Sunday, September 24, 2017

Artful Adventures: Yokohama Triennale

If you read back far enough, you will learn a dirty, nasty truth about me.  Since I'm creeping up on 500 posts, I'll save you the time and energy that would go into learning what it is and just confess: I have not always been a very good art teacher, at least not when it comes to going out and being a part of the local art scene.  I'm going to blame this on the fact that until I moved to Mongolia, I didn't really have to - I don't teach anklebiters much about contemporary art.  Once I was teaching high school, I had at least some regrets that UB's galleries and museums didn't have better resources...or at least let you know about their openings more than a few days in advance.  So I was determined, when I did get offered a job in Japan, that I was going to exploit every single opportunity that I had, for my students as well as myself.
Although it has been almost a month since I've mentioned art, I haven't actually been slacking.  I'm almost a third of the way through with the first course of my master's.  It's a painting course, and I do my work and then post it in our blog-style forum.  To that end, I've had to buy art supplies about once a week, as well as finding my inspiration...I just haven't actually written yet about any of the art I've seen.  But this weekend I decided the time had finally come for me to visit the Yokohama Triennale (not least of all because I'm planning on leading a field trip there in two weeks).

Two years ago I wrote about the spectacle that is the Venice Biennale.  When I started reading up on Yokohama and found out that it has its own art exhibition every three years, I rubbed my hands in glee...but also held reservations that it could impress me as much as the Venetian Biennale.  For starters, there's the setting - the Giardini!  The Arsenale!  All sorts of old palazzos all over the city!  With so much space and it being the granddaddy of all international art festivals, the sheer wonder of it is hard to comprehend.  Of course, a lot of it is rubbish, and the video and sound pieces had a tendency to give me headaches, but into every life a little rain must fall, eh?

I have to hand it to the Yokohama Triennale, though - everything I've seen so far (my stamp rally card tells me I have 4 more sites to visit - yesterday I could only manage the Yokohama Museum of Art and the Red Brick Warehouse) has been pretty legit.  Even before you enter the museum you've seen your first work - Ai Weiwei's installation of rafts and lifejackets, a statement on the refugee crisis.  For the most part, it only gets better.

This year's theme is "Islands, Constellations, and Galapagos" - or put less poetically, connection and isolation.  This seems a lot more applicable and relevant than that of the two Biennales I've attended (I guess when you've done as many as Venice has, coming up with new themes could be a challenge - I shouldn't judge since I struggled with a yearbook theme after only a couple of those).  Since my audience isn't, in general, the art intelligentsia, I'll leave it to the website to explain that kind of thing and focus on what I actually care about.
One of those classic anime moments is the scene where the character discovers their passion when they see someone else doing it and it is just so sugoi that they take up piano/ice skating/acting...whatever the case may be.  Now, art is not new to me and neither is anime, but when I made it to Mr.'s installation, it's possible that my eyes lit up and there were sparkles hanging in the air.
Kind of like these eyes...
His work is the second installation you get to, right after the MAP Office's islands built on the museum's stairs.  I'd seen an image of one part of it, and I was looking forward to it, since the intersection of anime and art have been a specific study for me over the last year.  I was busily taking photos of EVERYTHING - the way he incorporates surface manipulation and paint spatter into his work feels particularly applicable to the work I'm doing for my painting course - and when I stopped to look up I saw a guy who looked JUST LIKE the dude in a couple of the pieces and he was wearing an "Artist" badge.  I almost said, "Senpai, notice me!" and then I realized I had no idea how to follow that up because I'm kind of awkward in art-social (ok, just plain social) situations like that and even though I've been to a lot of openings and been in the same room as a lot of artists, I'm still not sure of the etiquette and where do I even start and does he really want to talk to some crazy American art teacher about his artistic intent???

So I restrained myself, but when I got home and found out he's the protege of Takashi Murakami (who founded the Superflat art movement) I kind of wished I hadn't.  Maybe I'll get lucky though, and he'll be hanging around when I bring my students.

There were lots of works I just loved, and maybe this is the advantage of a smaller exhibition like Yokohama's - less crap.  I've been thinking of modern art for about a week, since someone posted a video of this hateful old white guy in my Art Teachers facebook group.  He was going on and on about how art has slowly been degrading since the time of the impressionists, and that now everything is crap.  Well, he was full of crap, for starters because his little spiel totally discounts everything outside of Western artistic tradition, but I wouldn't unconditionally qualify every work of art as valid.  I like to ask my kids what they think art is, to get them thinking about what they are doing, and as I was walking around the Triennale, I managed to come up with my own definition, and here's how it goes:

Art takes the experiences of our lives and puts them into palpable form, so that our thoughts and feelings can be shared at their deepest level.

