Monday, February 19, 2018

Flower Power

Once upon a time, Shaggy sent me a postcard from the Boy Scout Jamboree (I think).  It had a picture of a sunflower and said, "I knew you'd like this postcard cause you like that flowery shit on everything."  Likewise, I appreciate how excited Japan gets over flowers.  It seems like it should be too early for flowers.  It's only mid-February, and yet, they are peeking out all over the place.  I've been admiring early spring bulbs - daffodils, hiacinths, crocus, and iris - for sale at shops while I was out walking around, and broke down and bought some last weekend to keep in my windows...and maybe plant in the little patch of ground next to my balcony so I can admire them again next year (I'm not sure if my landlord will be copacetic, but if I don't ask he probably won't notice).

In all honesty, though, I should have just waited.  Although sakura season's still a ways off, the early birds are already feasting on ume, plum blossoms.  My friend Sensei went to Setagaya last weekend, and the photos she posted on Facebook made me jealous.  When I read that Yushima Tenmangu was hosting an ongoing ume matsuri - plum festival - I knew where I would be going before my Nihonga lesson on Saturday.
Before I went, I found myself thinking it might be a good subject for my next Nihonga painting (and at this rate, I'll need a new festival every 2 weeks to supply myself with inspiration).  I thought I would do a sketch before I left the apartment, but instead of looking up shots of Yushima Tenmangu I watched an episode of my old Most Favorite Ever Anime, Noragami.  See, I've learned a thing or two about names of shrines, enough to know the place I was visiting was a shrine for one of the gods in the show, Tenjin.  He's a Japanese original, a scholar and poet who was deified after his political rivals died mysteriously in succession, to become the god of learning.  And he loved plum blossoms.

Yushima Tenmangu is near Ueno Park - I got off the train at Yushima Station and followed Google Maps to the foot of a very steep set of stairs, capped by a stone torii.  When I got to the top I was greeted by an assortment of food stalls, which I promised myself I would check out after seeing what was going on.  The line of petitioners waiting to throw in a coin and clap to announce their presence wasn't too long, but Tenjin's popularity was evident in mountains of ema.  Since I am trying to get better at adulting I'm attempting to "budget," so I decided not to buy an ema myself (also, I have at least ten I still haven't painted), but I did join the line to offer a coin and petition for academic success.  At the moment my 4.0 GPA looks safe for this semester, but I'm still a long ways from earning my master's.

Before I did that, though, I checked out the golden calf (bulls are one of Tenjin's symbols) and washed my hands at the ablution fountain.  As I rinsed out my mouth, I realized they were playing music and was thinking how nice it was, but it wasn't until I looked around the corner of the nearest food stall that I realized the music was live - a flute and a koto in the midst of a traditional Japanese garden.
If this isn't fitting of the shrine of a scholarly poet, I don't know what is.  As I was wandering my way through the trees, I began wondering what my shrine would be like.  I realize it's not likely that I will ever be deified - my family may be good at holding grudges, but if I came back as a ghost I'm pretty sure I'd be having too much fun messing with people to seek revenge.  Still, for the record, I'd like to become the patron of mangaka, specialize in protection from fire, and have cinnamon incense burned in my shrines, in the event it does happen.

I was just thinking about how I wanted some drums at my festival, no matter how much I loved the flute, when I came across a stage set up at the back of the temple.  Nearby a small ensemble was playing strings and accordion, and I had a surreal moment where I wasn't sure what country I was in or the festival I was at (Germany?  Oktoberfest??), but the stage in front of me had drums set up, so I found a seat and did a little sketching while the audience filled up.  Finally a group of kids and middle aged women carrying lanterns took the stage, and I got to hear my drums...although I soon found myself wanting to get up and move to the music.
During the last song the kids got up and distributed small gift envelopes with little panda erasers inside.  When it was over I made my way around the rest of the temple.  I found a small display of ume bonsai that made me consider going back on my oath to never kill another bonsai tree again (this was a sort of expensive hobby for me in college - I sucked at keeping them alive).  I finally decided to check out the food stalls in earnest and snacked on a small cup of kara-age (tasty, but cold), and my new festival favorite, yakisoba.  The lady dishing it up was in no small way part of the charm - she placed some into the plastic container, then put the container in a bag before tilting the container hinge-down and stuffing the rest of the noodles in.  "Like Subway," she explained, as she handed me my chopsticks.  Maybe, I thought, but Subway could never be quite that fresh.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Bean Counter

So.  It's been a while.  January was a hard, cold month for me.  I was feeling homesick and just plain sick not to mention cold.  I had my second snow day ever as a teacher.  I was pretty pathetic - I had two posts I was sitting on, but neither came to fruition because I was in such a funk.  But now it's February, and that changes everything.

