Saturday, October 22, 2016

Arts 'n Crass

(Alternate Title:  Dye Another Day)
(Other Alternate Title:  Another Fun Thing to Do with Hot Wax!)

I love being an art teacher.  I love having the skills to make cool shit, and understanding what went into the making of other peoples' cool shit.  Sometimes I wanna laugh all the way to the bank on payday, because I have the best fucking job in the world.  Spend time with smart-ass teenagers showing them how to make their cool shit even better and get paid for it?  That's not even "work."  They say find a job you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life.  I don't know if I can say that's true - there are days when I run myself ragged, no matter how much I love it - but it's a pretty kickass situation.
I almost always hit up art museums on vacation.  It's my equivalent of meeting new people (and, in my opinion, a much better option, since you never have to feel awkward about not keeping in contact with a paintng...or deal with a painting that just won't stop trying to contact you).  However, it's only been within the last few years that I started making art when I travel.  I sometimes drew in my sketchbook or journal, but by and large I didn't learn new techniques or traditions.  That all changed when I took the brats to Istanbul, and ever since, I've tried to find some sort of workshop to do on my journeys.  Kyoto, however, beats them all.  I am spoiled for choice, to the point where I struggled to decide what I really wanted to do.
What I decided on, in the end, was a dyeing workshop and printmaking.  Dyeing because I've been jealous of Blondie's noren ever since she first invited me to her apartment, and I love the indigo fabrics, ai-zome.  Printmaking because I LOVE ukiyo-e prints.  The dyeing workshop took place at Yamamoto Roketsu Studio, which is in a small neighborhood in Western Kyoto that very fortunately I could get to with one bus, just down the street from the house.  It cost me 3,000 yen to make my own little curtains, which seemed pretty reasonable to me.  You could also make a pillowcase, wall hanging, t-shirt - there were lots of choices in what to dye...and even more choices in patterns.  They had animals, plants, subjects from the aforementioned, much adored Japanese prints, but my decision was made long ago - one of the photos on their website showed a Totoro design.  I just introduced the niblings to My Neighbor Totoro this year (yes, in English.  It's blasphemy to watch dubbed anime, but Disney does a pretty good job with the voice-overs, and the niblings don't read enough to introduce them to give them subtitles), and they all loved it...and I love them, so a little something to remind me of them on the other side of the world.
Once you have your design and your cloth, you create a dye resist (called roketsuzome) using melted wax.  It's very similar to batik - paint or stamp the wax on, and then dye it.  There are techniques that yield different results, though.  I was told to paint all the lines.  Then I had to paint them again to make purer white areas.  Then I painted a little more wax in some places to get a lighter shade of blue when it was dyed.  Finally, my sensei looked at it and said I could dye it.
He had me trade my Chucks for rubber boots, hung an apron around me, and put me in arm protectors and rubber gloves.  This seemed a little overkill to my devil-may-care art teacher heart (put an apron on a kid and they feel like you've just given them permission to make a mess), but then, I really didn't want blue hands for the next few days, so...  We soaked my white cloth and then dumped it into the black-as-night vat of dye, the surface speckled with bits of cast off wax.  He showed me how to manipulate the cloth within the vat, but something must have been lost in translation, because when he saw me later, he said that I was stirring it too fast, and the cracks in the wax would be to big.  With all the changes you could make, I really wanted to live here, so I could come back every month or two to try things differently.
It took a while for the dye to properly soak in, and then it was "washed" (sort of), left to oxidize (it looks kind of greenish when it comes out of the dye), boiled to get the wax out, washed (for real, with lye or some other agent), ironed, and finally, the little red ribbon thing was stitched into the middle.  My noren was finished - I'm pretty proud of the design I created, even if the execution could probably use a little work.
That was then...This is now.
The Kamigata Ukiyo-E Museum is actually a place I've walked past before.  In July 2008 Azhaar had a workshop in Osaka, and brought me along as her assistant.  At night, we wandered Shinsaibashi, having ice cream and taking weird pictures.  This was one of those pictures.  When I started looking for a printmaking experience in Kyoto, I saw that cat again, in one of the prints the Kamigata Museum offers to have you make.  I went back and checked the photo again and, sure enough, it's the same cat.
Printmaking was my favorite art form in college - after all the work you put in, you can make multiple original pieces of art.  However, I mostly worked with intaglio printing, which pulls the ink out of the marks you put on a metal plate.  I worked on one woodblock project, which never got finished, although I did linocuts before and since, being the kind of printmaking most accessible for art teachers (never trust a teenager with acid).  But one of my favorite art styles is ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock printmaking.  You can think of it as a gateway drug to anime, if you see the same fantastic use of color and brilliant compositions in each.  So I'm fairly familiar with the subject, if not an expert.
Well, two years ago when I went to Tokyo, I managed to make it to the Ota Museum, which has a pretty spectacular collection.  They had a very nice display about the process of creating a print from beginning to end - first the artist designs it, then a specialist creates the woodblocks from the artist's designs, and finally, the printer does his part.  This is different from how I was raised as a printmaker...I did the designing, I did the cutting, and I did the printing.  It is also different in the tools that are used.  In the west, we apply our inks with brayers.  The Japanese use a variety of brushes.  Yesterday I got to do the printers job and use the tools firsthand.  The Kamigata Museum offers three different printmaking experiences - beginner, intermediate, and advanced - and since I wasn't sure about my skill level as an ukiyo-e printer, I chose all three.  This took less than an hour, and with admission to the museum cost 2,800 yen.
The museum itself was not huge.  Its focus is on Osaka prints, which are different from the more famous Edo prints because they focus almost exclusively on Kabuki, rather than pretty girls and landscapes.  The area where the museum is now was once a huge theater district, and the actors were the superstars of their day.  Since artists gotta eat, their work reflects this.  Most of the explanations are in English, and although it is a small collection, I found it to be really well curated.

