Tradition and Modernity: Festival Observations and More

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This week, I experienced getting lost in Tokyo. To expand, I not only got lost, but also roped my friends, six or seven other TUJ students, into a confusing, hour-long bus ride to Yokohama as well. Some may see Friday plans derailing in a foreign country as a necessary evil in order to learn a lesson, or even a rite of passage. At any rate, arriving two minutes until last admission, we spent thirty minutes in the Yokohama Sankeien Garden for the last night of their Firefly Evening matsuri. Exploring festivals, especially in the Japanese summer, has been explained to me as an essential part of my study abroad experience. And even amidst confusion, this was proven true. Last week, I wrote about the vulnerability in rediscovering the senses while living in a foreign country. This small festival seemed to engage many of them, such as the sight of hundreds of fireflies from our spot on a small bridge, and the distinguished sound of bullfrogs from elsewhere in the garden. In addition, the scene was well into the evening and thus too dark to capture on an iPhone camera – which, while maybe less than ideal for blogging purposes, forced us to be present in the moment.

The weekend, however, accomplished the same with a much greater opportunity for visuals. On an official TUJ excursion, I and about thirty other students took a school-chartered coach bus to the Niigata prefecture for the annual Battle of the Giant Kites. Around halfway, we stopped at Fukiware Falls – perhaps my most photographable location yet.

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Our group only had about a half hour in total to walk around Fukiware Falls, but I had the feeling we could have spent all day.

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Here’s a snapshot from Niigata’s kite museum, in which a local is binding rope for kite battles, a process that involves much care and spiritual blessing.

Much of our trip was also spent viewing the Japanese countryside. I was struck by its contrast with Tokyo itself, but perhaps the most interesting contrast was in a much more contained scenario – in a narrow Niigata street right before the kite festival began. Researching it afterwards, I learned that what I observed was called mikoshi shrine bearing. In Japanese Shinto tradition, many festivals involve the carrying of a portable palanquin, believed to contain divinity, from one spot to another. Many locals in conventional garb moved and chanted together as they carried the mikoshi, creating a grand image of tradition. Yet here we were, taking pictures of the scene with our smartphones, and directly above it all was an electronic stoplight, a reminder of where we really were in time and space. This was intriguing as it was amusing to examine, and just another aspect of discovery here in Japan.

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Mikoshi shrine bearing in process – ever noticeable are the streetlights and signs among the traditional outfits and festivities.

The rest of this week has been full of further adjustments to school life at TUJ. I’ve found that most of my classes – Development & Globalization, East Asia & The United States, and even History of Journalism, share commonalities in subject matter between them. Though definitely distinct, I feel my studies linking together and making sense, much like the combination of tradition and modernity outside of class that I’ve already been able to experience. I look forward to future observations like these. Hopefully, they won’t necessarily involve getting lost in the process – but I welcome the challenge nonetheless.

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About Ariel Kovlakas for Temple Japan

Hi there! My name is Ariel Kovlakas, and I’m a senior majoring in Communications (Media, Culture & Society) and minoring in Sociology. As a student at Fordham University's Manhattan campus, I’ve been grateful to live in a hub of opportunities and experiences that have never failed to expand my worldview. In a very real way, my time with TUJ will be a defining and final chapter in my undergrad career, as I’m heading out into the world directly after my abroad experience. And what a way to go – studying in Tokyo, Japan with Temple University. As (extremely) excited as I am, I’m even more grateful to participate and record my experience. I’ve always had a passion for Japan (its food, art, architecture, festivals, you name it). My hopes are that the more I explore Japan, the more I’ll be able to uncover about myself and what comes next.

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