Tag Archive : Spring

/ Spring

Life of a Foreign Warrior

April 3, 2019 | Blog, JET Life | No Comments

Hanami, flowering viewing, is a popular event each year during spring time to witness the beautiful, pink return of spring to Gunma’s mountains and valleys. However, the Kanra Castle Town Obata Sakura Festival is not your ordinary hanami experience. An annual event, this festival exists to celebrate the beloved sakura blossoms, while simultaneously paying tribute to the era in which Obata was created. Hanami featuring a Musha Gyoretsu—a warrior parade.

Every year, the Kanra Board of Education invites Gunma ALTs to participate in this remarkable parade. I had jumped at the chance to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A few days before the event, I received some paperwork for the event.

Among the package was a letter written entirely in Japanese, addressed to, “Maja Thoenes, foreign warrior.”

On March 31st, all 11 “foreign warriors” rolled into the freezing, drizzling Kanra Junior High School Gym parking lot. Filing inside one by one, the gym seemed to give off a warm, orange glow. Every inch of the floor was covered with weapons and neatly folded piles of clothing: bright red and pink yukata with spears, embroidered green and gold kimono, and full suits of obsidian samurai armor that stood like little mountains amongst the fabric plains. Although only eight in the morning, the gym was already brimming with people, and they collectively turned around to watch the stunned foreign warriors walk inside.

We found our piles of clothing and weaponry, and after a while, the rental gear workers were ready to help us dress. We started in our long underwear and put on two-toed tabi socks and sandals. Over that, a simple white robe, with a plain but mighty obi around our waist restricting blood-flow to our brains. Next, the top—it was heavy and shiny, with wide sleeves that hid our hands. We stepped into the pants made of the same fabric, creating the classic image of the warrior pant-suit of the samurai. These were tied around us at waist again, and we were wrapped a second time with another thick obi. Our weapons were next: a long katana with a leather belt around our hips, and a knife in a sheath that was forced in between the folds of the two obi. For the finishing touches, we tied the tassels on the neck of our robes, and we donned a stiff, black mesh hat. Some of us awkwardly tried to unsheathe our katana, while others snapped quick selfies and practiced their finest blue steel faces. We could hardly move or breathe in all the gear, but no doubt we looked as glorious and badass as we felt in our hearts.

Once everyone was dressed, we walked from the gym to the nearby Rakusan-en, a lovely Japanese-style garden built by the son of Oda Nobunaga. Nearly a hundred other procession participants were already there, taking photos in front of the koi fish pond and hiding from the sprinkling rain under the thatched roofs of the tea houses. After a short word from the mayor and an introduction of two visiting comedians, all the participants lined up into formation for the procession.

 

Cannon fire from the top of the hill announced the festival’s start. Just as we took our first steps, the sun came out.

Observers stood along the sides of the street with their cameras ready as we paraded through in groups, sporting dozens of different types of historical Japanese clothing. Heavily armored palace guards with towering kanji helmets and tiger fur coats, long red-robed philosophers with skyscraper hats, elementary school-aged peasant guards wearing bamboo sandals, historical royalty wearing colorful veils, and even horses bridled with teal masks, yellow tassels dancing on their noses. In the middle of all of this, the foreign warriors, marching and smiling amongst the waving flags and river of robes. We greeted the students, teachers and strangers that surrounded us on every side. The procession was occasionally paused so that we cheer together: Ei, ei, oh! Ei, ei, oh! Although the sakura overhead had barely begun to bloom, the warmth in the wind was undeniable—spring was here, and it almost felt like we were leading her in.

We marched from Rakusan-en to Kanra Obatahachiman, a humble shrine resting between tall, noble pine trees. We took a break in the sun for some green tea, apple juice, and pictures before getting into formation once more for the trek back to the gardens. The festival had been waiting for our arrival, a taiko drum team welcoming us to our positions in front of a large stage, set up before an ocean of observers. The mayor gave a small speech to announce the official start of the Sakura Festival, and we gave our “Ei, ei, oh” ­ war cry for a final time.