My good friend Sensei was teaching her Japanese class in my art room (because that's how crowded we are in the school) one day last week, when I heard a word I recognized, oni.  And then I heard Setsubun, which is a holiday and when Flower Boy said our cold spell was due to be broken, and after a quick search on them interwebs I realized it was this weekend!  I had to reschedule my nihonga painting class, because if I was there at 1 I couldn't be at any of the festivities throughout the city, but suddenly I had a subject for my first painting (all of which I'll tell you about eventually, but this post is for Setsubun...we'll save nihonga for a proper art post).

Once that was settled, I had to pick a celebration to attend.  Setsubun can be celebrated at home, by throwing dried soybeans at a family member wearing the oni, or ogre, mask.  This duty (or is it a privilege?) usually falls to the dad, but mine is in Iowa, and knowing him, pelting him with lucky beans would count as an invitation to annihilate us with flatulence.  So I looked through my sources to choose a festivity to attend.  Ikegami's known for wrestlers, and Senso-ji has a shichifukujin dance.  Gototen in Ueno uses chrysanthemum leaves instead of beans, while apparently plenty of celebrities go to Zojo-ji.  All of which was very well and good, but in the end I decided to go to a little temple in Setagaya called Shinryu-ji.

What made their Setsubun special was that instead of the red-skinned, black-haired oni in a tigerskin loincloth (the traditional face of the holiday), their procession features tengu, a kind of crow demon.  Being the otome that I am, with the interests that I have, there was really no choice.  I walked down the lanes from Shimo-Kitazawa station til I found the temple, where according to legend a tengu is enshrined.  Since they are thought to live on the mountains, and Shimo-Kitazawa seemed hilly at best, I found myself wondering if this was likely, but hell - they'd probably wonder what a white-skinned, red-haired foreign demon was doing here, too.  Who am I to judge?
It was just a little past one when I got to the quiet little temple.  The mikoshi was sitting to the side, a huge red face with a long, red nose its most prominent feature.  It wasn't too crowded yet, and the "pre-game" ceremony seemed to have just started, while attendants were still getting ready.  I've got enough festivals under my belt now to think this is the way to do it - show up early so you're already in place when the action starts.

The ceremony involved some chanting by a monk, possibly the head monk - he was old and well-dressed, so that would be my guess, anyways.  He had an accordion-folded  book of sutras that he flipped open and closed as he chanted, eventually flipping it all the back and shutting it as he finished his chant or his prayer.  There were lots of official looking people, men and women in suits, in addition to the regular temple attendants.  After the head monk finished and shuffled out of view, these came to the front of the temple porch, with their sake boxes full of fukumame.  There was some drumming and shouts, and they threw their beans out into the crowd, thrice if I'm not mistaken.  I was way too far back to catch any, but I figured my time would come, so I just stood in the back, enjoying the slightly warmer weather and the atmosphere of the day, keeping an eye on my surroundings so I'd be ready for whatever happened next.  (I say that, but actually I still missed it when they moved the mikoshi down the hill to the street running perpendicular.  Those tengu can be sneaky, I guess).
After a little more pomp and circumstance, they took their show on the road.  I let myself be swept out to the entrance to the temple grounds, where I had the misfortune of standing next to some other gaijin. They were talking about how everyone was taking so many pictures of their baby, which just about made me barf.  The woman kept asking her husband if he was taking pictures, and THEN one of the tengu started walking towards us, and she started talking about how she thought it was a medieval plague mask.

It's possible that one of the reasons why Hozuki is my favorite character is the fact that he freely beats on idiots.  He's kind of the animated embodiment of my id.
The procession came all the way down the hill to the street, and I went along behind it, trying to get some better pictures when the English speakers in the crowd weren't driving me batshit crazy with their culturally incorrect discussions...

This is the tengu they were talking about, by the way.  That looks nothing like a plague mask.  I could cross my eyes and let them go out of focus and it STILL wouldn't look like a plague mask.  Baka gaijin

I caught up and enjoyed the sounds of the drums (not taiko...in fact, I'm not sure I've seen any taiko since moving here, which is sad.  Maybe I'll have to look up the taiko lab in Tokyo...) and the conch shells being blown.  I also really loved seeing the traditional clothes up close.  Many of them were wearing a kind of kimono with a stiff shoulder line, and I caught myself a few times wanting to reach out and touch it to see how they made them stand up...was there a rod in that fold?  Lots of starch?  I probably could have gotten away with looking up their sleeves, but for some reason it never occurred to me...possibly because even subconsciously I knew that was a weirdo thing to do.

