Down Keyboard, Up Brush

I am not keeping up with the blog recently. Apologies. Realistically, I’ve gone dark for longer before. That whole 5 months I lived in Seattle between Japan and Korea I wrote maybe one post, but I also didn’t have much to write about back then. Now I have 33 drafts sitting waiting for me to work on them, and yet when I open them I just sigh. I did not do a good job taking notes on my summer holidays. I don’t have 4 hours of  enforced desk warming at work every day anymore. I have these lovely three day weekends and I can’t bring myself to spend even one of them writing in here. Nanowri-no-mo. The writers block is strong.

Writer's Block by Pyre-Vulpimorph

I’ve been working on my winter travel plans, which involves reading a lot of other people’s travel blogs. I see a lot of blogs that will do an entire 10-12 day trip in a single post of no more than 2,500 words. It is a great way to summarize a trip and pass on the most vital information to future travelers, so I’m not dissing those folks at all. In many ways I envy them, because my task would no doubt be easier were I to adopt a similar approach. I might even have more fans since “in depth” reading requires an attention span that is not popular in the world of click and scroll. Which, I’m also not dissing. I love scrolling thru my FB feed as much as the next person. However, when it comes to my own content, I want to be able to tell a story. I like telling stories.

It does not help that this semester’s schedule has been a little extra brain taxing, leaving me with less mental spoon-power at the end of each teaching day to sit down and organize a blog post. Three more weeks! I’m staying at this job, don’t worry. I worked way to hard to get it to leave, but I am looking forward to having a chance to get a new schedule for spring semester.

Art History

The good news (for me anyway) is that I haven’t merely crawled into a cave to binge watch Netflix (although I have done some of that as well… like maybe the entire Star Trek catalogue except for Enterprise causethatonesucksfiteme). I have finally reopened my artistic cabinet. Before moving to Saudi Arabia (and thus before starting this blog) I went through a few art binges in my life. In high school and undergrad I was massively prolific. Reams and reams of sketch pads filled, art given as gifts to everyone I knew, and even occasionally sold to strangers for profit!

Then I stopped. For years.

After finishing my MA and getting back from China, I finally picked up the brush again. It helped that I had some peers to do art with. Going over to a friend’s house to paint and drink tea (or wine) is a lot of fun, and it took the pressure off me to PRODUCE. I finished paintings that had been half done for years. I started new ones. I updated older artwork from my high school days to reflect my new style. I was feeling it.

Then I moved, and all the art went into storage. Saudi was… well, you can read the blogs, but I did my last real piece of art there when I made the life size paper Christmas tree to adorn my hotel room. I made every piece of that from paper and foam because Christmas decorations are forbidden in Saudi. That was in 2014. Since then I’ve had art supplies laying around. At least a sketch pad and pencil. People who knew I liked to make art would give me things as gifts and slowly I accrued watercolors, acrylics, brushes and canvas and they just sat on a shelf.

Returning from Europe this August, all my Korea friends were finally gone. Those who didn’t leave in February (the end of the school year) left over the summer. I knew I had to make myself get out and be social in order to avoid the cave-dwelling-Netflix-binge fate. Public “foreigner” events are the best way to go since we all show up expecting to mix and mingle, but I live over an hour away from the two nearest cities with decent expat populations and I knew I needed more than just “socialize” as a motive to travel so far. So I joined some art classes.

Specifically, watercolor. These are much more social than educational, but I did end up learning some new techniques as well as just getting a chance to chat with people. The first one I went to in Busan and everyone pretty much split as soon as it was over. The second one was in Daegu where I ended up spending several hours after the class hanging out and chatting. So far, no lasting friendships have been formed, but I had a good time regardless.

