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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Kimonos in Kyoto

Last weekend, Elena and I went to Japan. It was a quick 2-day trip to get me out of Taiwan because I don’t have a visa. We did Osaka the first day, and a quick day trip to Kyoto the second day. Elena had told me all about her first trip to Japan in the spring, and as soon as she mentioned that many people rented kimonos and wore them around the city, I knew that was something that I would love to do. When I was little, I adored playing dress-up, and even now I still do.

Kyoto is the main city in which to dress up in kimonos, and I did substantial research into a shop that was in the right location. I managed to find one store ( that was near a metro stop and Gion street, our final destination in Kyoto, making it easy to return them.

We walked into Kyoetsu kimono shop at 9am, fresh off the train, ready to start. After taking off our shoes, we had to choose between wearing a kimono and a yukata. They explained that a kimono is worn all year round, though mostly during the winter since it is made of a heavier material and more layers are worn underneath. Yukatas, on the other hand, are worn during the summer as they are made of a lighter material and require fewer layers of clothing underneath. After remembering how hot the previous day in Osaka had been, Elena and I both opted for the yukatas. We had fun going through the dozens of colorful yukatas hanging on racks, and choosing ones that coordinated.

After choosing yukatas, we picked out matching belts from the stacks sitting against another wall. Then we took all of our things upstairs to a big room for getting ready. They gave us skirts and a thin garment that looked like a cross between a dress and a bathrobe to put on before we slipped into our yukatas. From there, they wrapped all kinds of things around our waists—a towel, a rope (to keep the towel in place), some kind of stretchy string that reminded me of a bungy cord (to hold the yukata in place), a plate of thin plastic (to keep the belt flat), and finally, the belt or obi. When all was said and done, the obi was quite tight around my waist and a little uncomfortable.

They also did our hair for us and took our picture before we picked out pairs of clunky wooden flip flops and sending us out into the city. The whole process took about an hour. We shuffled our way to the metro, off to Arashiyama bamboo grove and Fushimi Inari Taisha temple to take lots of pictures. Funnily enough, we saw many Asian girls in kimonos, as well as a few men, but only two or three other white people, whom we shared a knowing smile with.

After all day of taking small steps in our skirts and teetering on the little blocks of wood, we finally decided around 3pm, after Arashiyama, to head straight back to the kimono place before going to Gion street because we were so hot and uncomfortable. We had a lot of fun parading around the city in kimonos, but it was a relief to be back in normal clothes—they felt so light and free! I would definitely recommend this experience to anyone visiting Kyoto, though.

A little practical information about our kimono experience:
Location: Kawaramachiten
Cost: about $30/person for the basic yukata, town walk plan, and free hairstyle (with reservations)


Monday, May 22, 2017

First Graduation of the Season

I've not done a good job of keeping up with blogging lately, but moments are speeding past that I want to document for the years to come. One of those is a big monument in our lives. Our eldest child, Damon, graduated from college.

Chad and I left Elena behind to take her Sr. IB exams and flew the 24 hours across the ocean to celebrate with Damon this great moment.  Jet lagged and bleary eyed, we circled him in hugs. I couldn't believe I was able to be there for those moments, my mom's heart was bursting with pride at how my little boy was a grown man with the the world full of possibly before him.

Music has a way of sweeping my heart away and filling me with emotion. We hunted for Damon in the lines of green caps and gowns filing into the arena to Pomp and Circumstance. Our keen eyes found him standing taller than the masses, wearing black shoes. It's funny how the shoes were the give away identifier. Being a graduate of Michigan State University, I choked on tears when  the MSU Fight Song was played several times through out the commencement. Towards the end, the arena thundered with students and parents singing with pride. Then, after speeches and diplomas were handed out, the Michigan State Alma Mater song, MSU Shadows began. I sang with pride. We now have five members of our family with green flowing through our veins–my mom, Chad's mom, Chad, myself and Damon.

Three days passed too quickly. Soon I was back on the plane with Maddie next me to join us for the summer. This will be our first summer without five keeping the house full of warmth. I know, it's part of life–the kids growing up and all–it now just seems a bit quieter around here these days.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

End of Chinese New Year god Parade

Xuan-Xiao Jie is the lantern festival in Taiwan marking the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations.  Lanterns are lit and sent off in various villages around the island.  This year we were invited to visit a god parade in a small town just outside of Taipei.  Our small group were the only white faces present.  The parade followed a circular road on the edge of the mountains.  The beating of drums, whine of the traditional horns and banging cymbals helped us find our way off the mountain trail and into the village.  The celebration was just beginning.