Finally the Big Boss tengu made his way past, with all of his coterie.  The mask and clothes were impressive, of course, but the real marvel was his shoes!  The geta seemed to be about 6 inches off the ground, and had only a single stilt underneath.  He kept one hand on the shoulder of the attendant in front of him, presumably to help him keep his balance.  As I told my mother one time, I can't help falling down in normal shoes...these would be a lost cause!

As the mikoshi was pulled past, the caboose of the train, I noticed I was standing next to a cupcake shop that looked very promising.  I was just thinking about going in and checking out their wares when half a block down the street the parade started throwing packets of fukumame.  You're supposed to eat one bean for each year of your age for good luck, and although I did complete the shichifukujin meguri just last month, I didn't want to leave anything to chance.  2018 needs to be a banner year.  So I sumimasen-ed my way up to the side of the parade, and walked along beside for a while, until the procession halted and the beans were thrown again.  I managed to grab 3 packs and was given another by a kind Japanese lady who must have thought I needed them.  I didn't count to see if I made it to 38...I was too busy making sure I didn't pass the cupcake shop.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Teacher of Fortune

For the past couple of years I've posted my New Years' "shrine visit" on Facebook, checking in at Omaha's Joslyn Art Museum.  I'd learned enough about Japan from anime to know this is a big deal culturally, but I wasn't here yet, so I figured an art museum was a pretty good substitute for me.  But those days are over - at 3:17 pm January 2nd I was catching the Keikyu line back to Yokohama, and the question wasn't if I would be dropping in on a shrine in the coming days...it was which shrine to visit.  The answer was actually a holdover from last Spring.  The day before Five joined me in Kyoto I got it into my head that I'd like to visit a shrine or temple for each of Japan's Seven Gods of Fortune (Noragami was my #1 anime still back then).  That didn't actually happen because I got lazy and decided I'd go to the Karuta temple instead, but the idea was still in the back of my head, so when I saw the Shichifukujin Meguri mentioned on one of my websites in December, I decided the time had finally come to pay my respects to Bishamon et al.

One of the wonderful things about Japan is its syncretic nature.  In other countries, incoming religious beliefs snuff out their predecessors, but here they just get assimilated into the whole.  This means that there are a LOT of gods running around Japan, and many of them aren't even Japanese...in fact, only one of the Seven is native.  The rest are imports from India and China.  How this idea of a lucky seven came about, I'm not sure - that hasn't been covered by any of the anime I've watched, so if you really want to know, you can look it up.  But really, if you had thousands of gods in your belief system, why wouldn't you designate 7 (shichi in Japanese, with fuku meaning luck and jin for person) to be the most lucky?
There are at least three designated courses for the Shichifukujin Meguri in Tokyo.  I went for the shortest, which coincidentally took me back to Ningyocho.  I thought that was pretty fitting since one of my contingency plans involves launching a line of cosplay plush dolls, and I also liked the fact that all the stops were at shrines, rather than temples.  The Wow-J article in which I read about it suggested starting at Koami Jinja, which was dedicated to Fukurokuju and Benzaiten.  I marked the shrines on Google maps before I went out, and set out from Ningyocho Station wending down one-way streets, so I was expecting a small shrine, and that is what I found.  What I was not expecting was the long-ass line winding around the corner and then half a block further.  It was a little past ten when I joined the queue, and it just got longer from that point.  Part of me wanted to give up - I did not want to spend all day standing in lines - but I figured I didn't have much better to do with my day, so instead I started thinking about what I should wish for at each shrine.