The printmaking workshop took place on the fourth floor, in a tatami room decorated with photos of the old theater district.  There is a little coloring station, and when I made it up there, a girl was coloring while her mom was watching a video (fun fact I learned from the video - a huge, full-color 3-panel print back in the late 1800's cost the same as a bowl of noodles.  If you've ever wondered how these pieces of art ended up as packing material in boxes sent to Europe - which is how Western artists became exposed to them - now you know.  They were super cheap).  After my teacher had set out the materials - we used acrylic paint, rather than ink.  I'm assuming it's because acrylic dries hellafast, but she didn't speak English, so I couldn't ask - and I'd started my first print, I had to look over and see what she was doing, because I felt the table shake.  And then I realized it wasn't just the table - the whole building was shaking.  There were three waves of shaking, and then nothing.  Life went on.  I tried asking if that had been an earthquake, but the small amount of Japanese I've gleaned from anime doesn't include the right words.  Later on, when I met up with the Kawaii Kid, he asked if I'd felt it. Apparently in Japan you get texts when there's an earthquake - at the epicenter it was 6.0, according to his intelligence.  I've been present for earthquakes before - in Italy, Beijing, and even Mongolia - but never actually noticed.  I don't think that this is the sort of experience people hope to have on vacation, but I liked having it.  If I can manage to work here, it's one I will probably have again, so it's good to know what it is like.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Ninjas and Nara

One of the students who is responsible for sending me down the rabbit hole of anime was absolutely in love with a certain character, which even if you're not a fan of anime, you may have heard of - Naruto.  So much so that she called herself Mrs. Uzumaki - which seems like a perfect code name if she shows up in the blog again.  She wanted me to watch it, and I did, starting with the second part of the anime, Naruto Shippuuden, but I just couldn't get into it.  A year and countless memes and references later, I decided to give it another shot, but started at the beginning, and this time I got it.  Naruto was awesome, although not my favorite character (that would be the super-sexy sensei, Kakashi...we could get together and read dirty books together all day...but I digress...)
When I went to Tokyo in 2014, I learned about a ninja village that I wanted to go to but didn't have the time.  This time around, I still didn't have the time, but instead there's a Ninja Dojo in Kyoto, which I found on TripAdvisor, and having been converted to Naruto and his way of ninja, it was definitely on my list.  I was a little nervous about the dress-up part of the experience, because my body is definitely not shaped like a ninja's...except for Chouji (and if you get that reference, congratulations, you're my new favorite reader).  However, they made it work.  It might have been a little harder if I hadn't worn black like they suggested, but I just happen to have a black knitted shirt that I've been occasionally casual cosplaying without anyone noticing.  Well, until Ichikawa Sensei noticed that we were sort of wearing the same shirt.
We started with bowing and ninja meditation, which involved some hand signs which seemed vaguely familiar.  I always just assumed the hand signs in Naruto were a made up part of ninja lore, but apparently not.  During our meditation, Ichikawa Sensei also talked about breathing in the energy of nature and concentrating it in your abdomen.  I might have totally fangirled if he'd called it chakra, but fortunately I was spared that indignity.

Meditation is all well and good, but I was looking forward most to some truly badass ninja stuff, and they delivered.  Sensei showed us some of the features of ninja dojos, such as the revolving door and hidden weapons, and then we got to use the weapons.  Ninja sword was first, and probably my favorite weapon.  We learned how to draw, slash, and then flick off the imaginary blood of our imaginary enemies, before sheathing our swords.  They weren't sharp, which was a very good thing, because at one point I sort of forgot where my thumb was while sheathing my sword, and I would have sliced it right off, otherwise.