Although the procession’s journey had only been a little over two kilometers, we were exhausted. Back in the gym, we stripped off our samurai gear in only a fraction of the time it had taken to put it on, covering the floor in fabric once more. We inhaled our bento while chatting about the parade—we had heard lots of compliments in English, such as “beautiful” and “handsome,” but we agreed that “Can you teach me English?” in Japanese had been our favorite.  We had laughed and said that we could.

Although I doubt the historical accuracy of including a bunch of overseas English teachers in cultural celebration such as this, there was no doubt that the Kanra community was delighted by our involvement, and we were so honored to be a part of it all. The residents of Kanra are so friendly and outgoing—we were asked to take a staggering number of photos, and so many people went out of their way to ask us about ourselves and complement our awesome get-up.

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It turned out that the Kanra Board of Education had sponsored our participation costs, including our lunch, so the entire experience was free of cost. The Kanra ALT supervisor even went so far as to follow us around during the procession, carrying our wallets and keys and making sure we all got back safely. We are so thankful for the kindness and generosity shown by the Kanra Board of Education to the participating ALTs each year, and we look forward to many more festivals in the future.

We left the gym and returned to the festival grounds to pay a little visit the food stalls that were serving yakisoba, karaage, yakimajuu and other enticing treats. We sat at the very back of the crowd for a while, our hands full of food, watching a live samurai drama. The actors fought their opponents, doing summer saults and backflips, their katana and robes thrashing in the wind. It was like a window into the past, the illusion spoiled only by the corny but endearing sound effects blasted over the speakers.

By the time the drama ended and applause filled the air, the grass where we once sat was empty. No one noticed, but we foreign warriors had quietly slipped away, the sakura budding above us.


Maja Thoenes is a second year JET from Alabama. She is a published author, and enjoys hiking and binging Netflix. You can find her work on Amazon.

 

Hanami BBQ

March 30, 2019 | | No Comments

Out of the cold and into the park!

Spring is just around the corner, and with that means, cherry blossoms! Join GAJET (and many others awaking from winter hibernation) on Saturday March 30, for the first event of the spring. Feel free to join anytime from 11:30 in the morning. We will be gathering at Kannonyama Family Park (more info can be found here).

Cost of the BBQ is 1000 yen per person (500 yen if vegetarian). Drinking is possible, but remember to BYOB.

For more information, please check out the Facebook event page, or contact your Seibu reps.

 

Finding Sakura in Gunma

March 17, 2019 | Blog, Gallery, Guides, JET Life | No Comments

Pink petals float on the breeze as the sun’s gentle rays shine down. Sounds of children playing echo across a green field.

It’s finally here! Spring has returned at last!

A season associated with rebirth, spring is the time when we end our winter hibernation, crawl out from under the kotatsu, and bask in nature renewed. In April, a new school year will begin, and young scholars will embark on new adventures. Nature follows suit, as cherry blossom boughs burst into bloom in the early season. These precious petals can be seen across Japan. But act quickly! Their season is only about two weeks.

So grab some snacks and beverages, lay out your picnic blanket and soak it all in! Popular parks in Tokyo will attract thousands of visitors, eager to participate in the tradition of hanami (flower viewing party). Not to be outdone, Gunma cherry blossoms across the prefecture will put on their best show.

Cherry blossoms are set to bloom soon, as weather forecasts predict an early start to the 2019 hanami season. Knowing where to go is half the battle when it comes maximizing your cherry blossom viewing experience. Here are some of the best places in Gunma for cherry blossoms!

1: Maebashi Park

Gunma’s capital is a perfect spot for your first hanami! The Tone River runs through the park, providing a stunning backdrop for the cherry blossoms. At night, enjoy the blooms by lantern light along the hill. And of course, vendors provide festival staples like karaage and takoyaki.