See, each of the Seven has a specific bailiwick, so it seemed like I should break a general wish for good luck down and ask for what I wanted with the guy or gal most likely to make it happen.  Since Benzaiten has her own shrine a little later, I focused on Fukurokuju at Koami Jinja.  As a Fukujin he has a lot of overlap with the others, and apparently at one time he was replaced by another female deity, but his domain is largely about longevity.  When I got to the front of the line and threw in my coin, I had decided I didn't really need a long life - owing to my Mormon lifestyle I'm already ridiculously healthy - but I interpreted youth as a part of longevity, and the beauty that society generally ascribes to being young, and wished for those.
I stayed long enough to pick up an ema and find out that they wouldn't put my stamps in my sketchbook - there's a stamp rally thing you can do, but you have to buy the proper shrine-approved board thing, which kind of pissed me off, but I'm trying to be all philosophical and see this as an opportunity to get artistic.  From there it took about five minutes to walk to Cha No Ki Jinja, the shrine of Hotei.  Hotei is kind of awesome - he's fat and sassy, as befitting the Fukujin responsible for children, diviners, and barmen.  His special province is popularity, and even though I spent the last few years in Mongolia saying otherwise, you really can't have too many friends, so that's what I asked him for.  I was glad the line wasn't as long here, but it was such a small shrine that they didn't have ema, so my artistic plans didn't get any help from Hotei.
Which is just as well, because my next visit was to Benzaiten, patron goddess of artists, writers, dancers, and musicians, which kind of makes me her target audience.  This was another long line, through which I occupied myself wondering about Suiten-Gu.  It was a beautiful shrine, but it looked fairly new and was on a kind of pedestal building.  Eventually I was pushed to the front and got to ring the bell and ask for support in my artistic pursuits.
Basically catty-corner from Suiten-Gu was Matsushima Jinja, abode of Daikokuten.  There was a little line for this little shrine, so it didn't take long before I was throwing in a coin to ask for wisdom in using my wealth, since he specifically watches over prosperity.  While I was waiting, I had the chance to ponder the fact that I hadn't done ablutions at any of the shrines.  This may be a mark against me (probably not as big a mark as the fact that I was unprepared and only had 1 yen coins in my wallet, when any Noragami fan can tell you 5 yen is the traditional offering...) but it.  Was.  Chilly.  Not American Midwest WTF-who-says-climate-change-is-an-urban-myth?-cold, but cold enough to be getting the fuck on with, and I had no desire to run fresh spring water over my hands, under the circumstances.

In fact, the idea left me so chilled that I decided to warm up by stopping for lunch at Coco Curry.  If you are thinking I also chose Ningyocho's Shichifukujin Meguri because I knew the closest branch of my favorite Japanese restaurant chain, well, you're not wrong.  But one thing I've taken with me from Mongolia is the belief that New Years' is not time to start a diet - if you want to be prosperous and happy all year long, don't start by counting calories.  There's always next week for that.

After my first taste of curry for 2018, I walked a couple of blocks to get to Bishamonten's place, Suehiro Jinja.  No matter how many times I see the traditional version of the God of fortune in wars and battles, with his fierce eyebrows and goatee, Bisha will always be a smokin' hot blonde badass femme fatale to me, and so it seemed apropos to me that the war I'd ask for her help with would be my battle of the bulge.

As I stood in line to make my request (photo bombing the girls taking selfies in front of me, which got a huge laugh out of one of them when she looked at the pictures) I realized there was a tengu manning the stamp table.  As I watched, he put on a hooded mask with a lion's face and proceeded to dance for us.  Even with the cold, standing there listening to the music as he did his lucky lion dance while petitioners shook the bells and clapped at the shrine made me want to stay in Japan forever.  Maybe that should have been one of my wishes.
Instead, when I arrived at Kasama Inari Jinja I asked Jurojin for good health, particularly when it comes to my feet.  He is also a God of longevity, but without good health long life would actually be a curse, so I figured it works. 
Finally I came to Ebisu, the only purely Japanese Fukujin and god of wealth in business.  As mentioned before, one of my contingency plans involves selling my plushies, so I thought if there was anyone to petition for help in that (besides my Dark Lord and Master) it would be Ebisu.  When I got to Sugimori Jinja I was surprised to see it was white - I don't think I've ever seen a white shrine, so that was kind of cool.  There was actually another shrine on the circuit, a second Ebisu shrine a few blocks away, but I was out of coins and ready to be out of the cold again, so I decided not to show favoritism...at least not to Ebisu.  Since Benzaiten is the patron of artists, I figured it just made sense to drop 10 yen at her shrine.

Although I loved spending time at these little shrines, I confess I was tempted to complete a different meguri, one that had bells to collect along with stamps...but I figure there's always next year for that, and maybe then I will make my wishes on behalf of others.  Since then 2018 has been relatively quiet.  I've spent a lot of time trying to stay warm in my apartment while watching Gintama, and a little sitting in restaurants drinking free refills and letting them keep me warm (in fact, my game plan for today involves breakfast at Denny's as soon as I finish this post).  Although normally I shun the idea of resolutions, I do want to be healthier, and I have to make better use of my money than I did the last few months...but there's always next week.  Apparently the Japanese believe in shunning housework and cooking for the first few days of the new year, and hell, when in Rome...