Art Spark

I also triggered my art spark. During the last couple of months I’ve delved much more into making art than into doing photography or writing. As a result, my Instagram and Blog are feeling a little neglected. The first piece I started was a simple mandala pattern on acrylic. I spent about an hour looking at mandalas on Google Image search and then sat down to draw my own. Once the pencil sketch was done, I transferred it over to a canvas by carefully measuring over and over. It’s much easier to make a mandala in a computer where you can just copy and paste for symmetry. I also used a black marker to show the main lines. I basically created an adult coloring book page on a canvas and then started using acrylic paint to “color” it.

    

I wish I could say I was finished, but it turns out that coloring in acrylic isn’t as fun as coloring with pencils, crayons or markers. I also struggled with color. I repainted part of the outer ring twice, and the middle ring 3 times. I have since taken a digital version into Pixlr and experimented with color schemes for the middle ring. At least now I know what I want to paint there… One day, I might even do it.

One day when I was tired of meticulously painting inside the lines, I decided to pick up the sketch pad again. I liked the idea of the mandala, of the adult coloring book style, and decided to try to make a mandala animal pattern. Back to Google Image search. I scrolled through a few hundred designs before realizing my favorites were the jellyfish. I have no idea why. Not wanting to copy the poor unattributed artist whose work I was seeing plastered all over cheap t-shirts, Etsy pages and Pinterest boards, I decided to make my own!

I stuck the Star Trek on auto-play and went to work on my sketch-pad. A while later I had the finished design. Most people will recognize it’s extreme similarity to the adult coloring book fad. That is totally on purpose. However, when it came time for me to imagine how to colorize my drawing, I didn’t like the idea of repeating my mandala with acrylic paint experience. Visualizing a few mediums while I lay in bed cradling my chronic insomnia, I hit upon the idea of using colored paper to bring my creation to life!

The next day I found a local art store which was overrun with paints and painter supplies as well as the standard Korean “stationary store” supplies like colored pens, and poster board paper. I was never able to find things like wrapping paper, brown paper lunch bags, construction paper, tissue paper or any of the other staple craft supplies I grew up with in America, let alone any of the new craft supplies that my niblings get to play with. Maybe in Seoul there is a shop that has them, but not here. The only patterned and colored paper I could find was for origami. I bought a half a dozen different design packs and a decent sized canvas. There was also no such thing as decoupage glue or mod-podge, so I got plain white glue and made my own by mixing it with water. Old school.

I didn’t want my bright colored jellyfish alone on a white canvas, though. What do do for a background? Paint it blue with acrylics? No… I really wanted a watercolor effect, but I didn’t have confidence in my ability to do it, especially not on a canvas. I decided to make the watercolor on paper and decoupage the background as well as the foreground.

Paper-cut Redux

I cut circles in various sizes, hoping to evoke a “bubble” feeling. I then spent hours (more Trek bingeing) painting them in pale shades of blue and green.

It was worth it. When I finally was ready to create the background, I placed the different sized circles around the canvas. I painted them in layers, mixing a little white paint into my glue/water mix so that the bottom layers would fade a little compared to the top layers and give it some depth. Originally, I thought there would be distinct bubbles against a white background. In the end, the whole canvas was covered and it reminded me of Monet. I tell you, I loved that background so much I almost didn’t want to put anything on it. I will definitely be using that technique again.

 

For the jelly itself, I started off by cutting the pattern from plain white printer paper (abundant at my office). I used the canvas to make sure the pieces fit and I had to make some changes from the original drawing to accommodate the new size and materials.

When I had the tentacles and body shape done, I used post-it note paper to measure and cut the patterns on the body. It was much better than plain paper because I could make sure they stayed in place while I added other shapes. I had to change the size of the heart shapes because the first attempt was too small. Being able to stick them to the body let me clearly see how the shapes would look glued down.

Finally I was ready to cut the colored origami paper. Sort of. First I had to decide which pieces got which colors and patterns. I had a limited amount, no more than two sheets of each type and remember origami paper isn’t exactly big, so for larger chunks, I had to line up the two sheets along their pattern to make it seem, well, seamless. I also had to balance the colors and shapes in my head.

