8th Japan Center Essay Competition (2012-2013)
Award Ceremony at Charles B. Wang Center (April 6, 2013)
Recognition at Ambassador & Mrs. Shegeyuki Hiroki's Official Residence (May 25, 2013)
High School Division Best Essay Award
1st Place: Madison Jaye LoFaso (Huntington High School)
2nd Place: Ravi Jain (Syosset High School)
3rd Place: Emily Linko (Hauppauge High School)
College Division Best Essay Award
Melissa Kavanah (Stony Brook University)
Uchida Memorial Award
Ali Syed (Stony Brook University)
Consul General of Japan in New York Special Award
Madison LoFaso (Huntington High School)
Charles Beers (Huntington High School)
Lewin Kim (Horace Mann School)
Natsuko Sato (Arlington High School)
Kate Snider (Herricks High School)
Thomas Abdelmalak (Valley Stream Central HS)
Santiago Alzate (Huntington HS)
Jenny Chan (Benjamin N. Cardozo HS)
Kaitlin Dayton (Huntington HS)
Arman Nasim (W.T. Clarke HS)
Tanu Rani (Benjamin N. Cardozo HS)
John Reilly (Huntington HS)
Rivka Schuster (Manhattan High School for Girls)
Yumiko Siev (Valley Stream Central HS)
Hakeem Donovan Jamal Abdella (Frederick Douglass Academy)
Jesse Chang (Stony Brook University)
Kyle Gallagher (Stony Brook University)
Brittany Lopez (Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies)
Sydney Kahn (Lynbrook Senior HS)
Christopher Kuhner (Saint John the Baptist Diocesan HS)
Hanna Murphy (Huntington HS)
Caitlin Rieger (Garden City HSl)
Daniella Schoen (Huntington HS)
Adam Lee Struhl (Syosset HS)
We begin our journey by walking through ornate bronze gates. Large Japanese maples dance in the wind. Around them lie small Japanese painted ferns. Everywhere, as if surrounded, I hear the sounds of running water and talkative birds. After the guide explains where these plants are usually found, we continue on to a small footbridge that crosses a narrow stream, fed from a vast pond. The path takes many twists and turns, and around each bend is something new and surprising. This tactic, called hide and reveal, is a common part of Japanese gardens.
From our guide – his name is Marshall – I learn that earliest recorded mention of Japanese gardens was nearly two thousand years ago! Apparently there are many different styles of Japanese gardens, and each serves a unique purpose. Some are designed to promote religious meditation, while others are meant as a simple escape from everyday life. There are Rock Gardens, which as the name implies, are made up entirely of rocks of all sizes. Tea Gardens surround tea houses, with a long relaxing stroll leading to the front door. Pond Gardens invite boaters to tour the garden from its central point in the Pond. Elements like sand and statues are commonly used.
According to the brochure in my hand, the John P. Humes Japanese Stroll Garden was built in 1960, after Ambassador Humes and his wife returned from Kyoto, Japan. This garden is four acres large and features a small tea house, bamboo groves, a wisteria arbor, a display hut for bonsai and ikebana plants, and a cascading waterfall. I pass a large tree and as the path takes a sharp turn, I suddenly hear music, which pulls my attention from the brochure.
There before me is revealed a magnificent waterfall and lush pond. As I approach the pond I see dozens of colorful koi fish. My attention turns to one that is jet black and darts around the others, stealing their food. I later learn that his nickname is Hoover, like the vacuum cleaner! The air around me is crisp and clean, and the notes of a shakuhachi flute can be heard from the Tea House. As I look to my left, I see our tour guide beginning to meditate. I am truly intrigued and I ask if we can join him. So we sit on the grass and quietly listen to all the sounds around us.
I unexpectedly hear a buzzing sound which pulls me back to reality. It’s my phone. As I dismiss the call, I realize that I have been strolling this garden for over two hours…and I hadn’t checked my phone once! We make our way back to the entrance and Marshall wishes us all a good day. My parents and I quietly make our way back to the car. I think back on the day and I am captivated by the designer’s careful attention to every detail. I am particularly amazed by the bonsai trees, which are miniature versions of large trees found in nature. Such care and love is required to create them.
On the drive home it hits me; a feeling of regret for my behavior toward my parents at the start of the day. What if they relented and let me stay home? I would never have learned that aspects of the Japanese culture could have such an emotional affect on me. I only hope that someday I can travel to Japan and visit some authentic Japanese gardens.