I came to this conclusion after almost crying over Rob Pruitt's paintings of Obama (what I wouldn't give for a president like that right now), standing stunned before Anne Samat's Tribal Chief Series, and finally, standing in the middle of Hatakeyama Naoya's panoramic shots of his native Rikuzentakata, about a year after the 2011 tsunami wiped it off the face of the earth.  In each of these pieces, I felt that connection that the theme alludes to.
One last artist I have to mention before moving on to the second part of the Triennale is Kazama Sachiko.  She had these monster-sized woodcuts, with a slightly different take on Japanese culture and history than Mr., in the totally best way.  Her balance and contrast were on point, and they had such a great sense of action.  I've been in a lot of art supplies stores in the last month, and if it weren't for the fact that I'm totally submerged in this painting class I'd be dying to carve some woodblocks - I almost bought wood and knives today, but probably I can wait til January, when my schoolwork will consist more of reading.
After two hours I needed a break, so on the way to the Red Brick Warehouse I stopped at Hard Rock Cafe - in my defense, a huge burger seemed like a great way to get the energy for the next round of art.  When I got there, I found myself wondering if this was the counterpart to Venice's Arsenale.  Both years I went, I found the work at the Giardini to be of an overall higher quality, possibly because there were a lot more videos at the Arsenale, not to mention a few installations that seemed to be mostly composed of junk.  It wasn't, but I wasn't blown away like I was in the museum.  In fact, it wasn't until I was almost out of the Red Brick Warehouse that I was impressed.  I was enjoying works involving embroidery when I caught the strains of Ragnar Kjartansson coming from behind one of the curtained doorways.  I walked in on a bit of cacophony, which turned out to be a video installation showing people in different rooms of a house trying to play together while wearing headphones.  There was something disjointed about it that was nevertheless hauntingly beautiful.
The other piece which absolutely floored me was Dong Yuan's installation.  She recreated in incredible detail her grandmother's house - painted on canvases which give a sense of three-dimensionality to the work while retaining the feeling of a painted piece of art.  It was a neat trick.  The house will be demolished this year - one of those China things where the old must be done away for the new.
I'm not entirely sure how to bring this blog to a close, so I'll just leave you with blocks, and the feeling that if all I got out of coming to Japan was the exposure I'm getting to art and the way it is provoking me artistically, it would totally be worth it.  I'm still trying to figure things out in a lot of ways, but artistically, I'm good.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Howdy Pilgrim, Part II

Picking up where I left off yesterday, I did get distracted by something shiny, but it wasn't money.  After church today I decided that the time had come for me to finally visit the Taco Bell in Shibuya.  It was literally the nicest Taco Bell I've ever been to, and unlike most fast food places here, they let you have free refills on your drinks.  But eventually the rain drove me back indoors, so before I try to finish my book I'll hit you with the last of my Kamakura adventures.  During the wee small hours of Friday night, scratching my mosquito bites, I mapped out my routes to Zeniarai Benzaiten and onward from there.  Although I wasn't expecting the overgrown, spider-infested trail on the way up, I was expecting the elevation, but from there it was all downhill.

I went to the station first.  I brought my backpack with me when I left the guesthouse, and I wanted to chuck it in a locker so that I wouldn't have to carry it around.  Unfortunately, this meant I ended up at the second part of the festival without my telephoto lens, but at that point it was raining pretty hard, so I wasn't even sure the horseback archery was going to take place, and I ended up with some good shots anyways.

Also, considering I was about to end up taking a stupid, long-ass detour, I was kind of happy about that decision.  Of course, if I'd had my backpack, I would have been following Google maps and probably wouldn't have ended up going the long way, but whatever.  Bygones.

I was trying to visit two more temples before the festival - Hokoku-ji, which is known for its bamboo grove, and Sugimoto-dera, which has a very nice set of stairs that are covered in moss.  When I was sitting in the McDonald's having breakfast by the station (don't judge), I looked at google maps, and it looked like Sugimoto-dera, whe closer of the two, should have been pretty easy to get to if I just continued along the road Hachiman-gu was on.  My mistake was thinking it was closer than it actually was.  I was also relying on signs, which had been incredibly helpful up to that point, but when I stopped seeing Sugimoto-dera and Hokoku-ji on them, I wondered if I'd gone too far, and then I saw a shrine down a street ahead, and decided to go there, because even if it was the wrong place, it should have had a map.  Sure enough, when I got to Kamakura-gu, there was a map on a big board, and if I'd just stayed on the damn street I was on in the first place, I would have been admiring the moss already.

Instead, I found myself redirecting through a neighborhood to get there.  It wouldn't have been the worst thing in the world, if my feet weren't totally wrecked and it wasn't raining.  I went to Hokoku-ji first, because I realized there was a bus back to Hachiman-gu directly across from Sugimoto-dera, and it was nice...but I don't think I'd say it was a must-see temple.  The bamboo grove in Arashiyama was better...but I have no regrets, since it was only a little past Sugimoto-dera anyway.  I also just watched The Tale of Princess Kagura for the first time recently, so it was interesting to visit a bamboo grove so soon after.

I mentioned that my creative theme for the painting course that I'm taking is Japanese art and culture, so I got to use the trip as a bit of a scavenger hunt as well.  I'm making pretty good progress on my first piece - dancers from the Harajuku Super Yosakoi a few weeks back - so I've been giving thought to my second work, and I'm pretty sure it's going to incorporate dragons.  I found a few this weekend, although the fountain at Kiyomizu-dera is still my favorite.