When I made my final color decisions, the last of the cutting was ahead of me. I had to trace the white paper stencils onto the origami paper and faithfully cut each shape and each layer. The tentacles were actually fairly easy, but the accents on the body were the most challenging. Here again the sticky paper came in handy since I could just stick my stencil to the colored paper rather than try to hold it down. I also enjoyed using the designs on the paper like using the pink circles on dark green to make the circle centers, or using those same patterns on the purple to accent the hearts. Not only cutting the shapes I needed, but cutting them around the patterns.

In the end, the gluing required more patience than I could have imagined! I had to be very gentle with the wet paper. It wasn’t just gluing pieces down, but using the watered down glue like a paper mache. The paper would be wet and tear easily. However, if I didn’t soak the paper evenly, it would pucker and wrinkle badly in response to the areas touched by glue. I added only one or two pieces at a time and had to wait (more Star Trek) for them to dry at least most of the way before applying the next.

Damp pieces were adjustable, but only a little. If I hadn’t planned and checked everything while it was dry, I don’t think I could have assembled it wet. It was a whole new experience. I’ve done paper mache and decoupage but never to create a 2d art of my own design, and on a canvas no less. It took me 3 weeks of working on it in my spare time.

And that’s why I haven’t been writing…

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Sacred Forests: Atsuta Jingu Shrine

Finally, a new post about travel! I went to Japan at the beginning of May for a 5 day weekend and while I got rained on for most of it, I still had a great time. Nagoya isn’t exactly on the top of everyone’s Japanese travel itinerary, but I have a friend working there and it was nice to combine some travel goodness with some friend hang outs. Eventually, I’ll be writing about Nagoya Castle, Tokugawa Gardens, the awesome regional foods of Nagoya, and a few other gems, but for now I give you the epitome of “forest bathing” at this old and venerable Shinto Shrine.


I only got one sunny day on my holiday and this was not it. This was a special shame because I had actually planned my more touristy activities for Monday and Tuesday to avoid the holiday/weekend crowds. I swear I checked the forecast before this plan, and it was just supposed to lightly rain one of the days.

Thinking this, I picked some indoor activities for Monday, the light rain day, and planned to split Tuesday, the partly cloudy day, between the two main outdoor attractions I was interested in. However Monday is also the day all the indoor activities like the aquarium, planetarium, and science museum are closed! I could not be less interested in car and train museums, so I decided to brave the rain and head to the forest anyway. 

A Little Bit About Shinto Shrines
Generally in Japan, anything called a “shrine”shrine icon is Shinto, while a “temple” temple icon is Buddhist. The map icons help to distinguish, and no, that’s not a Nazi swastika, it’s a traditional Buddhist symbol that is much much older than Hitler. The Shinto tales of kami (kind of like gods and spirits) are every bit as long and sordid as the Greek or Egyptian myths and involve lots of improbable births, sibling marriages, and explanations for how the world got so messed up. I do not know the whole thing as well as I know Greek gods because I wasn’t raised on a steady diet of Kojiki myths, but they show up regularly in Japanese pop culture and anime and unlike the Greek pantheon, they are still relevant and widely worshiped inside Japan to this day.

There are three sacred objects in Japan: a sword, a mirror and a jewel. The sword is enshrined here at Atsuta Jingu. It belonged to Yamato Takeru in life and was enshrined along with some of his other belongings upon his death. The main god of the shrine, Atsuta, is the god of this sword.

Atsuta Jinju is said to be about 2000 years old. In addition to housing the sacred sword, it honors 5 major deities including Amaterasu (the sun godess), Susano-o (god of the sea and storms), YamatoTakeru (12th Emporer of Japan whose death inspired the shrine), Takeinadane-no-Mikoto and Miyasuhime-no-Mikoto (the first parents of the native people of Nagoya).