"Japanese Garden." Wikipedia. Wikipedia Foundation, 11 2012. Web. 5 Dec 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_garden
"John P. Humes Japanese Stroll Garden." The Garden Conservancy. The Garden Conservancy. Web. 5 Dec 2012. <http://www.gardenconservancy.org/garden-preservation/gardenpreservationservices/preservation-projects/john-p-humes-japanese-stroll-garden?view=standardlayout&title=61>.
Makela, Lee. "The Japanese Garden in its Cultural Context." Beyond Stone and Moss. Lee A. Makela, 30 2001. Web. 5 Dec 2012. <http://academic.csuohio.edu/makelaa/lectures/gardens/>.
Shea, Barbara. " Taking the Path of Enlightenment." Locust Valley. Simple Living, Inc., 07 2001. Web. 5 Dec 2012. <http://www.locustvalley.com/News/newsday 10-7-1 humes garden.html>.
Yang, Linda. " An Eye To The East More Americans Are Taking Cues From Oriental Masters In Their Garden Designs." SunSentinel.com. Sun Sentinel, 25 1988. Web. 5 Dec 2012. <http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1988-11-25/features/8803080843_1_japanese-garden-design-japanese-culture-landscape-architect>.
“A Song in My Heart” by Ravi Jain (Syosset High School)
During my early adolescent years, reading, music, and theatre provided a welcome escape from the reality of my undeveloped social skills, self-perceived unsightliness, and unsuccessful attempts to fit in with my classmates. Fortunately, works of fiction in various media afforded me the opportunity to empathize with the emotions and experiences of the characters I encountered. I read voraciously and broadened my appreciation for music and theatre arts.
Obeying the Broadway billboards that decreed, “All must visit the land of Oz,” I saw Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz. Wicked sings the story of a college student struggling to fit into an intolerant world where appearance matters more than intelligence or courage. Its lyrics became a source of inspiration for me. While I did not possess Elphaba’s animal activism, magical powers, or green skin, I understood her sadness and could hum her loneliness. Wicked encouraged me to look past my puberty-induced handicaps and focus on traits of which I could be proud.
Fast forward to the summer of 2012.
I was awarded a scholarship from the Center for Global Partnership to be an exchange student in Nagoya, Japan for six weeks. Without much embellishment, my parents dropped me off at JFK Airport with cash, my host family’s address and phone number, and instructions to “learn something.” Fourteen hours later, I landed in Tokyo; excited, exhausted, and unable to speak the language, I was helpless. I was reliving my adolescence—I soon realized I was more like Elphaba than ever before. (I even had a different skin color.) I felt I was the Wicked Witch of the Western Hemisphere who came to Japan to propagate fast food and bad manners.
“Watashi no namae wa Ravi desu,” I said, hesitantly introducing my name to my Japanese host mother after meeting her for the first time. She giggled at my poor pronunciation and then embraced me as a son for a month and a half.
Over the next few weeks, thanks to my host family, electronic dictionaries, and intermittent language study, I had “learned something.” I later became comfortable enough to even sing karaoke for the first time, to the horror of professionals everywhere. As I grew intimate with my new friends and family, I began to admire the Japanese even more for their unparalleled politeness. At school, I learned to play table tennis from the true pros – Japanese high school boys. At home, I learned to cook from my host mother, and spent the last night of my stay preparing what my host family claimed was an extraordinarily sumptuous feast (even if they hadn’t liked it.) And of course, everywhere I went, I kept improving my Japanese.
Though I predictably acquired a profound understanding of Japanese culture, I somehow learned as much about myself, especially after my host brother introduced me to his cousin during a weekend stay in Kyoto. Kanako had vacationed extensively during college, but felt her travels were incomplete without a visit to the Big Apple. We discussed my favorite weekend activities in the city, and when I mentioned theatre, she confided she had dreamed of walking down Broadway for as long as she could remember.
Kanako had seen the Japanese version of Wicked and fallen in love with the tenderness of its raw passion. However, she knew that for an authentic experience she would have to watch it in English. Blushing, I inadvertently told her I had memorized the songs, and she delightedly suggested we sing them together. The idea was laughable. I spoke little to no Japanese, and, while Kanako’s English was decent, she did not know the English lyrics. But when she started humming the tune, I hesitantly joined in with the English words, and she followed in Japanese. It worked. We had produced a brilliant duet, yet we hadn’t even sung in the same tongue. Our mutual passion for Wicked transcended all barriers – language, gender, race.
