Horyuji and Nara

29 Nov

Novemer 21, 2010

So I went and did something touristy and exciting!

I signed up for the Center for Japanese Studies-run field trip to Horyuji and Nara!!

The bus left campus at 8:30, meaning to be safe I left the house at 6:15 in the morning, euch. (At least I had the moderate foresight to go to bed a little early.) Ironically, I was almost an hour early. Oh well, it’s hard to get anywhere exactly on time when you have to transfer lines on the train and I would rather be crazily early than five minutes too late. We supposedly were to arrive at Horyuji at 11:30, but got there at more like 12:40.

Horyuji temple has the lovely distinction of, besides just being a wicked awesome place with a cool museum, including the oldest standing wooden building in the world. Unfortunately the time for our tour was cut incredibly short and I spent most of my time speed-photo-ing (where I would literally not stop walking while holding my camera up for a shot). As a result I’ve got some excellent pictures of the temple but I did not really get the experience I wanted.

(Since Horyuji is a designated National Treasure, certain areas do not allow photography due most likely to a combination of flash-photography induced damage and maintaining the allure and status of the artifacts – most notably the really pretty things that you really want to take pictures of like a carefully manicured garden and lots of Buddha statues from the 630’s, but trust me, they were neat.)

We hopped back on the bus (after a minor crisis/fiasco) and headed to Nara! Home of a giant Buddha and incredibly friendly deer.

Best comment for summing up how I felt on seeing the Great Buddha (that night to my host mom): It was so impressive that it made me feel like I could believe in Buddhism. It was the kind of place that (save the crowds of people, of course) really felt like there could be a god there. Pictures do not do it any justice at all.

The Great Buddha Hall.

The hole is supposedly the same size as the nostril on the Buddha.

They restore the temple every 20 years in order to keep it in good shape, so they were asking for people to donate roof tiles for ¥1000, with the neat additional opportunity to write your name, country, and wish on the tile. Marie and I were both super cheesy, with me wishing for “International peace” and her wishing for “World happiness.” It was funny and a little gratifying to hear Japanese people oohing and aahing and nodding their heads over our “thoughtfulness” and our ability to write kanji (admittedly as a team – “What’s the last radical in this one??” “It’s the little T with the line on it and the drops.” “Wha- like this?” “Yeah.”). Also it feels good to help with keeping a cool Buddha building in good shape.


I haven’t even finished paying!

The ones closer to the entrance were notably more aggressive about the food – I got bit on the back of the knee once because I wasn’t passing out the sembei fast enough, apparently. Marie got chewed a couple of times.

I think in the future I would like to visit both of these places again, one per day and at my own leisurely pace. We only got about 40 minutes at Horyuji and there is a museum full of stuff there that I would like to wander around for a couple of hours, and there were buildings open for touring that I didn’t even get within 300 feet of. Because I was specifically salivating over petting the deer, I was reasonably more satisfied with my experience at Nara.

In any case… The big disaster was that the CJS office, on the info sheet, said something along the lines of “Feel free to pack a lunch, but there will be plenty of places to stop and eat at the temple!” This did not work out very well for a couple of reasons:

1) We were incredibly late to Horyuji. This led to an unpleasantly rushed tour and under 10 minutes to find something to eat.

2) There were in fact NO PLACES IN A FIVE BLOCK RADIUS TO BUY A LUNCH TO GO. We checked, by running five blocks in every direction. There were sit-down restaurants or omiyage (souvenier) shops pretty much exclusively lining the streets in every direction. Meaning that unless we were okay with only eating an ice cream cone for lunch, we were out of luck.

After about half an hour of “Oh no what do we do!”‘s from the coordinators, we got back on the bus and stopped at a conveneince store for food, and everyone was very grumpy and terrible to each other.

This awful lack of planning was a nasty shock to everyone. They did not take into account any weekend traffic (which is pretty normal on a Saturday on a major highway) and drastically underestimated travel time. Without double checking in any way, they were asking 50 students to rely on being able to buy a lunch at a place where there was no lunch to buy. (I had even stopped in a convenience store on the way out to get a liter whole-day-sized drink, and considered picking up food, but thought, “Oh why? I’ll be able to buy lunch there.” I heard this sentiment echoed by about 6 other people.)

The craziest part about these shenanigans is that this is not the first time they’ve done this trip. Apparently they had the same trip last year, with the same issues, and a number of students going into the office the next day to lodge formal complaints. And yet everyone seemed so surprised when we didn’t run right on schedule.

The kicker is that on the bus ride home they handed out a questionaire about the trip. And yet, despite having this trip and questionaire (and additional out-of-the-way complaints) several times before, they haven’t changed anything. Another student wrote that “This reflects very poorly on the CJS office,” and I kinda have to agree.

Let me take a moment to apologize for being so negative. I understand that running a department for foreign students is probably incredibly overwhelming and that any change within any bureaucratic organization is difficult and takes time. But it appears that none of the excursions planned by the office have gone off without major problems (according to others – this was my first one). From both personal experience and hearsy I feel comfortable claiming that many complaints in the office are answered with “Oh yeah we hear that one all the time” and nothing more, and there is little in the way of response to serious complaints and requests for help. The office in general is inefficient, and the apparent unhelpful attitude of several people representing the CJS program that we are just whiny foreigners complaining about nothing has resulted in several students angrily resolving to advise their universities to end the exchange agreement with Nanzan.

I am absolutely sure that there is another side to the story, and that the staff at Nanzan is doing what they feel to be effective and helpful, so please don’t take this as a rant that “Nanzan is awful, blah blah blah,” but there are definitely some issues that need to be ironed out so that students aren’t put in situations where they are prevented from eating lunch on a trip that happens every year, for example. Another thing that has bothered me quite a bit is that teachers often try to explain delicate points of grammar or nuance in English to students who don’t actually speak English, when simpler Japanese would do, and then interpret their lack of understanding as stupidity or difficulty with the specific point in Japanese (English is not a requirement for entering the CJS program, but they sure act like it is – if its use is actually essential to the program they should probably update that).

I am having a wonderful positive experience in Japan and I’m very happy and grateful to be here. It’s just that most of my positive experiences (aside from meeting awesome people) have recently had little to do with Nanzan.

I’m going to include this picture of me smiling and eating ice cream in a last-ditch effort to make you forget how much time I just spent complaining. Thanks.


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