Next we learned how to hold and slash with a kunai, the main advantage of which is that the enemy never sees it coming.  This was a little disappointing for me, because in Naruto they are throwing those things, all over the place, and I was picturing myself doing something kind of like this:
Using shuriken, or throwing stars, made up for this, though.  That was a lot of fun, and not as difficult as I thought it would be.  Aiming them was difficult, but I hit the board and got them to stick, most of the time.  They weren't really sharp...but if you hurl something with enough force, it doesn't have to be.
My best weapon was the blowgun though.  It was relatively easy to aim and shoot, even from the back of the dojo.  It's too bad that it doesn't look super cool, or else I might have found enough words to justify putting it in.  As it is, I'm about to fall asleep, so I'll move on.  By the way, all the photos I've used above were taken by the assistant at the dojo, whose name I didn't catch, but she did an excellent job.  They were provided as part of the experience.  If you're interested in ninjas, or Naruto, or hell, you just need a break from shrine-going, I highly recommend it - it was a lot of fun.
My...underbrats?  That seems like a good term for my younger favorite class.  My underbrats contain a significant number of Naruto fans, and this has probably contributed to their ability to steal the number 2 spot (along with their overall intelligence and ability to banter).  One of the things I love about this series is that there are so many interesting characters, and people are fans of more than just the two main characters.  One of my top underbrats likes the smart-albeit-lazy character, Shikamaru, who is a member of the Nara clan, who have a special bond with deer.
I took a great deal of pleasure in telling him that I was going to visit the city of Nara, which is famous for their park where tame deer have been living for over a thousand years.  They were really funny - you are only allowed to feed them special deer crackers, which are for sale every block or so for 150 yen, but they don't last long.  They look about as appetizing as a rice cracker (so, not at all), but the deer love the shit out of those things, and once they know you've got them, they will butt you with their head and even chase after you to get their fix.
I talked to Blondie at one point about my regret that I didn't get to see them the last time I went to Kyoto, and she said that she'd seen "the creepy deer."  Admittedly, it is a little creepy to see deer waiting for stoplights and using the crosswalks.  However, I didn't think they were that creepy until I remembered the part in Naruto where the deer actually play a part...watching over a defeated, undying enemy with those unblinking eyes.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Shrine Maiden, Part 2

(Alternate title: I'm Too Tired to Come Up With a New Witty Title Tonight)

When I went to Kyoto the first time, everything I did was secondary to Gion and its geiko.  Back then, I was a relatively simplistic traveler; I went to interesting sites and took pictures.   These days I try to be more diverse in my interests (in spite of what I said yesterday about having a theme).  If you'd held a gun to my head before this trip and asked me what I was most looking forward to, I'm not sure I could have told you*.   While I was planning it out, I sat down and wrote up a list of the things I saw, eleven years ago: Gion Corner, Yasaka Jinja, Kiyomizu Dera, Fushimi-Inari-Taisha, Ryoan-Ji, Nijo Castle.  Only one of those places - the Inari shrine in Fushimi - was potentially on my list this time.  It wasn't that I didn't love the things I did's just that there is so much more to see.  I remember thinking, in the wayback, that three days was not enough.  Now I have a week, and I find it's still not enough.
"Self-Portrait with Bamboo"

One thing I didn't realize I was missing out on before was all the good shit around Arashiyama.  I had since learned, thanks to the very visual nature of the internet.  Monkeys, bamboo, a kimono forest, and moss-covered statues were promised by my research...and then I found out that there's a...ritual?  Historical reenactment?  Little bit of both???  Whatever you call it - there's a thing that happens there every year, memorializing the days when noble families would send their daughters to become shrine maidens.  So I was down for the 16th.

And then I found this really cool waterfall shrine that is supposedly in the hills northwest of Arashiyama, and I decided that I had to go, even IF IT KILLS ME.  So I got up at the buttcrack of dawn, hightailed it out of my airBnB, and caught the very conveniently located bus to Arashiyama.  The 93 bus let me off very close to the Nonomiya shrine, which was awesome, because it was the starting point of the Saigu Procession as well as the starting point I gave Google Maps for my route to Kuya no-Taki.  Google told me it would take me one hour and ten minutes on foot, which meant that I would have plenty of time to get back before the procession started at noon.  I hopped off the bus and was ready to start hoofing it when the bus driver honked at me...I'd forgotten to put my wallet back in my backpack, and the couple getting off the bus behind me had turned it in.

Oops.  Well, at least I found out firsthand that this experiment really is indicative of Japanese honesty, and had a chance to practice my "Arigato!"

Anyways, I walked uphill.  And walked some more.  I "found" Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji, which was one of the places I wanted to visit, halfway along my route, and decided I'd better see it after the waterfall, just in case I ran out of time.  And then I started walking DOWNhill, and through a tunnel.  This was not the most welcome change of pace, because I was really looking forward to having the return trip be easy.  I don't do well with uphills at the end, and my cousin wasn't here to rescue me again.  Fortunately, at the end of the tunnel I found the Kiyotaki bus stop, so I planned that I would take that back.  Which was good, because I'd already been hiking for an hour, and Google said there was still a long ways to go.