I found myself in Japan. Somehow though, I was more proud of having found a friend.
“Spirit of Self Sacrifice” by Emily Linko (Hauppauge High School)
When I was in eighth grade, I moaned and groaned along with the rest of my classmates as I was assigned yet another research project; this one having to do with World War Two. After pondering over possible research topics, I decided to look into something I had heard about many times before yet never truly understood; the kamikaze. Sure, I’d heard the word used as a figure of speech, or even as a cocktail drink, and I had a general grasp on what the kamikaze were, but what I had never been able to comprehend was why.
Finally, after weeks of scouring the internet and library, I thought I had it figured out. The kamikazes, the Special Attack Unit, were the last efforts of Japan towards the end of the war as signs of its defeat approached on the horizon. War is war; the loss of life is always inevitable, and this method seemed to be an efficient way to make the most of each death. The kamikaze provided higher chances of destroying a target than conventional methods, and a blow to an enemy outweighed the cost of an aircraft and a pilot. From a military standpoint, the refusal of a duty such as that would have been a great dishonor. Finally, I understood. Or, at least, I thought I did.
The next year, in my history class, we started from the beginning, looking at how civilizations evolved and changed, and how different factors shaped their cultures into what we recognize today. We learned about Japan’s geography, its culture, its emperors, its wars. Then one day we learned about the Mongols, and our class listened with rapt attention as our teacher told us the story of the island they weren’t able to conquer, and the sudden typhoon that had destroyed their fleet. “The Japanese people called this typhoon the kamikaze, meaning “divine wind”; they believed it was sent by the gods, the kami, to protect them”. And with that one sentence, I realized that I had not, in fact, understood, not in the least. The kamikaze, I suddenly realized, were motivated by much more than a sense of duty toward their superiors. They were spurred by the honor and loyalty that had been deeply ingrained in their culture for centuries, positioned to protect the island as the next “divine wind”. And then, I was sure, I understood.
The earthquake in Japan had hit in 2011, and people were hearing about it in phases; first the emergency response, then the short-term fixes, then the inevitably daunting long-term cleanup. Along the way stories trickled in of the kindness and bravery of people there and from all around the world. The one that hit me the hardest was the tale of a group of elderly citizens who volunteered to help clean up the nuclear waste. They elicited a mixed response; some people finding them inspirational and others feeling they should enjoy their retirements in peace. When asked about their motives, the citizens replied that they didn’t have long left to live anyway, so they should take the risk of contracting a disease from the radiation instead of the younger citizens, who still have their whole lives laid out in front of them.
I was floored. At their ages, most would want to settle down and take a well earned rest, letting the younger and more able bodied members of the population take care of new problems. But these people were willing to go out and put their lives and health on the line for others, others that most of them had probably never met. That was when it became clear to me; making such a tremendous sacrifice is about much more than just duty or honor; it’s about loving your country and the people in it with every fiber of your being. It’s about wanting to protect it and its citizens in any way possible, be it piloting a plane or trudging though toxic waste. And I realized, I had never really understood. Maybe I still don’t. But maybe someday, I can figure out what runs through the minds of those who will willingly give up everything for duty, for honor, and for love of their country.
Dillow, Clay. "Japanese Elderly Offer to Take Over Fukushima Nuclear Cleanup."
Popular Science. Popular Science, 31 May 2011. Web. Dec. 2012. <http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2011-05/japanese-pensioners-lobby-take-over-fukushima-nuclear-cleanup>.
Stearns, Peter N. World Civilizations: The Global Experience. 4th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. Print.
“Understanding Impermanence” by Melissa Rose Kavanah (Stony Brook University)
The cherry tree is a favorite subject of Japanese art and poetry. Its blossoms, while extraordinarily beautiful, can also seem tragic; the delicate flowers bloom for a short while, a period of perhaps two weeks at most, before they fall from the tree. The flowers burst open, blossom like fireworks, and fade as quickly. How sad, one might think, that these blossoms should be so beautiful for such a short time, only to fall to the ground and decompose. One scarcely has time to fall in love with its beauty before the blossom is gone, and only the memory remains, like the afterimage of a firework in the sky.