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Large, old Shinto shrines are quite different from their small cousins.  I ran across a smaller shrine in Osu (above) that was about the size of a house. There are dozens tucked in wherever a sacred spot can be located. The city sort of swallows them up. Larger shrines like Meiji Jingu in Tokyo (below) and Atsuta Jingu in Nagoya are located in sacred forests. The fact that Shinto is an active faith in Japan means that these forests have been preserved and protected throughout history and urban development. Now, some of the largest cities in the world have these crazy old growth forests right inside.

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I can’t really get into a full explanation of Shinto mythology and practice here because like every aspect of human culture it is huge and complex, but I hope this gives a little insight into the significance and history of the Atsuta Jingu shrine.

Into the Woods

Going inside, each gate is marked by a gigantic toori gate, usually left natural wood brown and decorated with shide (the zigzag folded paper) and sometimes fresh cut branches. The gates are enormous, and yet in photos they don’t look large beside the trees because the trees are even bigger. People bow to the forest both upon entering and leaving. It’s not just a park in the city, it is a truly sacred space.

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Walking into one of these gates on a sunny day is somewhat daunting because the bright sunlight and city noises are suddenly absent and you find yourself mystically transported to a world of green-gold half light and birdsong. Going through the gates on a gray and rainy day felt far more sinister as the path ahead of me was swallowed in near darkness. Mists clung to the trees and the birds were silent from the rain except for the occasional cawing of huge black crows. Super spooky and it gave me a real appreciation for the origin of some of those Japanese horror stories.

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Museum of Treasures

Once inside the forest, my eyes adjusting to the low light level, and my lungs filling with the most amazing air, I began to feel better at once. The museum is near the main gate, so I decided to go there first. I found a couple of chickens hiding in the lee of the building to stay dry. They had become superstars to the other guests, city dwellers who hardly ever see farm birds in any other context than a restaurant menu. I don’t know if it was more fun to watch the birds or watch the people react to them.

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On display in the museum’s main room is what I can only assume is a replica of the sacred sword said to be enshrined there. It’s loooong. Like taller than Shaq. When I first saw it, I didn’t yet know the myth and history of the shrine, but I assumed that it must have belonged to a god simply by it’s proportions. There is also a small gift shop, and a public restroom and snack machine. Upstairs looked like a library. The museum proper is 3$ to enter and since the shrine is otherwise free (donation based), I didn’t have any problem contributing. I’m a little sad they didn’t have any English, but I enjoyed looking at the relics nonetheless.

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My absolute favorite was an elaborate painting that depicted the history of Japan from the creation of the world by the gods through modern day. It was done as a spiral pathway that started with creation, followed the early emperors of Japan and the sacred sword being passed down until it was finally enshrined, and then further important events in the shrine’s history. I couldn’t really read the guide, but I know enough about early Japanese creation myths (presentations in Japanese class paid off eventually?) to have recognized the pictures in the center an extrapolated outward.

I was hoping to find an image or print somewhere to share, but it’s not in the brochure or on the website, which also says the relics on display are changed out monthly. It was easily the most distinctive thing in the museum. I enjoy the old ceremonial clothing, dishware and weaponry as well, but it didn’t stand out to me as unique the way that painting did.

Ookusu: Big Tree

Once finished with the museum, I headed back into the woods with my trusty travel umbrella. Different areas of the forest are further divided with more toori gates and the first one I encountered leaving the museum led me to the ookusu. It literally translates to “big camphor tree” and these big old trees are often centerpieces at shrines in Japan. Totoro lives in a camphor tree, after all. The sign next to this one says it’s over 1000 years old. Near the tree there is a chōzubachi (ritual purification water pool) and a decorative wall of empty sake barrels. Sake is used in offerings and rituals, and the empty barrels are turned into art to adorn the shrine. Usually the sake is donated to the shrine and the displaying of the empty barrels is similar to many other types of prayer where notes or paper decorations are displayed. Instead of buying a prayer paper to write on, these breweries donate sake.