Friday, December 29, 2017

Art of Your...Wooorrld!

A couple of years ago I started thinking about grad school.  I'd previously never thought much about this topic besides a.) a resounding "Hell, no!" and when I was in a less rigid frame of mind, b.) that if I ever did go back to school, I'd study art, not education.  But, well, life is funny.  After teaching for 11 years I started thinking maybe there was more I needed to know, that I could become a more effective art teacher if I had more education.  So when I heard about the University of Nebraska - Kearney's MA in art education (and more to the point, saw the courses and realized they were almost all things I wanted to study), I figured the time had finally come to return to academia.
"The Floating World"
That said, academia isn't exactly my favorite thing.  When I was at UMKC, my art classes were effortless.  My education classes, on the other hand...I struggled with them.  So when I was signing up for my first class last summer, I decided to start with one of the two studio courses that were part of my program - painting.  This may seem like the kind of course that needs to be taught in a traditional setting, but our professor structured it so that each of us completed our own work each week, then uploaded it to the class blog, and provided feedback to each of our classmates about their work.  In this way, we got to know each other pretty well, and seven of us decided we wanted to keep in touch through facebook to continue working.
"Triggered"

One of the aspects of the class that was really interesting to me was that we each chose our own objectives and developed in the direction we chose.  A big one for me was exploring new media - most of my painting has been in acrylic, and didn't really experiment with layering or using mixed media, so I wanted to work with those.  Having just moved to Japan and being sort of a weeb, I decided I wanted to explore Japan's art and culture through my paintings.  I tried to be relatively mature about it and not jump straight into anime characters, but I also wanted the influence to be clear.  I started on my first piece shortly after seeing the Harajuku Super Yosakoi.  I thought it would be an interesting challenge to try to capture the energy of the day, and their expressions...but it kept falling flat.  I wanted to have more going on than just the central figure, so I started building up the background with some dancers and repetitive shapes and colors using washi paper.  It wasn't exactly what I wanted, but I guess I wasn't entirely sure of what I wanted.

My second piece was to be a tribute to the Kawaii Kingpin - not only did he get me hooked on anime (and, by extension, on the idea of living in the motherland), but when I thought I was going to be unemployed this year he still had faith that I'd not only find a job, but that I'd be in Japan.  His dragon came together pretty quickly conceptually - I've drawn enough dragons in the course of my life, and seen plenty in Japan.  Executing the damn thing, on the other hand...somebody got it into her head that it would be awesome to try and weave the painting in and out of the washi paper to try and show the depth of the water.  The length of the dragon led me to break it into a triptych, and after a first attempt, I decided that I would paint him in layers, transparently, adding layers of thin washi in between, gradually making him more solid as I came up.  It was a huge pain in the ass, and there are a few parts I still need to work out, but on the whole I'm pretty happy with it. 
When I got to my final piece, I'd restrained myself enough.  It was time to get animated.  After seeing painted ema at several different shrines, I decided to make my own.  You purchase these wooden votive tablets to write your wishes on, and so my final work would be a self-portrait expressed through my wishes - past as well as present.  I thought I might stop using the washi paper on these, but when I got the first painting done I realized I really liked what they added to the look of the work.
"May Our Fates Intertwine"
The thing about this piece is that I wanted it to be an installation - I've been interested in this kind of sculpture since I was in college looking at my first Chihulys and Skoglunds.  There's a park essentially in my backyard, Baba Kabokuen, and so for my final submission I took my (mostly) finished paintings over and hung them in a tree to kind of show the idea of what I was going for.  I'm planning to paint a lot more of these, though - I was really inspired by Shiota Chiharu's The Key in the Hand at the 2015 Biennale and would like to make it something much more immersive.  But that's in the future.  For now, I've got a 4.0 GPA (yes, this was only my first class in my master's, and I was only taking one class...nevertheless...), a drypoint plate downstairs ready to print, and the nagging feeling that maybe I should have gone back for art rather than education...I really, REALLY enjoyed taking the painting course and maybe have some dread about taking a more traditional class.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Art is Magic*