But the point of Sugimoto-dera was to see its moss stairs.  The Japanese have a thing for moss.  I don't know if I would have agreed that it's beautiful a year ago - I hadn't really given any thought to it - but by this point in the game, I think they're on to something.  I mean, it's basically brightly colored fur for rocks - how cool is that?  I'm not entirely sure how these came to be covered in moss - usually well-trod paths should be free from moss - but now they're roped off to protect their beauty and the main prayer hall is accessed by a set of set of stairs running to the left of the mossy ones.

The main prayer hall has three beautiful sculptures of Kannon, one of Buddhism's female deities, and your admission price includes going into the hall - without shoes, of course, and photos aren't allowed.  I stopped to rest my feet for a few minutes, but moved on fairly quickly.  Without my phone I wasn't sure of the time, and I wanted to make sure I was back at Hachiman-gu in case the archery went ahead...and it turned out that it did.
When I got there it was definitely busy, and I followed the crowds to the crossroads of the temple (there's a main approach which is crossed by another path; hence, crossroads).  There were clusters of people there, so it wasn't exactly hard to figure out this was the staging area for the archery.  I followed some other people until I found a place at one of the ends where I could jockey for position with all the other trigger-happy shutterbugs, none of whom seemed to have forgotten their telephoto lenses.
We waited what seemed like forever while everyone was up praying at the temple, and then finally they made their way down to the course and treated us to a procession of sorts.  Some of the horses were ridden, some were walked, but we go the chance to see everyone come past wearing their regalia.  After they had completed what seemed like a really slow circuit, things finally got started in earnest.
Unfortunately I was too far down to get any shots action, but you could hear the thunk of the arrow hitting the target as they rode past (and honestly?  I didn't want to be that close to the target.  Not that they would miss that badly, but what if...)  The end of the staging area was actually pretty exciting, too, because sometimes the horses were still going pretty fast and I had to wonder if the archers would be able to make them stop.  I also loved the fact that they did all this in full, formal dress.  I feel like I spend a lot of time on my blog talking about how lame America is compared to the rest of the world, but when a significant portion of the population can't bother getting dressed up for anything, and then you move to a place where athletes dress like this, it's hard not to come to that conclusion.

And no, it's not just because this was part of a festival at a temple.  I get off the subway for church as the same time as boys going to their high school for archery practice, and they all wear traditional dress, albeit not as fancy.
Eventually the event was over.  A huge part of the crowd continued up to the temple, but my feet were killing me and I was hoping to beat the rest of the festival goers onto the train.  26 minutes later I was getting off at Yokohama station.  With it being so close, I wouldn't be surprised if I went back.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Howdy Pilgrim

By the time I was offered my new job, I was excited just to have a job, especially in Japan, but if you want to know the truth, what I really wanted was a job in Kansai.  Partly, I was being a culture snob.  There was also the fact that there would be at least one person around with whom I wouldn't have to go through that bullshit stage of friendship where you act a little nicer than normal and avoid constructing sentences that essentially use the word "fuck" as almost every part of speech so they don't get freaked out by you before they decide they actually like you.  I knew the lay of the land there...and it is relatively flat, among other things!  I was planning on getting a bike until I found out how hilly Yokohama is, and I decided walking my bike up said hills would kind of defeat the purpose.  But more than any of those things Kyoto just has a certain magical quality that I love, which Tokyo is largely lacking.  I catch glimpses of it from time to time, but in Kyoto you can almost smell it in the air.

When I got off the train in Kamakura last night, I could smell it there.

It took me most of the last week to actually go forward with my brilliant plan to head out of the city every time we have a three-day weekend.  I think Kanto (the region where I live) may have crossed over the line where it is bloody hot less than it is reasonably pleasant.  I'm basing this totally scientifically on the fact that I no longer spend most days hating life.  It's possible that I'm biased, though, since this is the first week since I arrived that's been gone in a blink.  Whatever the case may be, I was chillin' in the a.p.t. Thursday night and went, "Screw it - why not?!?"  I found a guesthouse near the beach that gave me a bed for 3500 yen for the night, and booked it for the following night.
Part of the reason I decided to do an overnight rather than just a day trip was the fact that there was a festival on - the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Reitaisai.  The parade bit with the mikoshi was on Thursday, so I had to give it up as lost, but according to the Japan Times there was dancing there on Friday night at six, so I grabbed McDonald's for dinner on my way into Tsurumi Station and caught the train down to Kamakura.  The shrine wasn't far from the station, so I set out in the night, following the sound of drums up the street.  I assumed they were part of the dancing, but when I arrived at the staging area, the dancers turned out to be geisha.
I watched for a while, then climbed the steps up to the main building of the shrine, which looked much cooler from below in the dark.  I considered buying one of their ema, the wooden plaques you're supposed to write your wishes on.  They were shaped like ginko leaves and I've been thinking I might do my next project for my painting class on them - some genius decided her creative theme for this semester would be Japanese culture and art - but for 1000 yen, I decided my wallet wasn't willing to suffer any further for my art.