Two things Google may not have fully taken into account.  First, I'm fat.  When I hiked the Tiger's Nest in Bhutan, I trained for it.  And by trained for it, I mean that I hiked like twice in the months before I went.  This time, I hadn't hiked since the family reunion, and although I have been walking every morning, it's not exactly strenuous.  Secondly, the route is all uphill from Kiyotaki.  Now, in theory, Google knew this, because there are topo lines on the map, but I don't think he really took it into account.  At least, that's what I want to believe, because the alternative is that I'm even lazier than I think.

Either way, when I should have been at the waterfall 30 minutes ago, I began to wonder if maybe, maybeee I should head back.  But what if it was just around the corner?  That would haunt me forever.  So I asked one of the many, many hikers who was passing me if we were close to the waterfall.  "Waterfall?" he asked, puzzled.  I showed him the spot I had marked on Google maps - which was in Japanese, so the language barrier can suck it - and he consulted with his son.  And his phone.  As his consternation got worse, undoubtedly because he really, really wanted to help this stupid gaijin but had no idea what to say, I realized I must have made a horrible mistake.  Finally he said, very apologetically, that there wasn't a waterfall this way.  Maybe it was another trail.
"Umm.  Yeah.  I should be getting back to town anyway, I don't want to miss the procession.  Arigato!" says one of the bigger idiots in the world.  And sure enough, at the base of the trail, I realized where I'd made my mistake.  If I had followed Google's directions exactly, I probably wouldn't have missed my actual turn off, but someone just had to walk across the pretty bridge and see the river flowing underneath.  To be entirely fair to myself, it was a pretty spectacular view, even if I haven't done it justice (it has been an awkward week.  I have come to the realization that I am not contributing equally to my relationship...with my camera.  It does all the work and I never push its buttons).
I made it back to Kiyotaki bus stop just in time for the 10 am bus to Arashiyama.  I looked at the route and thought it might stop by Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji, but I wasn't entirely sure - the names didn't quite match.  What the hell, I thought, I'd see if it was the same, and if not, I'd chill out in Arashiyama until the procession started.  The bus pulled up to a very narrow tunnel through the mountain, which it turns out would have cut at least a half hour off my walk, but luckily I didn't know that so I got to save up my stupid decision making for last night's burst of idiocy.  On the other side...voila!  Nenbutsu-Ji and it's thousand (not exaggerating - it's actually 1,200), moss-covered Rakan statues.  This is a temple that was built and rebuilt and rebuilt again, most recently between 1981 and 1991.  Rakan are Buddha's disciples, and all of these were carved by worshippers who supported the restoration (if that little string of factoids sounds uncharacteristically factual, it's because I'm paraphrasing the pamphlet that they gave me when I paid my admission fee).  The thing that I really loved was how each Rakan had a very different, unique personality.  The amount of expression carved into each statue was brilliant - take these three, for example.  You can totally tell they are sleepy, happy, and dopey.
After leaving there, I tried to make it back to the Nonomiya Shrine relatively quickly.  It was hard, because there were a lot of little shops along the way selling stuff that was really cute and it's hard to say no to cute in Japan...they do it really well.  However, I didn't want to be that poor, unfortunate soul who can't see anything or even move because they got to the party too late.  The procession thing was supposed to start at 12, and it was around 11:30  by then.  I started down the path between the bamboo groves, and figured out pretty quickly that I was almost at the shrine by all the participants in their very cool costumes.
With all the anime I have watched in the last two years, I have seen a lot of the different kinds of clothing, but it was damn cool to see it in real life.  There was a ritual portion of the program happening inside the shrine, but thanks to the jackass in front of me (who has yet to realize that your camera is steadier when you tuck in your damn elbows!  I can at least do that for my Big Gun) I couldn't really see, so I moved a little forward so that I'd at least be able to see people as they walked past.  The two ladies in front of me were both quite short, so that worked out well, and I enjoyed watching everybody making last-minute fixes as they prepared for the procession.
Finally, all the chanting and bowing and everything else inside the shrine finished up, and the princess came out in her fancy pants kimono to get inside the palanquin.  The carriers hoisted her up and pointed her in different directions, I'm guessing so that everyone could get a good look.  And then everyone set off, parade style.  They walked through the bamboo groves and along the street I arrived on, til they got to the river, where she was scheduled to perform a cleansing ritual.  I, however, was dead tired, and the bus was coming up the street.  I figured the monkeys and kimono forest and the onsen and anything else appealing about Arashiyama could wait for another day...or another trip.