I was not always able to accept the notion of impermanence being a beautiful thing. Shortly before I turned seventeen, my friend Ava passed away. Her death was sudden and unexpected, blindsiding friends and family alike in the way that only meningitis knows how. Being a headstrong teenager, I was furious at and terrified by the idea that things could just disappear.
I had lived my life up to that point secure in the notion that if I could only gather the things I loved towards myself, if I could only hold on to everything at once, I would be perfectly content. To have someone I loved torn away so swiftly, then, was shocking. When I came to terms with the fact that her loss was real, I felt compelled to re-examine my world view. I discovered a sort of vanity in the idea that I could bend the world to my will, using only the force of my own passions. I realized that I cannot and should not expect things to be permanent just because I would like them to be, and I began to try to accept that realization.
To the Zen practitioner, cherry blossoms and fireworks are beautiful in part due to their similarity to the human experience. People shape their happiness around temporary things, from material objects, to relationships, to simply being alive. Buddha teaches that suffering occurs when those things, which have always been temporary, are inevitably torn from the people who cherish them, much in the same way that cherry blossoms inevitably fade. To avoid suffering, Buddhists strive to eschew attachments. While it may seem that this would lead to a life without appreciation for joy and beauty, quite the opposite occurs; practitioners of Zen Buddhism become adept at perceiving a particular sort of beauty, the beauty of impermanence. Cherry blossoms are emblematic of this quality; they fade quickly, but they are no less beautiful for their transience. In fact, their beauty is intensified by the brevity of their existence; one must appreciate them deeply and immediately, fully experiencing the moment, in order to appreciate them at all. By understanding cherry blossoms, one can come to understand the limitations and joys of one’s own existence; when one accepts that all things in this world are fleeting, the beauty of impermanence itself is what remains.
It has taken me some time to develop a new way of seeing the world, and I am still fine-tuning my model. I have begun to see the wisdom in eschewing attachments, although I am still very attached to many things. I have developed a deep respect for Buddhist thought, and have begun to try to incorporate some of its principles into my life. Throughout this process, I have come to find the cherry blossom to be a very appealing symbol. Its ability to embody the essence of Zen makes the flower of the cherry tree so well-beloved in Japanese culture. To truly appreciate the fleeting blossoms, one must detach oneself from the concept of the past and the future. To truly appreciate the world around me, I will have to accept that it is not eternal, and that it may even be illusory. That does not leave the world without beauty; it just means that I will have to change the way I appreciate beautiful things.
I think that I have come to understand something important through Ava’s death. Ava was more of a burning firework than a gentle cherry blossom, but her beautiful existence was temporary, and so is mine. If I cling desperately to concepts, experiences, or people, the anguish will only be worse when they inevitably fade. Instead, I should will my passions quiet, and appreciate the pure, fleeting beauty in cherry blossoms, and fireworks, and the lives of those around me, for however long they last.
“Wabi-Sabi: Nothing Is Perfect, Even Gardens Have Weeds” by Ali Gilani Syed (Stony Brook University)
No one is ever comfortable derailing oneself, but I must. You see, in the past, I was not someone you would want as a friend. I was self-centered. Self-interested. Self-absorbed. Self-seeking.
Throughout adolescence, I had a hard time maintaining friendships. I was often consumed in studying and looking for tasks to ‘pad’ my resume. In short, I was a perfectionist geared toward financial success.
In school, I was not motivated by curiosity, but a good GPA. Conversations with friends mainly pertained to grades. I would find myself stressed with assignments, consumed by due dates, and struggling in relationships with family, friends, and myself.
Change was needed, yet I least expected it to arrive at a trivial dinner. During my freshman year, my friend Pavel casually invited me over. He introduced me to his Japanese step-mother, Sonya. When I mentioned my dad was from Delhi, India, she inquired about the Lodhi Gardens. My response, “How did you know about that?”, was enough for her to discuss her love of gardens. Describing herself as a naturalist, she insisted I tag along with Pavel to visit her workplace, the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.
With Pavel, I went to the site and Sonya gave us a tour through the collection of gardens. However, one site mesmerized me: the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden. With its splendor and simplicity, the red torii (traditional Japanese gate) stood in glistening water. The edges of the lake were green in reflection from the surrounding foliage. The pink cherry-blossoms ushered a sense of aesthetic comfort.