Eventually I wandered my way back to the station.  In less than an hour the shopping district had become a ghost town, and it wasn't even 7:30.  I had to take the local train line three stops, and then walked two blocks to get to my guesthouse.  When I found it I'd been searching for a ryokan, and while the Ushio Guesthouse wasn't exactly that, it was a traditional Japanese house and it was cheap, so I decided it was close enough.  It was charming...the tatami mats, a sitting area downstairs with a porch area letting the cool night air in...until I woke up at 2:30 in the morning itching like hell.  With the exception of trips into Khuvsgul, I didn't think much over the last five years about using bug spray, and I'm regretting it now.  Under the circumstances, it wasn't hard to manage an early roll-out to beat whatever tourists weren't scared off by talk of the typhoon.

The most famous thing to see in Kamakura is the Big Buddha, which I managed to hit on my way to one of the other sites I managed to dig up (this is me joking, btw - Kamakura has a LOT of things to see because history and stuff).  The coolest thing about this Big Buddha (as opposed to some of the others I've visited) is that for a whopping 20 yen you can walk around inside him.  In spite of the fact that he weighs...a lot (sorry - if you really care what he actually weighs, you can look it up)...he is actually hollow, and from the inside you can actually see where each part was soldered together.  I even put up a hand and touched him, and then realized that I was basically standing in his crotch and decided to move on before I got struck by lightning.

Next on my list was Zeniarai Benzaiten Shrine.  I'd put it into Google Maps at some point in the night while I was scratching mosquito bites, and the instructions went something like this:

"Continue along this street; turn neither to the left or the right until you come to the end of civilization, and then follow the overgrown trail through the woods, up a 60 degree incline.  Try not to fall off the side of the hill screaming when you run into spiderwebs."

It was a long hike, but I learned a new purpose for my fan along the way.  When I came to the top of the hill the breeze was refreshing...along a paved road.  I found out when I got there that people live on the top of that hill (or they did at some point - most of the houses seemed kind of deserted), and nobody is making that hike every day in the 21st century.  Apparently Google reads my blog, since they chose the adventurous route for me.  Or else possibly I chose the shortest.  You know, one or the other.

At the top I could also see the sea.  It looked a lot less scary by day at the top of a hill than it did when I walked to the shore at 8 the night before.  Maybe it's just me, but in the dark the waves washing in looked a little menacing, and although I knew logically that there were no giant squid lurking on the shoreline, waiting to drag me out to sea, I couldn't quite bring myself to dip my toes into the water.  Although it sure was beautiful and I sat and watched it for a while from the wall next to the sidewalk.
The point of all this effort was a little shrine called Zeniarai Benzaiten.  Benzaiten is one of Japan's seven gods of fortune.  She's the patron god of artists, among others, so it seemed fitting as an art teacher that I would come and participate in the ritual that takes place here.  At this shrine, for 100 yen you can wash your money.  You get a little votive candle to light, and some incense to burn, and a basket - after burning the candle and incense, you go into a cave, where you put your money in the basket and pour water over it, which is supposed to ensure that you have even more money.
I was going to try and write about Kamakura in one fell swoop, but I'm tired and I feel like it's already long enough, so be ready to pick up the story...probably tomorrow, unless I get distracted by something shiny.  Like, for example, all the riches Benten-sama's surely sending my way RIGHT NOW.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Rabbit Run

I've survived three weeks of a new school year, and five weeks in my new life in Japan.  I'm finally starting to feel like I'm making progress, but I'm still looking forward to our three-day weekend commencing on Saturday.  The hardest part of work has been teaching anklebiters again.  Verily, it sucketh.  I mean, kids love me, but I'm out of practice when it comes to cat herding, so it's possible that I've been feeling a bit of that old Sunday night panic I haven't experienced since early in my Korea days.
Hint: You'll see ads like this there.

Perhaps that's why in spite of my "live for the weekend" philosophy I decided to take it easy last Saturday with a museum visit and a little light shopping.  Unfortunately, between my museum pace and all the walking I did in between, my feet didn't find it very relaxing.  To add insult to injury, I couldn't weave it into a blog post.  Well, I could have, but I value all six of my faithful readers, and if they're going to spend their time reading garbage that relies way too heavily on profanity and inappropriate jokes, the least I can do is ensure that it's well-curated garbage.