*Lies!  All lies!  I was most looking forward to a shopping trip in Osaka with my favorite former student.  It is NOT a good thing that we are getting paid tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Shrine Maiden

It occurs to me that if my life were a novel...let's say a light novel, being in Japan and all...the theme would be "experiencing things that can't be seen."  This strikes me as ironic, considering how much I love taking pictures, but still I've written before about the fact that most of what I do - in travel as well as other aspects of my life - has a spiritual theme to it.  My favorite anime almost all include aspects of higher powers.  If you extend this to include fantasy, then basically everything of any nature I willingly choose to read or watch is included.  I even take my history with a healthy dose of mythology - who needs hard facts and evidence when you can spin tales of the gods?  What can I say?  Mundane reality is kind of boring.
Today I decided I would go to one of Kyoto's bajillion shrines - literally.  Sunday afternoon a couple of foreigners stopped to ask me where the shrine was and I had to stop myself from laughing in their faces.  Shrine?  Which one???? -  that I missed eleven years ago.  Daigo-Ji is more than a little off the beaten track, its mountain being tucked behind already-off-the-track Fushimi-Inari-Taisha.  But then I saw a shot of this scene, and decided I had to go.  That is way too gorgeous to pass up.  Sadly, the fall colors haven't hit their high note yet.  Engrish got me all fired up talking about some thing she'd seen on the interwebs about Kyoto's fall foliage, and I was hoping to see some of it, but by and large the party hasn't started.  Still, totally worth it.
There is a final ticket booth before you enter the area leading up to that scene.  (I assume the pamphlet they gave me explains what that building is, but I got better things to do than read brochures on vacation, so I guess I'm going to keep calling it that).  After you buy your ticket, or have it torn, if you bought it already, you enter this densely wooded grove.  When I stepped inside, I was hot and sweaty - the sun had been beating down and October in Kyoto feels a lot like July in Ulaanbaatar.  As I walked up the path, suddenly a chill breeze blew toward me, and when I stepped out of the grove at the other end, the skies were cloudy.
It felt as it I had stepped into a different world, one where scenes like this are actually possible.  I wanted to lie down in the sun on that patch of moss and pull it over me like a blanket, build a house there and start raising baby Totoros.  The amount of beautiful places like this that exist in or around Kyoto is mind-blowing.
Finding things to do in the evening is always a challenge for me, and when I found myself pondering what to do tonight, I came up with a genius plan...I was going to go to yet ANOTHER off-the-beaten-track shrine place.  I didn't think I was going to get to go to Kibune, but having nothing better to do, I decided dinner, a shrine visit, and a soak in the onsen was in order.  Thus, I hopped the train bound for Kurama, getting off at the Kibune stop, and walked over to the bus stop that would take me up the hill.  It was 5:24.  The last bus came at 5:24.  I counted myself lucky and headed on up to the village, admiring all the waterfalls along the narrow, poorly lit road along the way.
I walked up to the shrine, figuring I'd have dinner at a restaurant so it could get good and dark before I started shooting.  Except, all the restaurants seemed to be closed.  Kibune is famous for their kawadoko restaurants, set up on platforms over the river that keep you nice and cool during the summer.  Unfortunately, summer is behind us, the amount I have sweated in the last few days notwithstanding, so they were all closed.  Nevermind, I told myself, I've survived all day on a single cookie - I'll manage a while longer.  I went ahead and took my photos, and started walking back down the hill, til I got to Kibune onsen, which the bus had passed on it's way up.  It was nice, but small, with only 5 pools.  Since I was the only one there, I wasn't too bothered, but it probably gets crowded when it's not 6pm on a Tuesday night in October.
Alright now, here's where it gets interesting.

Actually, it gets boring from here.  Mom, if you've been reading this, you should stop now.  I left the onsen all fresh and clean, walked outside, and - poof! - I was back in central Kyoto.

Is she gone???  Cause actually, it got a little scary then.  See, the bus wasn't running anymore.  I was way the fuck up on the side of a mountain, in the deep, dark woods, with a decently long, poorly-lit road running alongside a rushing creek between me and the train station.  AND I have been reading this sort of creepy urban fantasy book for the last week or so, with nasty things lurking in the dark trying to kill each other.  This was either a terrible time to have an overactive imagination...or a good one, I guess, if you want to look at it that way.  I can't remember all of the 23rd Psalm, but I remember that good shit about, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me."  And it seemed entirely apropos all of a sudden.  When that started to feel repetitive, I started singing hymns.  It probably says something about my spiritual state that I have forgotten a fair number of words, but then, how many songs can you sing perfectly with all the words?  That's what I thought.  And then - hallelujah! - a very nice Japanese lady pulled her car over and asked if I would like a ride?  But what the fuck did I do?  I told her it was okay.

Yes, you read that right.  I literally fucking - excuse my language, this was supposed to be some sort of spiritual post and it has degraded into profanity, but I can't express my sheer idiocy without it - I literally fucking told her, "It's okay."  Now up to that point, it had been okay.  The road wasn't perfectly well lit but there were street lights pretty regularly and no monsters had jumped out of the woods to devour my soul.  But just around that corner, there were no lights.  The road continued to wind.  The station was not right there like I suppose I must have thought it was - I felt like I'd been walking for a while.  So she drove off and when I realized what I'd just educators we say, "You made a bad choice."  And then the praying really got intense, alternating with me freaking out on myself a little.