The garden was centered on a pond with a small island in the center. Around the pond, clusters of Japanese iris flowers, violet in color. Most captivating was the waterfall; a thunderous splash of water over the rocks creating a soothing, relaxing façade. It all seemed wonderfully placed.
The entire garden was a provision of awe. A miniature paradise. An idealized landscape; a wonderful equilibrium between order and nature, a balance between pleasure and simplicity. Never had I seen nature so organized and formal. My first exposure to Japanese culture- a nihon-teien, a Japanese Garden.
Sensing my delight, Pavel invited me to more retreats. At first, I was reluctant, but my inner curiosity gave in. Over two months’ time, I partook in activities I never did in two decades: kayaking, mountain-bike riding, canoeing, hiking, rock-climbing, and more.
Gradually, I realized nature provided a serene venue where I could remove my cloak of tension and anxiety. I could satisfy my youthful longings for privacy and tranquility and absorb the curative power of art and nature.
It was at this point in my life, I learned about wabi-sabi, a Japanese philosophy of seeing beauty in life’s imperfections. Sonya described wabi-sabi as something that concentrated on the acceptance of impermanence and imperfection in life. Wabi-sabi taught that in life, “nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect” (Powell 2005). So why not enjoy it?
In nature, I could sense wabi-sabi everywhere. Everything had its flaws, yet nature was still beautiful. The rough bark of the trees. The asymmetry of the rocks. The decaying color of leaves. Unrefined and crude, yet stunning. My retreats became liberation from the mundane. The lens of wabi-sabi showed I could live life with my senses and absorb life rather than be consumed by it.
When my grandmother was battling breast cancer, I used the appeal of sakura-blossoms to acquaint her with Japan, a place she never visited. Amidst the Cherry-Blossom trees at the Sakura-Matsuri Festival, we were drinking sakurayu. There were no worries about grades or assignments, just happiness that my Nanijan (Hindi/Urdu: Grandmother)was there. Unfortunately, my grandmother would leave me, but my new-found outlook of life assisted me in accepting my loss.
To me, wabi-sabi meant there was one rule: learning to be content with life. Let life runs its course. Flaws exist, tragedies happen. Grow from them. Accept them. When you try to do something perfect or attempt to make something perfect, it just doesn’t work.
Some parts of the ‘old-me’ still remain, as I can’t instantly shed the previous eighteen years of my life. But, I will definitely learn and improve over time. As Sonya once told me, even “the most beautiful Japanese garden has weeds.” I realize that there is so much to see in this world. In this short time period I call life, I am both a Gaijin (outsider) and a Yujin (friend). But above all, I am a Ningen (human) who appreciates beauty in imperfection.
Powell, Richard R. Wabi Sabi Simple. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2005. Print.
Fujisawa, Chikao. Zen and Shinto; the Story of Japanese Philosophy. Westport, CT: Greenwood,
Juniper, Andrew. Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence. Boston: Tuttle Pub., 2003.
Kamachi, Noriko. Culture and Customs of Japan. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999. Print.
Mansfield, Stephen, and Donald Richie. Japanese Stone Gardens: Origins, Meaning, Form.
Tokyo: Tuttle Pub., 2009. Print.
Tames, Richard. A Traveller's History of Japan. New York: Interlink, 1993. Print.
“Putting Things into Perspective: Lessons from the Far East” by Charles Beers (Huntington High School)
It has been approximately four weeks since Hurricane Sandy struck Long Island and plunged our region into an unforgettable period of darkness and misery. While many have attempted to put those dark days behind them, it is impossible to truly forget the effects the storm had on everyday life. Almost all of Long Island went without heat and electricity for about two weeks, during which temperatures reached seasonal lows and tempers rose to new heights. I remember how each night I desperately hoped for the power to return, and how I was disappointed for more than a week. It was a miserable experience without electricity and heat and most days saw me and my family trying to stay warm and waiting for night to come. That feeling of helplessness and anger at the LIPA officials will always resonate throughout my life and I initially thought that all of Long Island had faced the true epitome of pain, especially the residents of Long Beach, who experienced the worst of the storm. Most of its residents had to relocate in order to have a roof over their heads and a place to sleep, as some of their houses and schools were completely demolished by the powerful storms (http://www.liherald.com). Because of all the tragedies across the island, kids were eager to return to their schools and try to return to normalcy, using their education as a cloak to all the grief occurring around them. I remember waiting eagerly for the daily message from our superintendent, hoping that each report would contain the message that the high school would reopen. For me, going back to school was the only way to move on from the crisis. Thankfully for me and my friends, the high school was waiting for us after the storm, and I could finally reunite with friends who I’d lost contact with over the course of those dreadful two weeks. However, as I was later reminded, kids around the world aren’t always that fortunate. Even when I thought I’d been through the worst two weeks of my life, it only took a reminder of the 2011 Japanese tsunami to bring me back down to earth and make me grateful for all the things that I hadn’t lost in the hurricane.
