinto gods. The popular Nara deer, which are revered to be messengers of the Shinto gods, freely roam this area, as well as in Todaiji. The tour guide taught us how to properly pray in a Shinto shrine and some students got to try it! The hundreds of lanterns lining the walkway are lit only twice in a year. It makes a spectacular view during these two rare occasions, according to the tour guide.

The lantern-laden approach to the sacred Kasuga-Taisha Shrine

The main entrance to the praying hall of Kasuga-Taisha flocked by many tourists

After sightseeing in these two world-renowned spots, we proceeded to the Nara National Museum to learn more about the history of Buddhism and Nara as an ancient capital of Japan. The museum houses several masterpieces of Buddhist sculptures made of wood, bronze, and other materials. There was an enormous number of Buddhist sculptures in the Nara Buddhist Sculpture Hall, there’s literally one in every corner and direction! It was such an immersive experience to learn more about the prominent role that Buddhism played in ancient Japan.

East entrance of the Nara National Museum building showing a distinct architectural style

After this, the German intern in my lab (who is enjoying Japan so much, so far) and I wrapped up the day by having one of the best tonkatsu I’ve ever tried in Japan (in my personal opinion). At the end of it all, our stomachs, minds, and hearts were all full and delighted. NAIST has delivered yet another amazing tour for its students and we can’t wait for the next one!

Group shot with the tour guides before we parted ways

PS: For anyone who wishes to participate in NAIST-sponsored events like this, just watch out for the e-mails. They’re there! Don’t ignore them and be quick in replying because slots always fill up quickly!

Jugoya: The Night of the Full Moon

Templish is a volunteer hands-on learning program of Japanese culture for elementary school children.  The name is a play on “temple” and “English”, as activities are facilitated in English, by members of an over-800-year old temple, Chokyu-Ji. International students from NAIST regularly volunteer to engage with the children in fun activities, with a theme that changes every month.
Continue reading Jugoya: The Night of the Full Moon