I believe there is a lesson there for me about making bad fucking choices and how it leads to walking in the dark, but I try not to get too religious on my blog, so we'll leave it where I'm most comfortable - with profanity.  Which probably demonstrates said lesson in some way, but again, I'll leave it at that.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Hit the Ground Drumming

I have dumb luck.  There is no other way to explain the fact that things sometimes just go incredibly right for me.  My visit to Hiraoka Jinja, fresh off the plane from Mongolia via Korea, is an excellent example of this.  I almost didn't go.  My flight out of Ulaanbaatar was at 11:55 pm, after a full day of teaching and tying up various loose ends at home.  I arrived in Osaka at about 11:20 the next day, and I had a suitcase and a heavy backpack to lug around with me.  By the time I changed trains in Namba, I was pretty convinced it was a waste of my time.  Most likely the drumming part of it would be long over with before I got there.  Most likely, I would have to lug my suitcase up a hill, and I kind of hate hills.  Probably I should've headed to Kyoto and taken a nap, but I told my airBnB host that I would get to his house around 6, and I was afraid if I came earlier that he wouldn't be there.  So I went anyway.
There's always money in the banana stand...
I got off the train and followed the crowd to the festival area.  It was creeping up on 2 by then, and sensing no excitement - other than the pulse of a crowd eating street food and playing games - I figured I actually HAD missed it.  It was way too relaxed for giant floats with drums up top to come beating down the street.  But that was honestly okay - I felt like I was in my own anime, or would be if I only had a yukata. I had been too eager to get there to stop for lunch at the airport, so I snacked on all sorts of treats: kara-age, the best damn gyoza I think I've ever had, and cotton candy, because apparently I am still a child.  I was pretty satisfied with that, but I figured I should at least see the shrine.  I rolled myself and my suitcase up the hill, but stopped short of actually climbing up to the shrine - it may have  been a short flight of stairs, but my suitcase was heavy.  Instead, I performed my ablutions at a fountain shaped like a deer, with the water flowing from his horns.
As I was checking out the shrine area, I realized that there were an abnormal amount of people sitting around.  As if waiting for something.  I barely had time to wonder if maybe, maybe that meant the drums were still to come when I heard a deep thump.  I found myself a place to sit comfortably - after all, I still had several hours before I was due at my airBnB, and eventually got to see the drums of Hiraoka Matsuri.  I called them giant floats before, but that really don't begin to describe these monsters.  You know how in the old days special people used to get carted around in palanquins?  Well, this was kind of like that - the drummers were riding these enormous palanquins, being heaved up the hill by a shit ton of people.  The same hill that I was previously grumbling a little about because I had my suitcase.  Am I a baby or what?
There were a total of five floats I think - two came up the hill first and the carriers set them down.  At that point it was creeping up on four, and I figured I needed to get my ass to Kyoto so that I could meet my host and make it to my dinner reservation (which turned out to be...meh.  TripAdvisor's #1 restaurant in Kyoto left a lot to be desired...I didn't even bother to stay to watch the belly dancer, which if you know me is practically unheard of.  The curry chain restaurant the Kawaii Kid took me to the next day was infinitely better).  So I left my awesome seat to try and make my way down to the station, only to see three more floats coming up the hill.  You can tell how crowded it is - I'm not sure how they made it through the throng, other than by sheer Japanese politeness.  I took an alternative route downhill past more food stalls, none of which seemed to have water, which was too bad because I would have sold my soul for a bottle of it about then.  At the station, I was waiting for the train only to see - more floats?  The same floats???  I'm honestly not sure if they went on a parade loop, or if the march up to the shrine was the end of the parade and these three were just making it to the party - travel over the tracks.

Unless you are just tuning in, you probably know that I've had to find a new purpose in traveling - having exhausted the possibilities of my previous purpose - and that new purpose is doing some really cool shit.  So even if I hadn't gone to Hiraoka Matsuri, I might have still decided it would be awesome to do a drumming class.  I thought the drummers at the Robot Restaurant were pretty cool - they got my heart beating, and not because they were wearing skimpy outfits, since I don't swing that way.  There's just something about the way the beat from a drum resounds in your blood, makes you want to get up and dance.  And so I dropped 5,000 yen on a lesson from the Taiko Drumming Center tonight.