Last year, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck the Japanese nation. As seen by previous disasters, this underwater seismic activity results in tsunamis that cause massive destruction to coastal cities and towns through colossal waves. These waves are virtually unstoppable forces of nature, capable of demolishing anything in their path. While the Japanese citizens have taken a multitude of safety precautions to counter these waves, nothing could have prepared them for what they saw in 2011. Over 10,000 Japanese citizens were killed from the disasters that ensued and millions lost their homes and even their cities from the damages. However, unlike Hurricane Sandy in our neck of the woods, children and parents across Japan had nowhere to turn after the tsunami has finally subsided. According to interviews, many Japanese schools, such as Togura Elementary School, had children in them when the waves appeared on the horizon, some of them even exceeding the heights that the officials were originally anticipating. When the tsunami hit, children and teachers had to run for their lives in order to reach an area high enough to avoid the deadly waves. The aftermath, though, was even more heart-wrenching to imagine. The same township where the Togura Elementary School resided was completely leveled, some reporters even stating that the town “now barely has any marks of human existence” (http://www.cnn.com). In short, nothing was saved from destruction, and the helpless children who suffered through this ordeal had nowhere to go and nothing to come back to. Trying to imagine these horrific events unfold was difficult for me to do and evoked newfound levels of grief inside me, as well as an equal amount of guilt. While I was worrying about when electricity would return to my house, children across the seas were worrying where they would live and go to school. Reflecting on their catastrophe should serve as a lesson for all Hurricane Sandy victims. Be grateful for the luxuries you have, such as friends and a school where you can be safe from harm, and when you feel like you have gone through the worst of times, always remember the Japanese tsunami survivors, the men and women who continue to persevere in spite of having the weight of the world on their shoulders.
Laje, Diego. "Stopped time: Japan tsunami hits school." CNN World (2011): n.pag. CNN. Com. Web. 25 Nov 2012. <http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/asiapcf/03/17/japan.quake.school.minamisanriku/ index.html>.
Rifilato, Anthony. "It Takes More Than a Hurricane." LI Herald.com (2012): 4. Web. 25 Nov 2012. <http://www.liherald.com/stories/Two-weeks-after-the-storm-Long-Beach-students-return-to-classes,44481?page=1&content_source=>.
“The Tea Ceremony” by Lewin Kim (Horace Mann School)
Steam rises in the air as the tea flows from the pot into my ceramic bowl. The smell is faint, yet familiar. I’m conscious of the green and red flowers painted on the white surface of the bowl. As my fingers wrap around it, I kneel on a cushioned mat, balanced and calm. Sensei, in her emerald kimono that seems to change shape with each graceful movement, watches me. I take a sip, feeling the green tea’s warmth travel through my body, down my arms, and to my fingers. Sensei offers me a bowl of sugar candy, explaining that it serves as a spiritual balance to the bitterness of the tea. We both stand and bow as a sign of appreciation and respect.
While this scene could have taken place in any teahouse in Kyoto, the ceremony transpired at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx on Japan Day. Although I was born in the U.S. and have no ancestral ties to the Japanese, this tea ceremony reminds me of what I value about their culture. My upbringing was shaped by years of watching Japanese films such as Princess Mononoke and picking up groceries from the Mitsuwa Marketplace. In school, I chose to study Japanese as my foreign language.
My parents took my family on a trip to Japan so I could see with my own eyes the beauty of the country. I was stunned by the bright and colorful lights of Tokyo at night. Exploring the Japanese countryside was equally impressive and was where I tasted the unrivaled softness of Kobe beef for the first time. It was also the first time I bathed in an onsen, a Japanese hot spring, which rejuvenated me both physically and mentally. What struck me was the level of inventiveness in Japan. While most people think of Tokyo Tower or other typical tourist attractions when they think of Japan, I was inspired by the newer, creative buildings such as Joypolis, a huge indoor amusement park that was built to look inconspicuous in the heart of Tokyo’s offices and towers.