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I look back at my photos now and realize there is just no way to show the context of the size of the forest in Atsuta because everything is built to god scale and you walk around feeling a little bit like a child in a grown up world the whole time. Maybe that’s intentional? Probably. It reminds me of my photos of the redwoods where all the trees are so big that they all look normal next to each other. I’m not saying that this ookusu is as big as a sequoia, but it’s still a big tree. I was holding my phone up at arms’ length and I’m still shooting up at the rope marker.

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The Honmyu

My next stop was the main shrine itself, called honmyu. Here I found several buildings surrounding a gravel courtyard. Photos of Atsuta taken here almost make it look like it’s open air rather than deep forested. It is a working shrine, so the main hall for services was lit, but closed to the public. I was pleased to be able to have a peek through the windows nonetheless. One building was a performance hall although it was empty the day I was there. I suspect that at least one of the other buildings was housing for the shrine maidens and priests.

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One building was a place to donate in exchange for a variety of charms or blessings. Lucky charms are a big part of Shinto and Japanese culture in general. There were small charms for almost everything. Additionally, there were prayer papers and wooden ornaments that individual prayers could be written on and hung around the shrine. I also saw arrows. I know that miko (shrine maidens) are famous for archery because (guilty look) the anime I watch shows them using bow and arrow to slay evil spirits. These demon breaking arrows are used to dispel evil and ward off bad luck. Absolutely nothing is in English, so I did my best to try and read the labels, but in the end I had to ask. I think I mixed up my pronunciation but the miko I asked seemed to figure it out quickly and I found a white swan for happiness. I don’t know if charms work, but I was happy to have the chance to visit the beautiful forest and that seems like a good reason to donate. Plus, whenever I hear the tiny bells jingle, I get a happy memory. Working already.

The main part of the shrine, where I believe the sacred relics to be enshrined, is not accessible to the public. We could walk up to a gate and get a lovely view of the beautiful buildings, but can go no further. Like many palaces, it’s a series of buildings and courtyards.

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The design is simple, natural and elegant made only of dark wood and a minimum of metal ornamentation. Unlike smaller shrines which are decked out in red and gold, the forest shrine was almost in camouflage to blend in to the trees around it. Despite the heavy rain that day, and the fact that it was mid-afternoon on a Monday, the forest still had a large number of visitors, and not only tourists, but locals who had come by to offer prayers and donations. Many people approached the shrine to drop coins and a formal bow.

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Spirit Houses: Jinja Shrines

In addition to the main shrine, the jingu, there are a number of smaller shrines or jinja around the forest. For some reason I thought these were usually open with an interior display of statues and gifts, but I have since gone back through my photos of other shrines and I was mistaken. All kami houses are shut up tight. These smaller shrines are also a kind of spirit house where the smaller local kami can dwell. Big global or national Kami like the goddess of the sun may have shrines all over Japan, but local kami may only have a few shrines… sometimes just one. People may pray to a specific kami because of it’s history, or because of a local or family connection.

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On the next leg of my walk I stepped off the main path to get a closer look at some of these jinja shrines. They were plain wooden tiny houses on stilts and I couldn’t make much sense of the simple signs adorning each one, so I just decided to enjoy the path when suddenly I noticed I could see my breath! I know the spring has been cooler than usual this year, but it was in the high 20s that day and for most of the day I had felt warm and a little sticky, now suddenly my breath was clouding up in front of me. I tried again, because I like to replicate results. And it happened again. I backed up down the path and it stopped happening. I moved forward, it happened again. I put a hand next to the shrine I was getting foggy breath in front of and I swear it felt colder. Just to be sure it wasn’t an effect of the shade or the wood, I tried the shrine next to it and didn’t feel any difference in the warm air on the path and that next to the shrine. I am not saying it was haunted, but … you know every time there’s a haunting in a movie the temperature suddenly drops and the characters can see their breath, so…

I did take a picture of the name of that shrine to check later, but all I can really find is that it seems to be related to water offerings. Maybe that’s why it gets excited in the rain?

