Yamanaka-ko Gassyuku

By: Ipsa Agnani

We arrived at Yamanaka-ko in the afternoon after a scenic bus ride through the picturesque hills covered in lush green forests gently touching the horizon of clear blue sky and fluffly white clouds. The beautiful drive was a precursor to the serene environment of the lake itself. After disembarking the bus, we took pictures in front of the magnificent Mt. Fuji to commemorate the beginning of our retreat. Unfortunately, we could not see the snowy peak of Mt Fuji when we took the picture but some of us came back to the lake shore after dropping our luggage in the dorms and that was when Mt Fuji’s shy peak graciously greeted us with a peek through the clouds.

View of Mt. Fuji from Lake Yamanaka

After we had explored the area to our heart’s content, we met in the lobby of the main building for some ice-breakers, and then enjoyed a delectable dinner together. Before we knew it, the sun had set, and it was time to light some fireworks in celebration of newly-formed friendships. We made merry under the canopy of tall trees while lighting sparklers, my favorite one being a fragile, thread-like sparkler (senko hanabi) that burns softly and forms a red bulb at the bottom which then bursts into gentle sparks. Katada sensei, while teaching me how to light these unique Japanese sparklers, called them “poetic”, and I agreed that that was an appropriate description of not just those sparklers but the entire evening itself. Later, we washed off the day’s fatigue in hot Japanese communal baths called ofuro.

Japanese sparkler

The Meiji students are excellent hosts. Their warm hospitality was once again evident in the party that they had graciously organized for us. We played card games and enjoyed Japanese snacks and beverages. My favorite was the soft chocolate-vanilla cookie.

After a long day of relaxation, exploration, celebration and socialization, our second day at the Yamanaka-ko Gashuku (Japanese for Yamanaka Lake Workshop) was mostly spent indoors. Having completed one week of research in Tokyo, it was now time to share our findings with our classmates. The classrooms located in the main building of Meiji University’s Yamanaka retreat house provided a serious setting amidst the serene, laid-back environment of the lake itself. Now that we had explored Japan in person, it was easier to contextualize the findings from our research. The feedback from Meiji students each presentation also provided a unique perspective. Our class covered a plethora of diverse topics ranging from LGBTQ representation in anime to Black diaspora experience in Japan, socioeconomic impacts on single mothers, and the experience of mixed-identity (hapa) individuals.

Our learning did not end there. In the evening, we met up again to practice shodo, or Japanese calligraphy. Meiji students Saori and Honoka had written all our names in Japanese and demonstrated the art of calligraphy to us. Kaori, another Meiji student, helped me write my name and helped me master each individual stroke of the brush. She taught me the difference between tomei (straight stroke) and hanei (curved stroke) so I could write my name correctly. After about 10 practice rounds, we all wrote our name on long sheets of calligraphy paper and displayed our masterpieces on the wall of one of the classrooms.

Me, with my mentor and friend Kaori, gleefully displaying my calligraphy skills that Kaori helped me master.

Our night culminated with another round of snacks, games and dancing to Cupid’s Shuffle and the Macarena with the Meiji students. Overall, the two days at Yamanaka-ko could not have been better.