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  • Writer's pictureKristina Elyse Butke

Memories of Japan - JET Impressions Speech

The torii at Itsukushima shrine in Hiroshima. MEMORIES OF JAPAN - JET IMPRESSIONS SPEECH
Photo by Nicki Eliza Schinow via Unsplash

I was asked by the prefectural advisors to give a JET Impressions speech during the Leaver's Ceremony, in which I share important memories of my time on the JET program. I thought I'd repost it here, and add some photographs as well. Enjoy!

✧・゚: *✧・゚:*    *:・゚✧*:・゚✧

A Japanese woman dresses an American woman in Kikuchi clan samurai armor.
Wearing the Kikuchi clan armor. Photo by Ara Mahar.

I'm lucky to have been in Japan for six years. I came to Japan wanting to gain an understanding of the culture and its people, and I knew I couldn't do that from home. To know the world is to walk it, and to know the people, you walk in their shoes. This is how you live out the stories of others.

And that's what I set out to do while I was here. My journey in Japan consisted of recreating the steps others had taken before me, whether they were real-life historical people, gods from mythology, or even characters from my favorite anime. I wanted to feel firsthand the worlds they walked in, so I spent much of my time travelling to explore different places that cropped up in a variety of stories in multiple mediums.

One of my earliest adventures in Japan involved following in the footsteps of the monk Kobo Daishi, also known as Kukai. He was the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, and he lived from 774-835. The most famous way to retrace his steps is to participate in the Shikoku Henro, a pilgrimage that takes you to the 88 temples of Shikoku affiliated with Kobo Daishi. Although the pilgrimage is designed to be walked, you can also drive it as well, which is what we did (although there were plenty of places in the mountains where you could only walk). I went with another ALT, Ara, and it took almost two years and multiple trips to Shikoku, and we ended the Henro at Mount Koya in Wakayama at Okunoin, Kobo Daishi's mausoleum. It remains one of my greatest memories.

A woman in the Shikoku henro robes and sedge hat peeks out from behind a large cedar tree at a Buddhist temple in Japan.
At one of the 88 temples of the Shikoku Henro. Photo by Ara Mahar.

I undertook another pilgrimage of my own, the Izumo Shinbutsu, that takes you to 20 shrines and temples in Shimane and Tottori prefectures, and the locations on the map form the infinity symbol.

There's a lot of myth in Shimane and Tottori. While the area is famous for the god Okuninushi, there's actually a considerable amount of stories about the god Susanoo, such as him fighting the eight-headed serpent Yamata no Orochi, and rescuing and later marrying Kushinadahime. There is also the door to Yomi, the Shinto Underworld, located in Shimane, and I made sure to pay it a visit. And I went to Izumo Taisha in October, when the 8 million kami are supposed to assemble there. Meanwhile in Tottori, you can learn about the story of the White Rabbit of Inaba, another myth tied to Okuninushi.

The kagura-den at Izumo Taisha.
The famous kagura-den at Izumo Taisha. Photo by Kristina Elyse Butke.

In terms of other myths and the kami, I made sure to visit Takachiho, in Miyazaki, for the Amanoiwato myth where Amaterasu hid in a cave and sunlight disappeared from the world, and where the gods assembled trying to find her until Ame-no-Uzume's dancing brought her out of the cave. There is one cave you can visit, Amanoyasukawara, which is filled with a shrine surrounded by a multitude of cairns, and that's where the gods discussed what to do about Amaterasu. Then there's the actual cave where Amaterasu hid, which is only accessible through a special tour you take with a priest, and you have to be blessed before you can even look at it. It's definitely what you'd call a power spot!

A wooden torii in a cave surrounded by stone cairns - Amanoyasukuwara.
Amanoyasukuwara cave shrine. Photo by Kristina Elyse Butke.

Not only have I retraced the paths of gods and men, but I've happily indulged my otaku side by visiting the settings of several different anime. Hitoyoshi in Kumamoto inspired Natsume Yujin-cho. Karatsu in Saga inspired Yuri on Ice. The forests on the island of Yakushima inspired Princess Mononoke, and Hita in Oita inspired Attack on Titan. And I even went on the scavenger hunt in Iwami, Tottori, for all the characters in the anime Free!. These places provided the settings for each anime, and you can see the local areas in the artwork in the series. It's a great way to experience anime in real life.

The main characters of the anime Free! as giant cutouts.
Posing with most of the cast of the anime series Free! Photo by Unknown.

And then I made a personal pilgrimage to Tokyo Big Sight, the mecca for all otaku. I fulfilled one of my goals, which was to cosplay in Japan, and my friend Melissa and I appeared at Anime Japan 2019. We walked with over 146,000 fans through various exhibits and among some of the greatest cosplayers in the world. It was incredibly fun to see the immense number of dedicated fans, all there to celebrate Japanese animation. This was also one of the great highlights of my time in Japan.

A woman cosplaying with blue hair and mismatched eyes in a formal outfit.
As a gender-swapped version of the Count of Monte Cristo from the anime Gankutsuou. Selfie.

Unfortunately due to COVID-19 I stopped all major travel, so my last big destinations were in 2019. But I managed to build a lot of memories here over the past few years, and I made it to some of the most important places in Japanese myth that appeared in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki.

Stories are very important to me. I'm a storyteller myself, and although words bring stories to life, you don't feel like you're living in a story until you're right there, recapturing the moments others experienced before you. I'm lucky to have walked in the footsteps of the gods. I'm lucky to have followed the paths of historical figures. And I'm lucky to have retraced the steps of my favorite fictional characters. I am so grateful for the many adventures I've had in Japan, and the moments that brought these figures and characters to life.

Thank you for a time I will never forget.

A woman spins a burning clump of hay at the Aso Fire Festival.
At the Hifuri-Shinji Festival, or Aso Fire Festival. Photo by Richard Luu.


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