We've stumbled across god parades in the city before.  Sometimes it's a group of 4 people carrying their god around with some loud music playing and other times the parade is large and long, full of music, people dressed as gods, firecrackers and drums.  This parade was the most intense gathering I've yet seen.  Single file, the vehicles snaked along the road while spectators walked alongside.


The mix of elements in this parade was wide.  There are four large plastic headed gods that often make appearances at god parades, they walked between the cars.  At the beginning of the parade, jeeps with speakers were blasting very, very loud music.  The dragon in important in Chinese symbolism for strength and power.  The dragon is typically a colorful ornamentation made of ceramic tiles on temples.  A group of boys wove the long fabric dragon back and forth.  It's fun to watch the boys holding the poles to the snaking body because they move in unison, yet each have their own movement to make the dragon flow.  Tables in front of homes were laden with fruit and other gifts as sacrifice to the god that would be coming.  People walked up to the offering tables, lit a handful of incense then passed it out to the crowd.

We were quite surprised when two jeeps came around the bend with a pole and dancer on top.  I'm not kidding.  It was shocking and baffling.  I'm still trying to wrap my mind around this, so I've done a lot of asking to try to understand.  The secretary in Chad's office was rather embarrassed.  She said the practice began in southern Taiwan.  She got quiet then sort of whispered in my ear that men like this sort of thing, therefore they have the girls in the parade.  Pole dancers are not uncommon in funeral processions here.  In January a politician died and the news reported 50 pole dancers as part of the funeral procession.  When I asked a co-worker of mine, she said men find pleasure in the dancers and want to share what pleases them with their god so the god can find pleasure too.  Apparently the jeeps stop at the homes of large financial donors to the local temple and the dancers go in and give the donor a private show.  

Taoism is an eastern religion with many gods.  Each temple has their own god.  This is what I've seen paraded around the city at various times.  Little parades to celebrate the god's birthday.  The god sits on this portable alter with 4 poles for transport.  The carriers rock the alter back and forth while they walk causing the flags on the back to flutter.  Each time the parade stopped, the god and alter were set in a central spot.  Firecrackers were lit (in this photo you see the paper from the firecrackers), people brought innocence and offerings to the god, dipping their head several times while praying.


Fireworks and firecrackers are a main part of the celebration.  I've never seen a fireworks display as large and crazy as this.  At home we arrive for the 4th of July fireworks an hour early, stake out our spot, put out a blanket and lay on our backs gazing at the stars while we wait for fireworks to begin.  After 10 minutes, 15 if we're lucky, the 5 minute grand finale begins.  We ohh and ahh, pleased with how beautiful and grand the display was this year, then fight traffic to get home.  

The only way I know how to describe these fireworks are 3 hours (yes, hours) of straight grand finale.  There were large traditional fireworks lighting up the sky.  There were ground rockets that sent streams of fire high into the sky, and there were reels and reels of firecrackers.  Boxes of unused fireworks were haphazardly stacked on the side.  Needless to say, safety was not a major concern.  Men picked up ropes of firecrackers, threw them on the ground in front of the god, lit them and walked away.  About 10 canisters of the large fireworks were placed on a cement ledge then two guys with blow torches lit them and backed up.  After they went off, they knocked the empty canisters over the edge and ran to replace them with 10 more canisters which they immediately lit.  On and on the chaos continued.  We left after three hours, long before the boxes were empty.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Dragon Dance

Dragon Dance performances are popular in Taiwan on Chinese New Year's Day to celebrate the new year and symbolize good luck to the people.

Elena and I went to the Grand Hyatt to see their show.  We were not disappointed.  

It began with streamers of firecracker being lit off, then the drummers began.

A team of children danced with spools, tossing and catching them on string.

The dragon chases a spherical object that represents a pearl or wisdom.

The Dragon Dance is very acrobatic.  A team of boys hold the long dragon on poles.  What you see the boys doing under the dragon is just as interesting as the artistic flow of the dragon himself.  At times they stand on one another simply to create interest in their structure.  Every movement is beautiful to watch.

The Lion Dance is another traditional Chinese dance often performed during Chinese New Year.  Two dancers form each lion.  The first Lion Dance had two lions dancing with each other.  The dancers stand on their partner's shoulders to extend the lion.  I several of these performances outside businesses and malls over the holiday.

The second Lion Dance was unique.  The lion, manned by two people, danced atop small wooden platforms.  It jumped back and forth and spun around.  This lion ate the traditional greens, offered in a bowl, to represent wealth and fortune.  He was also fed a "hong bao" or red envelope which holds a gift of money which is a payment for the blessing of the lion.  At the end the lion threw candy into the audience for the kids.

A sprig of bamboo on this drum to bring good luck.