After my memorable trip, I wanted to continue my cultural ties to Japan while living in the states. As a high school freshman, I joined East Wind West Wind, a school club that promotes a better understanding and awareness between Eastern and Western cultures so I could share my knowledge and experience with others. I realized that Japan, despite being one of the smaller countries of the world, is a leader in creativity, ingenuity and hope.
Even as Americans, we can benefit from embracing Japanese culture because it is a culture of learning and teaching. Japan’s traditional folk tales and stories emphasize the strength of family and dreams. Today, its movies carry valuable lessons: Hayao Miyazaki’s imaginative films Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro touch upon the importance of friendship and reciprocation to others, and appreciation for nature. It is important to the Japanese to pass on their ancient traditions.
The tea ceremony gives me the opportunity to share my knowledge of Japanese culture with others who are unfamiliar with it. After the ceremony ended, one of my friends passed by and asked me what was happening. I explained the spiritual significance of the ceremony and encouraged him to try it. I led him to my sensei, and as my friend kneeled on the cushion, I introduced them. As I started walking to my next class, I caught a glimpse of my friend carefully raising his bowl of tea, while a harp softly played Gagaku, the traditional music of Japan, the sound bouncing off of every string with a light pluck.
“The Flower of Fire” by Natsuko Sato (Arlington High School)
The hot, stuffy air of summer mingled with the distinct smell of tako yaki and yaki soba coming from the shops, and the music from the bon-odori played softly in the background. I was at the matsuri—the Japanese traditional festival that was held every summer in my town.
The matsuri was almost over, and I relocated to the hillside to settle down to see the fireworks. Sitting down amongst hundreds of other people who were also there to see them, I gazed up at the dark starry sky, feeling my anticipation grow with each passing moment. I was ready for the magic to begin.
Huuuuuuu. Don! Suddenly, with a booming sound, the first of the fireworks was shot into the sky. The crowd around me clapped and cheered loudly—the wait was finally over. One after another, the fireworks shot up and burst out stunning streams of lights. The extravaganza culminated in a grand finale as dozens of fireworks of all different colors, sizes, and designs simultaneously shot up, brightly illuminating the night sky.
Throughout the entirety of the hanabi show, I was simply awestruck; awestruck at the magnificence of the scene and the sheer scale of it all that no words could possibly fully articulate my amazement. My eyes were simply glued to the spectacle unfolding before me and my heart was fully enraptured by those flowers that bloomed in the cobalt blue sky.
In Japanese, “hana” means flower and “bi” means fire. Loud, extravagant, and admired by hundreds of people, those flowers of fire are the symbols of Japanese summer. They are what move the Japanese’s hearts and bring them excitement. Moreover, they represent the skill, artistry, craftsmanship, and hard work of the hanabi makers themselves. Like flowers, these hanabi beautifully captivate the viewers and create picturesque scenes in the night sky.
But the Japanese appreciation of hanabi is not solely based on its extravagance and the exhilaration that it brings. This brings me to my second story:
As much as I loved matsuri and the beautiful hanabi shows during the summertime, they were obviously not regular occurrences. So instead, I would often beg my grandmother bring me to the convenience store to buy a pack of house fireworks. And of course, being a typical, grand-child-loving grandmother, she would happily bring me to the store and buy me a nice pack of
miniature hanabi. In the pack were various types of fun-looking fireworks, from simple handheld ones to more thrilling “rocket” ones, which came in cute colored wrapping and designs.
Upon returning home, I would anxiously wait for the sun to set. And as soon as it did, I would grab the hanabi pack, call out to my family to come light them with me, and head outside.
“Don't point the tip of the hanabi at others!” my father warned me every time, “You don't want to light people on fire.”
“I know,” I always replied, “but they’re just so pretty that I get temped to twirl them around!”
In any case, all of these hanabi sessions at my house concluded with the lighting of the senko hanabi—the sparklers. They were by far the most simple and frail-looking hanabi in the entire package. I took a strand of the senko hanabi and held it in my hand, dangling it down vertically to light the end of it with a candle. As the end quickly shriveled up into a ball of fire, I crouched down and tried to hold my hand as still as possible. I silently gazed at the ignited ball, which soon began spurting out branches of delicate sparks that progressed into more powerful and energetic sparks. I was quickly mesmerized by its beauty, but continued to concentrate on keeping my hand still. But before long, the sparks died down and the ball of fire quietly burned out.