Here's a news flash for you guys - I'm not a drummer!  Between my misspent youth as a band geek and my misspent youth as a belly dancer, I can handle a rhythm, but OH MY FREAKING HECK it is hard work beating one of those things.  Our teacher, Isamu, had the kind of guns they don't sell at Wal-Mart, and after approximately three minutes I understood why.  I had a blast, but I was dripping sweat when the whole thing was over and I had to break out my newly-purchased handkerchief to mop off my face.  However if you are the kind of person who would like to have the kind of guns they don't sell at Wal-Mart...or would just like to have a little more room in the arms of some of your clothes...I've got to say this is the most fun "exercise" I've had since I left the sadistic, torturous tutelage of Azhaar.  There is no way I could fit a drum in my suitcase, but I wished I could, since it would have drowned out the sound of sad sax wailing in the practice room at 5:30 when I'm trying to do a little after school facebook stalking of my nearest and dearest.  Instead, I bought a pair of sticks, which I will instead use to beat out the frustration of having to listen to said sad sax and...oh, so many other things that I'm not thinking about because I am having a kickass vacation.  Stay tuned for more.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Let Her Go - a flashback

I have been ridiculously ready for vacation.  It's less about needing to get away from the daily grind (which is, honestly, not that grinding) and more about being super stoked about where I'm going - Kyoto.  There is a veritable shit-ton of festivals going on that week, there are about a hundred different workshops I want to do (although I'm only doing about five), and, oh yeah, I might actually get to see the Kawaii Kid, if the stars align.  He's promised to take me to Osaka's Denden Town, at any rate, which is the Kansai version of Akihabara.  If you don't know what that is, don't worry.  It just means you're not enough of a nerd, and that's okay - we can't all be.  I wasn't, two and a half years ago when I last visited Japan.  A month later I would watch my first episode of Fairy Tail, and eventually kick myself, because if I had seen it sooner, I might have visited anime's Mecca between penis festivals and Mt. Fuji.  Instead I was high on cherry blossoms and Japanese Kit Kats.

That time I shared a layover with Champ and Li'l Miss Catwalk. They'd heard me speak glowingly more than once about Korea, the home of my heart, and how much I loved to take layovers there on the way to wherever.  They were particularly interested in my waxings poetic about Butterfinger Pancakes, and I promised them, on this most auspicious of layovers, that I would take them there.

We spent a couple of hours in the Incheon arrivals hall snoozing while waiting for the first train into the city.  We may have talked a little then about what else to do in Seoul, or maybe it was prior to arriving; I'm not sure anymore.  I do remember them saying they weren't really interested in "touristy" things.  At the time, I couldn't - or wouldn't - formulate the thought that Seoul wasn't the kind of place that you could get to know in a few hours, and that "touristy things" were really the only thing we could experience in half a day.  But they were my friends, and I was determined to do what I could.

After breakfast, we started walking through Apgujeong toward Coex.  We saw a giant finger about to dong-chim King Kong, and a Barket - beer market - and eventually stumbled onto the Seongjeongneung royal tombs.  I never spent much time in Apgujeong, being neither a drinker nor friends with the drinkers who liked to go there, and it looked like something interesting to explore, so I convinced them to go with me.

It was only 500 or a thousand won to get in, and it was a nice, quiet place to explore.  Lil Miss Catwalk took on the role of tour guide, making up interesting facts about the tombs and their features.  We made friends with a Korean ghost, whom I dubbed Fred - if you taught at GDA with me my last year in Korea, you might recall an adorably chubby student with that English name, which was my inspiration.  We talked about hiding in fairly obvious places to scare people, doing the Asian ghost thing - hair in front of your face, hands clawing this:

We didn't actually do it.  We probably would have gotten ourselves kicked out of a UNESCO world heritage site if we had, and that in and of itself kind of seems like a reason you should (I mean, how many people have gotten kicked out of world heritage sites for anything less than defacing them???), but in the end, it was early Saturday morning and not really enough people around to mess with.  Instead, we wandered around for a while, made some jokes, and eventually made our way to Coex.  It was not a particularly eventful layover, but it was pleasant enough.