Paper Cranes

After a delicious and filling lunch (which you can read more about in the food post) I felt well equipped to explore the rest of the grounds. I checked a few maps to try and guess which paths I hadn’t walked down yet. All the signs were Japanese only, and referenced the proper name of each building in the compound, so I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d been to and what I’d missed without the map reference.

As I wandered down another wide road, shrouded in tall dark trees, Nagoya’s oldest stone bridge and megalithic 8m high, 400 year-old stone lanterns (said to be one of the three most significant in all Japan), I found a few more of the jinja shrines along the way. Most of them were brown and unadorned, but a few had splashes of color.

20180507_133742At first I didn’t know what they were. I only saw the bright colors from a distance and was drawn closer with curiosity. As I examined the strings of color, it became clear that these were chains of paper cranes folded and strung together in a way that most Westerners are familiar with from the story of Sadako and the 1,000 paper cranes.

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It was so stunning to me to see string after string of brightly patterned paper, neatly and identically folded into shape. The rain had soaked them thoroughly but the paper held together well and the water made the colors pop even more. This one smaller shrine received more attention than any but the largest center shrine, so naturally I was very curious. It’s called Kusu no mae Shrine and is described on the website as “god of amnesty” The sign goes on to mention both Izanami and Izanagi, who created the world and gave birth to the islands of Japan. The website says: “It is commonly called “God of Koyasu” or “Ogunsama”, it cures various diseases” courtesy of Chrome’s auto translate.

A Whole Other Shrine, What?

I was perfectly content playing “find the shrine” in the forest. It was beautiful, the trees kept most of the rain off, and it smelled absolutely amazing to breathe the air there. Thinking I’d almost walked every trail there was to walk, I suddenly turned the corner into a whole ‘nother shrine complex! The same courtyard surrounded by multiple buildings. A slightly smaller charms/gifts shop with similar items. And a nearly identical unapproachable series of dark wooden buildings with delicate gold trim. I thought at first I might have wandered around to the back side of the same area I’d seen before, but the map confirms it is a totally different shrine called Kamichikama.

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Trying to discover the meaning of this led me on a wild Google chase that resulted in me visiting the actual Japanese website for the Atsuta Jingu shrine. Previously I’d only been reading the made for English speaking tourists site. The native one is WAY bigger. It’s tricky to translate religious stuff and ceremonial language, but I found the map with building names and basic function (so much better than the English one) and Kamichikama is a Bodhisattva of wisdom. I can’t find his name anywhere but Trip Advisor in reference to this particular place when I search it in English, but Shinto has a LOT of local deities and honored persons, so it could be that he only exists at this one place and that is not weird.

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I poked around the Japanese version of the website after discovering the insane difference in the level of details. Google translate is not great, but it does give me a little more information than … nothing… I am not going to try to translate the whole site and detail every little shrine I found, but if you’re curious, the information is out there. There are a LOT of shrines inside this forest and they are all devoted to a specific kami  or sometimes historical event that is remembered. People regularly come to them to pray and make offerings. Some people seemed to treat it a little like a wishing well, while others had deeper reverence. The practice of Shinto may have changed over the centuries in Japan, but it is definitely alive, well, and a major part of the everyday lives of the Japanese people.

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Sadly, the low lighting and high humidity played merry heck with my camera and there are not enough good shots of the shrine to be worthy of a solo Facebook album, but I will put together a trip compilation album before the end of the series. Speaking of which… I’m not actually finished writing the rough draft of whole this trip yet… still. At my last school, I had 1-2 hours when I was stuck at my desk with nothing to do but write, but here I have to carve out time because there is no “desk warming”. It’s so tempting to just leave the office behind and go for a walk or take a nap. Plus, I’ve spent a lot of my spare computer hours nailing down plans for the summer holiday European trip which is going to be so awesome. I’ll do my best to get the rest of the Nagoya stories out before the end of the semester? As always, thanks for reading!