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 year end

junigatsu 12 (dec)
Only a few days of school remain this week and I'm feeling bittersweet pangs of melancholy. After two and half years at the same university, I declined to renew my contract for next semester. I'm planning to stay on in Japan until the summer, but instead of full time work with its long hours and hectic commutes, I hope to live a less structured, easy-going life, teaching some private lessons, writing and traveling. Under the often clear winter skies the past few weeks, I've glimpsed the snowy head of Mt. Fuji over the rooftops and green Tama hills, which I've taken as a good omen.

Walking up the steps to the college, in a throng of young women, I am struck by the graceful skeletons of the trees lining the silver tiled walkways, only a few leaves hanging on. The geometric patterns on the academic buildings are more visible, exposed to the light. The students are drifting off like the leaves - since there are no tests, papers or presentations in this conversation based English program, and students are scrambling to complete assignments for their other classes, the attendance has gradually dropped to small intimate numbers, sometimes even just one or two students in a class. I take the opportunity to have a more personal discussion, asking their plans and thoughts, and subtly encourage them to let the world in, be open to new ideas and concepts, and to keep studying English.

Another teacher and I were invited to attend the Tea Ceremony circle, a club at the university. This group of young women who study and practice the ancient art, opened the mysterious sliding door and welcomed us into a large tatami room. Shoes off, of course, greetings exchanged. It was a time of silence, partially perhaps because the one student we knew was just a beginning English learner, but also due to the peaceful nature of the ceremony. We were served some small treats while the tea was prepared. Two iron kettles sat inside larger ceramic vessels, hiding heating rings at bottom. The girls carefully folded red napkins to use while holding the hot kettles. An almost choreographed series of motions were used to handle each utensil, as the powdered green tea was spooned into tea bowls with a curved bamboo rod. Then, holding a whisk with the right hand straight down, tea bowl in the left, the tea was whipped into a thick green froth using a rapid downward beat. Soon the tea bowl was offered. I knew a little about this, having attended one once and discussed it with friends and students. I turned the bowl several times to admire the pot, then drank it in three sips, the last one with a little slurping noise to let them know I was finished.

Not as artfully done as the professional ceremony I had been to in Kyoto, it was nonetheless lovingly performed with great concentration. Afterward the girls offered to let us whip the tea. We were two lefties trying to get the hang of it with our right hand! Then I asked if we could use the left, and with their approval I could do a little better. A student whipped them again after us, so we could drink it in its proper form.

I visited a sake factory with a Japanese friend. When we arrived after hours on trains, we were told that the afternoon tours were all booked, but we could walk around the building and gardens. As we stood outside the factory, looking up at a large ball made of cedar leaves which hung over the entrance in homage to the god of sake making, a group of people came out a door led by a woman. My friend spoke with her for a few moments and then she motioned for us to join the group! We learned about the process of polishing the rice before brewing, entered a cave used for its pure water, and walked among huge silver vats where the rice wine is brewed in a mud-lined cellar. The contents of one of the tall vats, it was said, would provide a lifetime of sake for one person. We strolled the beautiful walkway along the river to a little temple; the fall leaves were gorgeous, and the sake tasting was pretty wonderful too.

In a large park in Fuchu, Kyodo-no-Mori, there were several charming old preserved buildings - a tea shop, school and government buildings - as well as fountains, landscaped gardens and winding paths. But I was most interested in exploring Senganyama Park, a hike recommended by a friend, because it was described on an Internet site as a 'joyful hill for calm walking.' It was one of the few places I've been in Japan that had a more natural feel, just a big hill with a simple shrine, some picnic tables and lots of trails. It was so refreshing to be in a natural forest, truly joyful.

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