Yesterday I put together one such itinerary.  I browsed the weekend events, and was halfway tempted to go to a festival, but it was two hours away and I thought it might get old, writing about shrines and festivals all the time.  I haven't experienced temple-itis in Japan, ever, but I don't really want to start now.
Instead, I came across a listing for a "Usagi Symbol Exhibition" at a gallery in Tokyo, and since I've been a little homesick this week, I thought I'd go so Babysis could experience the fluffy cuteness vicariously.  She loves bunnies...but only the cute ones.  She and her husband have been talking about coming to visit - if this blog doesn't seal the deal, I may have to up the ante with Okunoshima, the rabbit island.  When I went to Kyoto for the very first time, I was impressed on her behalf with how many rabbit stickers and things there were, and I thought an exhibit about rabbit symbols would be interesting.
So I paid my 500 yen after waiting on the stairs outside the gallery, and was utterly disappointed to discover that the exhibit had pretty much nothing to do with rabbit symbols, but instead featured photos - admittedly, of rabbits - by a bunch of Instagrammers.  Which is not to say that they weren't completely adorable...they were.  But it wasn't what I was expecting and I'm not sure I should have spent that much money to stroke amateurs' egos (seriously - I only paid 620 yen to get into the Tokyo National Museum last week).
Once again proving that there is a manga for everyone...
I decided to follow the show up with a visit to a bunny cafe.  I don't know how much you know about animal cafes in Japan...I'm pretty sure it all started with cats.  Lots of apartments won't allow you to have pets, and someone had the brilliant idea of creating a business where people could go to get their snuggles without the responsibility of owning a pet themselves.  When I was in Tokyo in 2014 I visited one of these cat cafes, but came to the conclusion that cats just don't have the personality for that kind of work.  They're spoiled.
When I got to the bunny cafe it had been open for about 15 minutes but it already had all the customers it could handle - I was asked if I would mind waiting.  I sat down, mentally comparing it to the cat cafe.  There were a list of rules that I had to sign off on, including the fact that although I'd be wearing an apron, if the rabbits peed on me the establishment was not responsible for damages.  This place was much smaller than the cat cafe I visited before, and they had several enclosures with different rabbits you could visit in turn.
Like the cat cafe, they had profiles of their different bunnies, explaining that one was fickle (she won't care about you once the food is gone), another's charm point was his long fur.  Finally, one of the attendants came over to get me, asking if I wanted my drink now or after.  Admission includes a drink, but you can't drink it while you're with the bunnies, so I decided to wait til the end.  Sadly I missed the part where she said last call was 10 minutes before my time was up, so I didn't get my coke in the end, but life goes on.
Admission also included a small container of bunny treats.  This meant that unlike the cat cafe, the rabbits were actually interested in you.  They weren't at all shy about jumping up next to you and snuffling until they got what they wanted.  There were a few rabbits that were still in their cages - I thought maybe they had the day off, but one of the attendants showed me how to open the cage so I could pet this one.  She proceeded to lick my fingers until I took my hand back to take a photo.  I thought maybe it smelled the bunny treats on me, but when I offered her one she ignored it and started licking me again.

In case you're wondering, being licked by a rabbit is not as unnerving as you would expect.  It's pretty much as adorable and soft as the rest of the bunny.
To be honest, most of my adult experiences with rabbits involve being scared for my feet on Azhaar's toilet (when it doubled as Doog's hutch) or being scared I would be fluffocated in my sleep when sleeping on her floor.  She always claimed Doog was just a big fluffy bunny...which technically was correct, but on the other hand, I've seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  I know what rabbits are capable of.  But these guys were playful and just ridiculously cute, so it sort of made up for the stupid "art show."

Now, if I named an art show Usagi Symbol Exhibition, this is the sort of thing I would put in it.  I'm not sure what it says about Japan that they have construction barriers shaped like rabbits, but they do.  These are around the corner from my apartment, but I ran into the same kind on my way home near Kanda Station yesterday afternoon, so apparently they aren't an isolated thing.  Since I wasn't in charge of their exhibit, I'll keep it for myself here.  Leaving the rabbit cafe, I had an impulse to go looking for rabbit ears - I was in Akiba at that point and there are tons of cosplay shops, so chances are I could have rounded out my blog with that.  Another option would have been to see if any of the maid cafes were having bunny day, but I'd already decided that I would save Akiba for a time when I could do it justice.

Besides which, the last time I went into any of the shops there, I spent more money than I should have, even if it was less than I could have.  Until I get a full paycheck, I'm probably better off avoiding it.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Feet First