Don't listen to the Brony propaganda.  I'm here to tell you that the true magic is art, not friendship (by extension, if Deidara is right, and art is an explosion, then true magic is an explosion, which means my childhood inspiration that fireworks looked like magic was right.  Birdwalk complete).  I'd guess there are a lot of people in the world who don't get a kick out of making cool shit, but I was never their teacher.  Last fall I found myself feeling nostalgic for my art school days - some of my favorite times in college consisted of staying up way past midnight, drinking tons of Hy-Vee cherry cola and working on projects.  Printmaking students were granted 24/7 access to the studio, and there was more than one time when after dark - heedless of the numerous drug dealers and rapists who were undoubtedly lurking (joking!!!  Everyone knows that sort of thing happened on the other side of campus) - I walked down the hill from the Tropicana, across Brookside, between the Twin Oaks, and back up past the conservatory and student union to the art building, where I'd call a campus police officer to let me in.  (In actual fact, I think I did this once under a tornado watch.  Art makes me want to do crazy things....)
My favorite painting from Taka-san's

So I spent a goodly portion of my last year in Mongolia reliving the glory days.  This started after being exposed to all that art and otaku culture in Kyoto...I got back to UB with ideas and a need to do something.  All the professional development I did that year probably also had a hand in it.  I had actually been thinking about doing more of my own sketchbook work after Amsterdam - in my IB training, we learned about the comparative analysis DP art students do, and I was very flattered when our teacher asked if he could use my gallery work from the Stedelijk for a guide he was writing about DP art, but I wanted to actually try it myself with something I was passionate about.  And that's why I started sketching and writing notes about ukiyo-e prints, Impressionism, Art Nouveau, and anime and manga.  Call me crazy, but it's FUN.  I learn something new, and it sends me off looking up something else.
I actually started with the paintings I saw at Taka-san's, which made me wonder about other artists creating "fine art" using the anime style.  This led me to Takashi Murakami's Superflat works, and his establishment of Kaikai Kiki.  As I looked up some of the artists in this collective, I found Aya Takano's Keisai Eisen with Oiso Station 9th on Her Back, which directly referenced the ukiyo-e prints I fell in love with back in my wild college days.  From there, I started comparing ukiyo-e with modern anime - the use of line!  The color!!  The compositions!!!  At the same time, I was finishing up a plushie.  Ironically, it was the only non-anime one I made, which I kind of hated, but while I was working on it, I had to make it a tie, and I ended up painting a plain scrap of silk to do so, which made me remember how much I liked painting silk.  At some level I knew this, or I wouldn't have had all the materials I needed for it, but actually getting my lazy ass in gear and doing it forced me to notice the way you can use line and color in silk painting.  After a lot of sketches and a little frustration because male characters are way harder to make artistic, not least of all because they tend to be less colorful), I finally made a painting...but I still haven't taken a picture of it - maybe I'll add it to this post once I get back to Yomaha.

Finally, I planned to share my resume.  I got this idea last December that I should make an illustrated resume, in manga style since I was hoping to get a job in Japan.  When I was living in Shanghai, with dreams of becoming an illustrator, I did the late night art party pretty regularly, listening to the deed-o deed-o of people coming and going from the Seven-Eleven across the street, which blew in on my cross-breeze. Sitting in my parent's dining room over the holidays last year wasn't really the same thing, but then again, having my Dad in the next room watching tv in his recliner and my mom bustling in and out as she worked on whatever - to some extent, it had that same way of demonstrating that I wasn't the last person alive.  It was comfortable, working on my resume in those circumstances. 
I ended up being ridiculously proud of the damn thing, but it still took me til June to get the job I'd been praying for.  The layover in Narita a year ago was a twisting knife in my gut - I read the newest chapter of Shingeki No Kyojin, smelled curry, was overwhelmed by enlargements of some of my favorite Hokusai prints, and teased by a duty-free shop called Akihabara...so close, and yet so far away!  I actually didn't get to do much more art the rest of the year, because I was so busy wrapping things up in Mongolia, but that just meant that when I started working on the first class for my master's degree, a painting course that I just finished, I was full of ideas and raring to go. 

*So...this was sort of a flashback post.  I wrote most of it last year in Mongolia, but never finished it.  I figured it was a good lead in to writing about the work I did this semester, so went ahead and published it - albeit with a few tense-changes and slight tweaks.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

China Days

When I lived in Shanghai, I had a lot of what we used to call "China Days."  That was when living in China put you in such a rage that you couldn't shake it off.  Everything from pushy old ladies and people spitting literally EVERYWHERE could trigger a China Day.  By contrast, I didn't really have Mongolia Days.  While the cold and the pollution were more awful than I have words for, even when something annoyed me, I got over it relatively quickly.  This is probably why I still miss Mongolia.