There's this totally bullshit saying about how friends are there for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.  Well, I think it's a bullshit saying, anyways.  Maybe this is because if I like someone enough to want them in my life at all, it pains me to lose them.  Take my life in Korea, for example.  Over the years, I've seen lots of my former coworkers from GDA, including Dougie-Poo, who has actually brought his family to Mongolia to work at my school.  Pretty much any of my friends from the last twelve years would be welcome in a heartbeat if they showed up at my door (Socrates being the exception.  He's a jackass, and good riddance).  So it was a slap in the face when Champ stopped talking to me this spring.  I could try and break it down for you - without actually talking to her about it, I can't be 100% sure exactly what was up, although I have a pretty good idea - but I won't.  I'll merely say that I had a lot of respect and affection for both her and Lil Miss Catwalk during the three years we worked together, always tried to support them, and even if they believe I stabbed them in the back and hate me, I still wish them the best.
The layover coming back - visiting Jogyesa Temple in Jongno.
Here's the thing:  in spite of my efforts to preserve them, expat relationships do sort of come with an expiration date.  It's the nature of the beast.  For better or for worse, when you live outside your own culture, you become friends with people you wouldn't have chosen back home.  Champ was super-sporty, and Lil' Miss Catwalk, so introverted that she made me look like the life of the party.  I, on the other hand, am a consummate culture vulture.  Back home, I probably wouldn't have been close to them.  Maybe on good terms if we worked in the same school - I might have even said I liked them (which seems like that's not much, but as a fairly antisocial person, this is a pretty big concession from me.  I don't "like" many of my colleagues).  But I doubt we would have spent much time outside of work together.  We were too different.  Here, though, we went to dinner on a weekly basis.  I had them over for Korean; they invited me for crepes.  We were friends, and it makes me sad to lose that.  On the other hand, it also makes me appreciate the friendships that do last - those people I chat with and in some cases even call long after one or both of us have moved on, like my best chingu, Sara.  The friends whose cities I don't feel awkward showing up in, and who make time for me if I do - Dark Lord and Master, I'm looking at you.  Or, hell, even come back to time and time again - no matter how much I love tzatziki, it's not the primary reason I've traveled to Greece as much as I have.  That would be Bronte.

Here's to more friends like GDA friends.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Grey Skies Over Mongolia

"Choose your last words,
This is the last time.
'Cause you and I -
We were born to die."

The mournful strains of Lana del Rey floated across the valley from the other tourist camp as Five and I descended from our hike up to the source of the hot springs.  We - along with Engrish - had made the long trek out to Tsenkher because a.) I'd bailed on the school ger camp the previous weekend (because 24 hours is too long for me to be with my coworkers) but still wanted fresh air, and b.) I've been working on my exit plan, and wanted to be sure I got to go again.  A year goes by faster than you'd think.

I hadn't even gotten through my first year in Mongolia before I started to consider that maybe, perhaps, I would stay until my brats - those kids who were in my homeroom class my first year - graduated.  At that time, I'd never stayed longer than two years in one place at a time...and two years really felt like stretching it.  But I liked my school, and I loved my kids, and before I knew it, I'd been here for four. When you've been in one place that long, it seems like you could stay forever.  Or that's how I feel, anyways.  Going on five years, what's another?  Hell, another five, even?  My seventh graders get on famously with me...maybe I should stay and see them graduate.  Shouldn't I hold onto a good thing?  How do you know when it's time to leave?

Well, I know.  I can tell because my blogs have slowed to a trickle.  I don't get excited about going out and coming up with new shit to do. I can tell by the way I feel the cold.  On the way to Tsenkher, we stayed the night with Enkhaa's friends again, as we did the last time.  When Engrish and I went with Geek 3 years ago, we had a measly dung fire that never got started properly, but I was warm enough.  Maybe I brought my sleeping bag that time; I can't remember, but since it's a pain to roll up, I probably did the same thing then as now - left it at home and shivered in the cold.  This time it was the longest night I can remember spending in a very long time, and it was only winter's opening maneuvers.  It snowed for the first time the day I started writing this. I can tell because I tear up anytime I hear a stupid song like "Born to Die," talking about endings.  But what is life except a series of endings?  You might as well embrace it and live a badass life with as few "ragrets" as you can manage.
The skies on the ride out to Tsenkher were cloudy, but Enkhaa the Fearless kept slogging through a week's worth of mud til we made it there.  Five kept insisting, "There's a bit of blue sky - let's chase it!" but although I appreciate a good Austen novel, I never really identified with Marianne.  Grey skies suited my mood as I contemplated the coming year - the hassle of finding a new job, the challenge of finding new challenges for myself.  It's ironic that I've chosen this life, because I hate moving, hate upending my life, and as much as I love diving into a new place and experiencing everything it has to offer, it scares the shit out of me, thinking I might flop.  Ever since my year in Bahrain, I wonder if I'll be able to find new friends, if my school will be a good one.  And that's assuming I can even find a job.  For the first time in my expat life, I'm not okay with going wherever the wind blows me, and I can't just go back to GDA failing all else, which was my old contingency plan.  This year, the wind damn well better blow me to Japan...but if I can't manage that before my decision date, what do I do?  Sign on for another year?  Or have a little faith?
Well, we did eventually get a little sun - even before we were on our way back, which is when I took this photo.  As amazing a driver as Enkhaa is, I admit I was a little worried that if it rained too much while we were in Tsenkher that we'd get stuck there, and so I prayed.  I prayed we'd be safe, I prayed we'd have a little sun, I prayed that I wouldn't be as cold the second night as I was the first (Five and Engrish claimed they weren't cold that night, but I think they're crazy.  I would have been cold even with a sleeping bag).  And everything was fine.  I'm Mormon, and I do believe in a higher power, that our prayers are heard by a being that cares for us, so I guess I shouldn't be as nervous about leaving Mongolia as I am...but I am.