The alternate title for this post was "Everybody.  Dance.  Now."  While normally I would never choose anything over an Arrested Development reference, I felt like feet first made a better title for a couple of reasons.  First of all, there's the fact that my dance teacher, Azhaar, used to tell me that you should work on getting the footwork first in a choreography, that everything follows from there (not that I was very good at listening, which is why I was kind of a spaztastic dancer, but there ya go).  The second reason is that I feel like that's what I'm doing - jumping in, heedless of whether or not I'm out of my depth.  Because yesterday I decided I would visit not one, not two, but three different dance festivals happening in Tokyo.  That's just how I roll.
It started with an early roll out - the Harajuku Super Yosakoi started at 10, although I didn't get out of the house until almost 9:30.  The closest station to my apartment is Kikuna, and from there it's a straight shot up the Tokyu Toyoko Line to Meiji Jingu Mae station.  I walked up the stairs to a flashback from three and a half years ago, standing beside Omotesando, looking at the sign pointing to the Ota Museum.  I can't explain why it is comforting to be in a place you visited traveling and have it be familiar, but it is.  Following the teams in costume, I crossed the street and passed the entrance to Meiji Jingu, and almost felt tempted to walk its cool shady paths, but I caught a hint of drums and my feet carried me onwards.
When I met up randomly with Flower Boy (my dance sister's friend) at the Pikachu Outbreak, he asked if I was thinking of taking up any Japanese hobbies - his is ikebana, the art of flower arranging.  I replied that I hoped to, possibly taiko since I'd had so much fun with it last fall.  Less than ten seconds into watching my first yosakoi performance, I'd changed my mind...I wanted to be a dancer again!
I haven't really danced since I lived in Shanghai.  I miss it, but it's a little demoralizing to practice belly dance in the shape I'm in (ie, round).  Probably I should have practiced anyways, just without a mirror, but after a full day of teaching on my shitty feet, most of the time I can't even.  But yosakoi looked damn fun.  The beats of the music made my feet itch, and the dancers' passion was infectious.  I wanted to be a part of a group like that, all part of the same music.
I stood in front of the stage for a while, getting a tan line from my necklace (true story), until the smell of the food and the music being played along an avenue lured me away.  After looking at all the vendors' food, I decided what I really wanted was the biggest shaved ice I've ever seen, and they let you add your own syrup.  With my big bowl of sno-cone I followed the truck and the next group up down the avenue.  After watching a few performances, I decided I preferred the stage performances best, because you got to see the whole group at once.  But parade-style is nice too, which was reinforced when I got to Koenji station.
Of course, I didn't go directly there.  First I had to drag myself away from Super Yosakoi, which was hard - I could have stayed there all day.  I grabbed a bite to eat from the CoCo Curry close by (not station was a pretty long walk this time) at Yoyogi station, and then got on the train, but took a detour when I got to Nakano station.  See, I have fairly well restrained myself when it comes to my otaku tendencies, but there's a shopping center called Nakano Broadway with shit tons of goods, and I had to check it out.  That accomplished (with zero money spend - see?  Restraint.), I went back to the train and went one station further to the Koenji Awa Odori.
And proceeded to wait (for the record, SavvyTokyo had the right time on this one, not whatever website I'd looked at that morning).  I got there around 3:30, figured out I was early, and went to McDonald's for ice cream and a place to sit and wait.  At 5, the first group started dancing down the street.  The three events I visited were each a specific kind of dance, and the awa odori had two different kinds of dances - a men's dance, in which they crouch as they make their steps, and a woman's dance, which uses geta, the Japanese traditional shoes, kind of like a thong sandal on stilts.  Both were very similar, the feet doing a kind of step-touch, and the arm posture...well, you can see, huh?
The music they brought with them.  Each group of dancers was followed by a band, with drums, flutes, and strings.  For a second, I found myself changing my mind, thinking that I'd rather learn taiko in my "spare time."  The therapeutic value of beating the hell out of a drum can't be overestimated.
I didn't stay very long at Koenji.  My feet were dying and I still had one more event to go, so I excused my way through the crowds up to the train platform.  From there, I got a bird's eye view of the street where I'd just been standing.
Have I mentioned lately that I hate crowds?  Because that for sure is a crowd, but while I stood at the side of the street, it didn't feel that crowded.  There was no pushing, and I was pretty close to the front, so except for this guy who kept sticking his head in my shots, I didn't mind at all.  It helped that the streets wound around in a figure eight, so the bazillion people who came weren't all trying to crowd into the same area, but I still write it off to Japanese civility.  I've lived in other places (which will remain unnamed) where smaller crowds had much greater potential to trigger.  Just sayin'.
My third and final dance festival was the Bon Odori in Hibiya Park.  Although I hate crowds, the thing that really made me want to stay home - or go back there early - was the heat.  I basically hadn't fully dried out since I first arrived at Harajuku that morning, and when I got to Hibiya Park, it was after 6.  From the first dancer I saw I wondered how they could dance in those costumes in such heat - it was crazy!  I decided another shaved ice was in order, this one possibly even bigger than the first.  The lady who was making it just kept putting more on there, layered with syrup.  I kind of loved her for that.
I got there just in time for the start of the dancing, which took place around Hibiya Park's focal point, a worked really well to have everyone dance around it, sparkling with color in the dark.  It was really cool to watch it go from one stream of dancers to a river, within the space of a few minutes.  People would just join in, and I almost joined them.  It was a fairly simple dance, and I think I could have followed along, but suddenly, being there alone, I felt shy...

Shut up.  I'm actually far less likely to do wild and crazy things when I'm alone.  It means there's no one there to bail me out (legally, mentally...whatever the case may be), so I sat it out, at least for this year.
After my shaved ice and a kebab (not really Japanese festival food, but I didn't care - it was tasty), and watching the dancers for a while, I was ready to head home.  I sat for a minute to rest my feet before walking to the train (which was only 4 stops from Akiba, but I was too dead to even consider it), and an obaasan sat down and talked to me.  We talked about the dancing, yukata (the cotton kimono everyone was wearing), the English lessons she takes at a church (she's not a member, but they are really nice to her), my job as an art teacher, and the fine arts lessons she took when she was much younger, which were not very expensive, before I finally begged out.  So mark that down as my third "outside my comfort zone" moment of the day...look at all the progress I'm making!