I don't miss China.  I missed my friends, when they lived there, and I miss my tailor (oh HOW I miss my tailor!), but I have no lingering nostalgia about any "good old days."  This is probably most of the reason why Yokohama's Chinatown had no particular attraction for me.   I didn't need to spend time in Chinatown, because I've actually spent more than enough time in the real China.  But when I was wondering how to round out my blogging for the year, Chinatown was part of the answer.  When I started following Hozuki on Twitter, I found out that the Kinokuniya in SOGO department store at Yokohama station was having a special exhibition the week before I left, complete with (of course) special merch.  So I waited none-too-patiently for the day to arrive - fortunately I was part of the winter concert committee, which kept me busy enough that I didn't go too crazy waiting.
One of the reasons why I'm in love with this anime is the fact that the art is just that good.  The mangaka, Natsumi Eguchi, is actually a fully-trained artist, rather than someone who studied manga.  For your average nerd, this may not make a lot of difference, but as an art teacher it's like day and night - the way he uses lines, the details...there's so much more substance there than in an average manga.  The special character designs for this exhibition really demonstrate that.  And since one of Yomaha's main draws is Chinatown - we were the first port to open to international trade - the special illustration for the event showed the characters in Chinese dress, standing at the main gate of our Chinatown.
So.  I visited the exhibition, bought a couple of things (I finally tried the bath salts, and immediately regretted only buying one pack) took photos of the artwork.  Ate Mexican (unrelated, but El Torito is in the tower next door).  It was not actually as exciting as I'd thought it would be, but I didn't complain - there are little otaku boys and girls all over the world who wish they had the opportunities I had.  With one Saturday left before I was home for the holidays (where I am writing this now), I decided that I would visit that Chinatown and make this my (maybe) last post of 2017.
Now, I wandered into Chinatown once before.  The night I met Flower Boy for the Harvest Moon he was a little late, so I went exploring, finding the temple pictured in the first photo.  This time it was under renovation, so it was just as well that I wasn't looking to pay my respects to the Sea Goddess.  No, my first order of business was lunch.  I wasn't sure what I was looking for, but when I almost walked past a signboard showing fried dumplings with soup inside, I knew I'd found it.
My friend Meen tells me these are not xiaolongbao, but that is what I called them for two years in Shanghai, and another five years in my dreams, because nothing would have warmed up Ulaanbaatar like a bite of one of these babies.  Because they have soup inside, you can't just pop them in your mouth - instead, you have to take a little nibble and suck the soup out before devouring the rest of the dumpling.  Its the kind of experience that in a certain anime would result in your clothes exploding off and some awkwardly sexual sounds...and that anime is the reason I bought the bun pictured (to be honest, although I enjoyed the Hozuki cafe, what I really want is to see someone make a Shokugeki no Soma cafe...every time I watch that show it makes me hungry).

After lunch I wandered down the streets.  It was pretty busy with people shopping, and the goods for sale mostly looked like what you'd expect to find - kitschy golden dragons and chopsticks, although I did find one shop selling some really nice hand-printed tenugui.  At first I wondered why a shop in Chinatown would be selling quality Japanese handicrafts, and then I mentally smacked myself, because it's a shop in a tourist attraction in Japan - of course they sell Japanese souvenirs.  Maybe it was the xiaolongbao talking, but for a moment my suspended disbelief had kicked in, and I was convinced I was in China.  But then reality took over, and I realized that everyone's behavior was way too polite for China, and I hadn't caught a single whiff of stinky tofu.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Autumn Leaves

In Mongolia, Autumn comes and goes within a week.  One Sunday you're on your way to church and you notice the trees next to the Tuul are turning gold.  By the following Sunday, there ARE no leaves.  If you count the changing of the larch, you might manage to sneak some more time into your fall, but it will be snowing before that happens.  By contrast, it seems like Japan's autumn just keeps playing the hits.