My visit: April 8, 2017

2: Tomioka Silk Mill

Springtime cherry blossoms adorn the historic grounds of Tomioka’s own World Heritage Site, the Tomioka Silk Mill. Enjoy them under the warm sun during the day, or come to see the nighttime illumination of the sakura.

This year’s illumination period will run from approximately 6pm – 8pm each night from March 25 – April 7 (dependent on blooming conditions).

Pro tip: Check out the nearby shops, such as Kuturogi, which carries a number of delightful gelato flavors!

My visit: April 9 (day) and 12 (night), 2017

3: Kanra Total Park

This park in Kanra boasts plenty of picturesque cherry blossoms, and water to go with.

If you’re lucky the cherry blossoms will be in bloom at the same time as Kanra’s Castle Town Warrior Procession, a festival which sees the townspeople on parade, dressed up as samurai of the past. Be sure to check it out this year, as you may see some friendly Gunma ALTs in the mix!

There’s also nearby Rakusan-en if you want to combine cherry blossom viewing with a bit of exploration. Rakusan-en is Gunma’s own historic daimyo garden! The grounds are another great setting for photos, with the koi pond and traditional buildings.

My visit: April 9, 2017

4: Akagi Senbonzakura

Return to Maebashi for a comfortable stroll through the woods for the Akagi Senbonzakura, or Thousand Cherry Trees, Festival. As you emerge from the woods you’ll be greeted by a road lined with vendors, festival food, and of course, sakura! The cherry trees share some of their glory with phlox and other greenery, but it’s safe to say the cherry blossoms themselves are the stars of the show.

This year the Akagi Thousand Cherry Trees Fetsival will be held from April 6 – 21 2019 (tentative depending on flowers).

My visit: April 15, 2017

5: Shiroijuku Double Cherry Blossom Festival

North of Maebashi, the city of Shibukawa holds the Shiroijuku Double Cherry Blossom Festival. The double cherry blossoms boast more petals than their single-petal compatriots. You can find them in full view around Shiroijuku, but don’t miss out on the parade and festival foods as well!

My visit: April 22, 2018 (the day of the festival!)

6: Mt. Haruna

Gunma’s lovely mountains mean that there are chances you can catch blossoms that show up later than their buddies in the valleys. Hanging out on Mount Haruna, I was surprised to find cherry blossoms still out – in May! Harunafuji may still be quite brown, but you will see signs of color beginning to appear!

My visit: May 4, 2018

Pro Tip: Check Out Your Own Backyard 😊

If crowds aren’t your jam, if the distance is too far, or sorting the transportation is daunting, fear not! There are cherry blossoms for everyone! Don’t feel silly searching for them along the path less trodden. Cherry blossoms don’t need a park or a crowd to show off! This spring you’ll find cherry blossoms all around; if this is your first spring in Gunma you might be surprised by what you find locally, whether you’re in the inaka or the big city. You can even ask some of your neighbors or coworkers where those hidden top spots are!

Thanks to a local tip during my first year in Gunma, we learned about this park in Tomioka. The climb up this small “mountain” is great exercise, and I’ve never seen it particularly crowded. The side of the mountain is lined with cherry trees, and when you get to the top you are rewarded with even more beauty, the Tomioka view of Myogi and Asama. If the timing is right you can get cherry blossoms and daffodils together!

Pictures from April 2017, around Gunma.

Contribute to the never-ending search!

Follow and contribute to #gunmagems on Facebook and Instagram. Let’s spread the wonders of Gunma!

Post your photos on Instagram using the hashtag #gunmajet for a chance to be featured on GAJET’s Instagram page.

Know other places in Gunma worth sharing? Leave a comment down below.


Valerie Landers is a third-year JET in Tomioka. Dabbler in languages, worker of puzzles, and unofficial hype-woman for Gunma. She loves festivals, flowers, and fireworks. There’s a growing collection of houseplants in her apaato, and if you can’t find her there, she might be driving on one of Gunma’s mountains or hanging out in Chakichi, Tomioka’s wonderful matcha café. Follow her adventures on Instagram @duchessmouse