Seriously, though...I hate it.  I don't know the kids, I don't have any friends, it's hot and humid, I don't know the food well enough (which is why we won't talk about how many times I've eaten at CoCo Curry in the last three weeks), I'm still figuring out what the heck I can fix with just one gas burner and where to shop for groceries that I know what to do with, my school uses spreadsheets for all of their planning is seriously a drag adjusting to all of this shit!  During my bus duty - which lasts an hour and involves supervising anklebiters screaming and running around and kicking balls all over the place - I might have been cursing myself for leaving Mongolia, I miss it so much.  The rational part of my brain keeps reminding me that UB wasn't easy when I first got there - and neither was anywhere else I've been - but most of all this feels like when I first got to Korea.  I was homesick, I didn't know what to eat, none of my coworkers reached out to me - hell, my Dark Lord and Master scared the shit out of me for four months! - and I was definitely not prepared to teach a bunch of anklebiters.  However, I came to love it so much that I went back three times, and each time leaving was harder than the last.  Maybe it's not a sign of anything that this feels the same...but maybe it is.  That's where my hopes are, anyways.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Artful Adventures: Wa No Akari

In The Gospel According to the Evil One, my best friend explains that, "Going to museums is totally a worthy Sabbath day activity."  Apparently at BYU she had a professor who was a stake president or something who even told her so.  Although I'm not exactly the best Mormon ever, I am actually trying (because somebody named Me promised she would if God did her the favor of helping me get this job, and even if I'm not the best Mormon ever, I kind of do take that sort of thing seriously).  At the same time, I'm not quite ready to go full tilt, especially when the Evil One has given me a great justification for spending my Sundays in museums, so I've decided that after church gets out each week, I'm working my way through Tokyo's vast array of art institutions and exhibitions.

(For the record, no, The Gospel According to the Evil One is not an actual book, but if I ever find myself writing her memoirs, I'm totally calling it that.)
My first adventure was to the Wa No Akari.  For the past few years it's celebrated Japan's celebrations  (festivals) and crafts in the Hyakudan Kaidan, a registered tangible cultural property built in the 1930s as Tokyo's first dedicated wedding venue.  This year the focus was on Japan's colors and designs.  But after I learned about it, I promptly forgot exactly what it was about, just remembering that I wanted to go.

Words don't really do it justice, anyways.
Beyond "that looks cool," I'm not sure what I was expecting.  When they gave me a bag for my shoes, I kind of knew it was going to involve a proper Japanese building.  Then I got into the swankiest elevator I've been in my whole life (and also one of the biggest).  After taking off my shoes, I found myself at the bottom of 100 stairs, on each of which resided a kokeshi doll, and at intervals, led off into rooms.  And in the rooms...
Well, for starters, the rooms themselves were priceless works of art.  I would normally never say that covering every surface with decoration was tasteful, but somehow they pulled it off.  If I'd needed confirmation that I've actually arrived, that I'm in Japan, after all, this would be it.
Knowing now, after the fact, that they were representing festivals through Japan's crafts, the whole experience makes a lot more sense.  Walking through it, though, I found myself thinking that this wasn't an art exhibition in the truest sense - it was a series of installations.

My first experience with installations was at the Joslyn Art Museum - Babysis and I used to check out whatever they had displayed when I came home from college, and that trip it was Sandy Skoglund.  Walking up to the actual room she created for Revenge of the Goldfish actually made me laugh - it was that beautiful, and I felt like I was interacting with the art more fully than when you walk through a room full of paintings.

I got the same feeling walking through the Wa No Akari.  The paper cuts in the above picture were arranged in a room that had been carpeted in astroturf, creating the feeling that you were actually deep in a forest, surrounded by animals.  There were definite displays, but overall I felt immersed in the works of art, surrounded by them.

Nearing the top was a room that had ceramics in it.  I heard a flute playing, and realized it was the soundtrack to a video.  And then I realized that the video was an animation, made with images glazed in cobalt on porcelain, and I had to watch the thing several times.  It was actually that cool.  My favorite part, which you have to watch carefully to see, is that the flute player's facial expression changes.
The Wa No Akari is also meant to be an illumination.  This is another one of my favorite things about Japan - they light that shit up.  Last fall I got to see one of these at Kodai-Ji, the temple grounds lit up at night to show off the trees in all their glory (okay, so it wasn't that glorious yet...I felt like I was about a week too early).  They also do it for the sakura in spring, and in winter, too...but summer seems like it wouldn't be a great time, since it's light out so late.  This isn't a problem is you have a nice, dark room, though.  The festival lanterns were great, but the lit up leaves were actually my favorites.
The final room, at the very top, was full of windchimes, and I kind of thought my heart would stop.  I've been a sucker for windchimes ever since my childhood - my grandparents had one on the patio outside their house, and even now I can hear the sound of it, and feel the summer heat, and hear the cicadas singing in the trees.  These are a different kind of windchime, but their sound made me feel at home, especially when I returned to reality, stepping out of the hotel into the summer heat, to be greeted by the song of cicadas.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Shout it Out!

Not since my first six months in Korea have I lived for the weekend.  Back then, I didn't feel like I had much choice - I didn't know any of my fellow teachers well enough to want to hang out with them, so it was my Mormon friends who kept me going that whole time.  The end of February that year we got an infusion of new blood at GDA, and those teachers - particularly my Missouri homegirl Sara - transformed my expat life.

