Monks and Merriment

Trip Start Jun 27, 2009
Trip End Jun 25, 2011

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Friday, November 30, 2007

The past few weekends I've been keeping busy hanging out with friends and taking weekend trips to various places around Wakayama. Lily and I had our biggest event (we are in charge of planning events for JET's in Wakayama) a few weeks ago, which was a weekend overnight trip to Koyasan! Koyasan is one of the most famous places in our prefecture, and was recently named to the UNESCO World Heritage list - something Wakayamians are very proud of!

"Koyasan is home to an active monastic center founded over 1,000 years ago by the priest Kukai for the study and practice of Buddhism. It is the headquarters of the Koyasan sect of Shingon Buddhism, a faith with a wide following throughout Japan." It is a sacred area located high on top of Mount Koya in Wakayama. The temple complex, complete with large worship halls, pagodas, gardens, buddah statues, and a huge cemetery, is all surrounded by huge old cedar trees which adds to the already serene and calming atmosphere.

There are over 80 active temples that double as what we call "bed and breakfasts" so tourists are able to spend the night, enjoy the vegetarian cuisine for meals and participate in the early morning prayer service. Lily and I were put in contact with a nice English speaking Swiss monk and arranged our temple stay with him. In addition to the overnight, we organized 2 English tours with volunteer guides, and a prayer bead making session at the temple.

The temple was huge and beautiful, complete with an old Japanese style garden in the courtyard. The monks couldn't have been more friendly or laid-back, they even had a golden retriever running around the temple! The room were I slept fit 8 people and was really neatly decorated inside-the screen doors were painted with a cool mountain scene that kind of looked like Mt.Fuji. When you stay in a Japanese style hotel or ryokan (small inn) you sleep on the ground on what the Japanese call 'futons' - so at the temple 8 futons were laid out for us, covering the entire floor of the room. It's like one big slumber party! Believe it or not I actually prefer sleeping on a futon (a nice one) than my crappy bed these days! They actually are really comfortable. We had a lot of interest in the trip and 50 JET's attended, coming from various prefectures as far as Tokyo (about 11 hours away by bus) to join us! It was a great weekend and in addition to learning a lot about the temple complex, and the specific sect of Buddhism, we were also able to enjoy the changing colors of the maple leaves - it's a HUGE deal in Japan! They loovvve their maple trees. Koyasan is a photographers dream, and I would've had a great time just taking pictures all weekend. Enough about the temple, I'll let the pictures speak for themselves!

For Thanksgiving dinner Lily and I drove a few hours on windy roads through the mountains to spend the evening with our northern JET friends. A new JET, Jessie and her boyfriend (who is living with her in her apartment) made SO much food: ham, candied yams, cranberry sauce, green bean casseroles, twice baked potatoes, stuffing and pumpkin pie. Unfortunately there are no turkeys in Japan, so the meat eaters had to go another Thanksgiving sans turkey. We had 15 people for dinner, and quite an international group: 7 Americans, 2 Canadians, 2 Austrlians, 2 New Zealanders (Kiwis), and 2 Japanese people! The non-Americans really enjoyed their first thanksgiving and all the food that comes along with the holiday. Of course Lily and I being the dorks that we are, spent a few nights before the party in front of the TV making crafts and various themed table decorations.

The next few days of the long weekend were spent hanging out around Wakayama with Lily,
Joe (Australia), his friend visiting from Austrlia and Mac (Chicago). Joe showed us around his town, we walked along the coastline around these famous white limestone? rocks, and visited his towns famous temple. It is said that Soy Sauce and a type of Miso began there a long time ago!

School is going well, although I'm definitely excited for the upcoming Christmas break. Schools are winding down as well and I've been lucky to have some classes cancelled recently and have been able to participate in some fun activities outside the classroom with my students.

At Katsuura Elementary one day we spent 2 hours stomping on beer cans at a local recycle drop off. The kids had a ball, you would've thought they were going to be given thousands of dollars for their hard work. But no! Jumping on beer cans instead of sitting in class was enough for them. Another day at the same school I was invited to watch this tour companys comedy show in the gym. And most recently I joined the 2nd graders as they walked around town (by themselves might I add! teachers stayed behind) with maps stopping at local shops and businesses to interview the owners about their jobs. I visited a butcher shop, a small grocery story and a cake shop with my group. It's amazing how much freedom responsibility they give 7 and 8 year olds here! I felt responsible as I left the school walkign with 65 2nd graders. But not surpsingly they ended up back at the school 2 hours later safe and sound, having enjoyed their outing around town.

At another school the 3rd grade teacher invited me to join the Japanese Calligraphy class ("Shodo", students start to practice shodo in 3rd grade). I was so excited not to have to teach this group because they are usually so loud and crazy when I come to school. However when I walked into their classroom they were so quiet, brushes out, ready to practice painting the assigned character (kanji) over and and over until they got it right. The teacher asked me what my name means in English, so I told him Katherine means "pure" - so then he showed me how to write the Japanese kanji for pure, which translates to "Jun." So instead of practicing writing the kanji for water with the 3rd graders, I practice the 2 kanji that mean pure. All the kids kept hovering over me, watching me and saying 'UMAI!!' (good) and I think they were surprised I could even do shodo at all. I had a great time and the teacher was so nice and taught me how to hold the brush correctly. Overall a great day!

I also included a step by step guide to putting together a kotatsu (a japanese heater table that is used in the winter months). You can see how I set mine up in the pictures.

Funny school quotes recently:
Me: What color is this? (Brown)
Student 1: Cola!
Me: Noo...
Student 2: Chocolate!
Me: Noo...It's Brown.

Principal (said to me in Japanese): Katherine Sensei, is this your first Japanese winter? Are you ok?
Me: No, it's not my first winter. I was here last year (thanks for remembering). And no it's not cold here, I am ok. It is much colder in Washington D.C. where I am from.
Principal: Oh really?

A 60-something man in my Adult English class:
Me: Are you feeling better Matsumara-san?
Man: Yes I am. My cold is extinct.

6th graders learning English names for Countries
Me: Where are you from?
Megumi: I'm from Cola. (supposed to be Korea)

Student: Katherine sensei, what nationality are you? African?
Me: African!? No! I'm American.

Only in Japan.., a nation obsessed with cell phones, could you take a college course on your cellphone! -phone-being-offered-in-japan/

Please don't forget I'm trying to raise money for my trip to Cambodia!! Donating is EASY, and there are many ways to contribute. Any amount of money would be GREATLY appreciated, by both me AND the Cambodian kids I am going to meet in a few short weeks.Once again here is the website of the NGO I am volunteering with:

Here are two ways you can donate:
1. Google Checkout! Go to In the lower left hand corner is a link that says donate with google checkout. Click on this link and it'll take you to the "Donate" page. You can type in the amount you want to donate and click "Donate Now".
2. US checks can made out to PEPY and sent to: 105 Schrade Rd, Briarcliff Manor, NY 10510, USA.
**Please be sure to send me an e-mail ( after you donate so that I can alert PEPY and your donation will be credited to me. A donation of at least $25 would be fantastic, but I'd be happy with any amount you can afford to give!! Donations are tax deductible.**

OK that's all! A bunch of people are coming down to my town tonight because Lily and I organized a mini bowling tournament and karaoke afterwards, so should be a great rest of the weekend :)

Love, Kate

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