I feel like fall officially started the night I went to Sankeien with Flower Boy for tsukimi.  I mentioned a few posts back that the Japanese are the kind of people who think that sitting out at night to watch the moon is a great activity, and I can't disagree.  I like being out at night, anyways - no sun, so I don't burst into flame, and I feel like that magical feeling is stronger at night, although admittedly I like being a little closer to home than Sankeien is when things are over.  Still, the Harvest Moon only comes along once a year, so trek home or no, I made plans to visit this classical Japanese garden with him.
We finally got there around 8 o'clock.  It was kind of sad, because it had been an overcast day, and although we were thankful that it at least hadn't started raining (yet - we pushed up our visit one day because it was in the forecast), we were bummed because we didn't think we'd get to see the moon.  We paid our 700 yen and went in, and immediately started looking around for the music.  There was supposed to be a performance, but we weren't seeing it and couldn't even hear it.  We kept wandering, though, and eventually discovered that the house/museum section was open, and that night, at least, it was free.  And it turned out to be where people were sitting on the lawn, watching a woman play the biwa.
We sat and listened, and I tried to keep an eye on the sky - I still held out hope that the moon would put in an appearance, and I was not disappointed.  It managed to break through the clouds long enough to say hi, and for a few minutes, I stared up at the moon instead of the biwa player (turns out biwa isn't really my thing, anyways - no good for dancing, not much good for singing, either).  But sitting in a classical Japanese garden at night under the moon, listening to Japanese music with friends...that was my thing.
At that point, though, the leaves really hadn't begun to turn - it was Autumn in name only.  The real autumn actually kind of snuck up on me - it seems like I spend most of my time going between school and home.  One Sunday I walked past the park behind my house - I still hadn't been inside because it always seemed to be closed - and some of the trees were almost bare, and it seemed like the rest were never going to lose their leaves.  I almost went to an autumn illumination on the 24th of November, but the day before I went to Tokyo for the Hozuki cafe, and I decided I didn't want to do that two nights in a row.  Priorities, you know?  I'm sure Rikugien will light up their gardens next year, too.
It wasn't until the final day of November, when I was on a field trip with my seventh graders to an exhibit in Ueno Park that I thought, "Oh look, golden leaves!"  (There's a ton of ginko in Ueno, so it's a good place to check them out - I kind of wanted to ditch the kids and go play in the leaves.  Bad art teacher!)  That made for a good weekend, especially with the Chichibu Night Festival.
When I was stalking Tokyo for upcoming events - which, by the way, I think is a thing for me.  I feel like I spend enough time (particularly on Friday nights) reading up on what's happening in Tokyo that it qualifies as stalking.  Sorry, Tokyo - I realized I was going to miss out on some cool stuff by going back to the States (winter Comiket and a fox parade at one of the many Inari shrines around town most notably).  So when I found out I had the chance to see one more festival before I went, I jumped at the chance, even if it was far enough out of the way that it justified getting an AirBnB.

Chichibu is a fairly small town up in Saitama, but they host a night festival the first week of December.  Apparently Sunday was the day to go, but there was work the next day, and although I haven't had a rough day at school for a while, I also don't feel quite comfortable enough to pull a sickie so I can go to a festival (not that I've ever done that, but I was tempted yesterday, since I could have gone to the 47 Ronin ritual at Sengaku-ji).  Which was okay, since Saturday night still had the mikoshi parade, and still had fireworks, and street food.  The yakisoba, by the way, was delicious!
I was actually about to enter the shrine when I heard sounds floating down the street, and decided I would see what was going on.  Cutting through a parking lot I was able to get to the street a little before the first float - and it was huge.  I've been to at least a couple of festivals here at this point, and these were serious floats.  Huge crews were carrying them along, and they had lots of people on them, even on the roofs...
Although the leaves have been taking their time, the cold definitely hasn't.  It was quite chilly waiting on the platform for the train that would take me back to my AirBnB - probably because I don't have a decent winter coat.  When I bring this up in conversation, people look a little confused and say, "But...weren't you living in Mongolia last year?"

I assume most people ask rhetorically, since I almost never miss a chance to talk about Mongolia.  It's true, though, that I came without a coat - my trusty red cashmere was wearing thin long before the end of last winter, and I felt like, really, after 5 years in Mongolia, what could Japanese winters really do to me???

In fact, I remind myself often what the temperature is like back in UB, because it helps me to appreciate that Yokohama is really not that cold.  Unless it's raining.  Or dark.  Or, you know, I've just come home to my apartment.  When I first arrived in UB, I bemoaned the loss of the ondol floors in my Shanghai apartment.  Now I'd give anything to be warming my back against the radiator in the teachers' apartments at ASU.  My apartment - which I love, don't get me wrong - is none-too-well-insulated and heated by an AC unit.  It works well enough that I can't complain, but at the same time, I kind of miss sleeping with a fan year round - even when it's -40 out- because the heating system works that well. 

On the other hand, in UB I wouldn't walk more than a couple of blocks outside in winter if I could avoid it, so I guess there are trade-offs.