Ever since then, I've had a pretty good work-life balance, finding friends to play games with or try out new restaurants on weeknights, and not just on the weekends.  Hopefully that will be the case here, too, but until I find my feet socially, I at least have no intention of letting my weekends go to waste.
I've written about how sometimes it is ridiculously difficult to find out about upcoming events in Mongolia.  In Japan, it seems to be the opposite.  Last Monday Savvy Tokyo published a list of events in the area this weekend.  I felt totally spoiled - would I go to a jazz festival?  Dance in the streets of Minami-Koshigaya?  In the end, though, I decided that what I really wanted was to attend a yelling contest in Yokosuka.
Now, in spite of being jam packed with people - or perhaps because of that exact thing - Japan is actually a fairly tranquil, quiet place.  Case in point, practical knowledge gained from watching anime #1: you shouldn't practice music in your apartment.  This came up in orientation and I thought, "Aha, I know that one."  Even talking on your phone on the train is frowned on.  So the kind of crazy screams I used to let loose riding my little dirt bike around the farm in Excelsior are pretty much a no-go...unless you were at Myozoji Temple in Yokosuka yesterday.

In theory Yokohama is a great place to be, and everything is relatively close together.  By American standards, for sure.  However, in practice, the 41km (25 miles) separating me from my first temple this go-round took 1.5 hours to transverse (or they would have, if I'd actually gotten off when Google Maps told me to, instead of deciding that I was fine taking the express train all the way to Shioiri Station.  Dumbass).  When I woke up yesterday, I questioned whether or not I actually wanted to go all that way, but the whole point of living in Japan is that I'm already here for all of these experiences, so I decided I could be lazy another day.

Registration started at 10, but it was almost 11 by the time I got there, thanks to my detour.  To my relief, it actually wasn't as crowded as I'd feared - it may only be two weeks since I got here, but even in that short time I've seen some crowds, man.  I'm not sure if that was because it was off the beaten path or because it was Too Darn Hot...

Actually, I'm beginning to think I have superpowers.  The past week was almost pleasant.  I mean, once you got past the rain, and I didn't actually mind the rain since, you know, vampire...  And then last night, after whinging about how hot it was a huge storm blew in and I was able to open the windows and get by with just the fan.  I'm sure nobody would be surprised if I actually turned out to be a mutant, but there ya go.
There was a tent where participants registered, receiving a number for their turn.  Another tent had chairs set up underneath, although most people were milling around the temple grounds.  My number 1 favorite part of the festival, though, was that they had a booth handing out shaved ice - for free!  Or if it wasn't free, they didn't ask me for money, so hey!  In the last two weeks I have improved my Japanese abilities by 0%, but I already knew the Japanese word for strawberry - thanks again to my anime obsession! - and if it wasn't the most delicious thing I've tasted in the last two weeks, I don't know what was.

There was also a stamp rally for the kids.  They had tiles to paint and crawdads to fish for, and probably one or two other things that I couldn't figure out because I've been living in Japan for two weeks and I still only know 3 kanji.  Suffice it to say that like almost everything in Japan, it was kid friendly.

The main event, though, was the yelling contest.  Participants stood on the front porch of the temple, in front of a microphone, and shouted whatever they wanted, as loud as they wanted.  The temple was surrounded by a cemetery, so no worries about bothering the neighbors.  I recognized "OTOUSAN!" and "OKAASAN!" in a couple of the shouts, and wondered if maybe they were yelling to their deceased parents - this week was the Obon Festival, which welcomes back the souls of departed ancestors.

The microphone wasn't for making sure they were heard, though - most people didn't need any help with that!  They had some kind of measurement going on, I'm guessing decibels, and after each person finished their shout, we all looked at the score to see how loud they were.  My favorites were the macho guys who thought they'd been super loud, only to get beat by an old obaasan (granny).  The crowd responded with laughter, and in spite of being incredibly hot and having everyone yelling their hearts out, and the mood was light and happy, which I needed after spending the week reading about everything going on back home.

If I had chosen to participate in the contest, I would have had plenty to yell about.  As it was, I thought my pent up anger about my batshit crazy countrymen might put me at a distinct advantage.  Instead, I found myself wishing I was home, to counterprotest this insanity and add my voice to everyone else's saying, "This is wrong.  This is not what our country is about."  Instead, I'm half a world away, and I just hope that at some point I'll be able to make a difference.

When I first moved abroad - thinking it was only for a year, hahaha - that was my justification, that when I came home I would be able to share a broader perspective with my students.  I'm not sure anymore if I'll ever go home, and if I do whether I want to deal with the enormous shit-storm that constitutes teaching in the good ol' US of A, but I still hope that all my years as a prodigal will teach someone something, even if it's only the niblings.

Til then, Japan has it's everyday delights to balance out the everyday frustrations.  Walking back from the temple, I came across a little walking path criss-crossing a stream, and instead of hurrying to get on the bus back to the station, I took the stairs down and walked along it.  This is the kind of discovery that speaks to my soul - a little slice of nature hidden between the jumbles of houses.