Unlike those fireworks at the hanabi show, these flowers of fire are quiet, simple, and mainly only admired by the person holding them. But they are also beautiful in their own way. From them, the Japanese enjoy the sense of wabi-sabi, the concept of appreciating the ephemerality and imperfections of objects. The burning out senko hanabi evokes a sense of sadness, but allows the viewer to appreciate its brief but considerable magnificence. Some even say that the senko hanabi represents human life—frail, ephemeral, and imperfect, yet quite beautiful.
Both types of the Japanese flowers of fire continue to bloom and glimmer beautifully in my heart today.
“And In a Place So Different, We Are All The Same” by Kate Snider (Herricks High School)
“I was in love with the place, in my mind.”
-Sufjan Stevens, Chicago
I tiptoed around upstairs, old wooden floorboards moaning under the weight of my body. When I reached my destination, my hands softly nudged the door open as I slipped inside and immediately became entranced with the musty scent of age, history, and the storage of time. My eyes scanned the length of the walls, taking in the remnants of 82 years of life. In the far left corner resided a deep brown bookcase, only decipherable by scarce patches of wood that breathed through the clutter. I started over to the bookcase, taking care not to knock over piles of loosely stacked cardboard boxes. My fingers grazed the buffet of memorabilia, feasting on the grand array of literature, clothing, dishes, and antiques. There were carved, wooden chopsticks, piles of books filled with poetry, recipes, and tales. A glass case highlighting a beautifully painted porcelain doll dressed in silk garments stood alone, an air of elegance to her every detail. These relics, these little moments snatched from space, now sat as reminders of a distant time. And even in a place so different than where they once resided, these items seemed to blend right in.
My Grandpa, born and raised in Brooklyn during the 1930s, has traveled to Japan thirteen times. It must have been a strange sight: a young wide-eyed business man from America weaving in and out of swarming Tokyo commuters, or singing loudly in broken Japanese for the entire karaoke house to hear. After his first visit, my grandpa was enamored with the culture. From the moment he stepped off the plane and into Tokyo International Airport, every cell in his body became electrified. And after returning home to his wife and three children, my grandpa longed for the day he would return.
There was much to love about Japan; however it was not the beauty, the food, nor the language that lured my Grandfather back countless times. Instead, it was the kindness and honesty that was sewn into the fabric of the culture. Etiquette was different in Japan, and unlike America, violence and deceit were rare disgraceful acts. Vendors and shops would leave display tables full of merchandise outside, certain that nothing would be stolen. Waiters and waitresses did not expect tips, as working hard was merely an act of civil service. Men with hunched backs due to years of bowing were not uncommon, lending as walking representations of genuine respect. This overwhelmingly widespread innate trait of kindness was nothing Grandpa had experienced before.
As a child, Grandpa would tell me story after story about his life, usually centered around both mine and his favorite topic: Japan. As a treat, he would welcome me into a what we called "the junk room", due to the amount of relics crammed into a tiny space - a space dedicated to the preservation of his memories and heartbreaking passion. He'd let me browse and rummage through the shelves and boxes of old Japanese keepsakes, taking the time to explain the origin of every minuscule item.
Grandpa learned a lot from his time spent in Japan, and in turn I did as well. High up in an building, Grandpa sat in a tiny bar and spoke to men who poured drinks as they poured stories of brothers and fathers killed in the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the very same attacks that spilt American blood. Yet these men knew grief, these men knew loss, these men were just the same. Grandpa, a WWII veteran himself, listened and understood that even oceans away we were all inherently similar.
Growing up around a man who was molded by the ideals of Japanese culture heavily affected the person I was slowly becoming, and the person I am still growing to be. I learned that a kind and gentle heart can fill a person with warmth, and that generosity is better than selfishness. I learned that classification only leads to separation, and that war does not discriminate. But most of all, I learned that as time passes and each generation brings new ideas to the table, the roots of culture still tie us together. As Japan is changing due to technology and westernization, the foundation of trust and respect remains the same. As I continue to wander through life, I will carry the lessons brought home from Japan by my Grandfather and store them here, in my own home. Just like the old antiques in Grandpas house I once adored, these lessons will now reside in a place so different from where they were taken, and yet seamlessly blend right in.
© The Japan Center at Stony Brook