Friday, May 19, 2017

Art & Seoul

Living in Korea was a different time in my life.  Or at least, that's the best way to explain it that I can come up with at 6:30 on a Saturday morning, although it probably sounds pretty cliche.  I've been interested in art since I was very young, and up until that point it seems like I never passed up an opportunity to visit an art gallery.  In Korea, though, I was an expat for the first time, and an ESL teacher by trade. While it is true that my first solo excursion into Seoul was to see the Chagall exhibit at Seoul Museum of Art, and I often wandered into galleries when I was in Insadong, not to mention the fact that I loved getting off the metro at Gyeonbokgung for church because they often had displays of children's art, the fact remains that I didn't really art much in Korea.
That, of course, has changed.  Back when I went to Seoul for Tsagaan Sar I was looking for new things to do, and although I didn't actually do most of the things I came up with, I did visit Hyeri Art Village.  It is up by the DMZ in Paju, and the idea of an artists' community intrigued me, so after leaving Silloam Sauna bright and early on one of my last mornings there, I caught a bus heading north.
Did I mention not only the brightness but also the earliness of the morning?  I alighted at the Hyeri Village bus stop around 9:30 in the morning, possibly grumbling a little to myself because a Korean couple got off with me and were walking hand-in-hand all lovey-dovey down the street, and on an adventure such as this, I like to have the place to myself.  But as I walked on, away from the "crowd," past each closed cafe and gallery, I realized something.
It does you absolutely no bloody good to have the place to yourself if everything is closed.

I get a little fed up with tourists, it's true.  A month later, when Five and I were running around Osaka, I possibly lost my cool a couple of times because there were too damn many people, most of whom were not uber-polite natives.  I do understand (on some deep, shall-not-be-named level), that I'm one of those fat, stupid, loud tourists, and businesses exist to make money off us, but that doesn't change the fact that sometimes I just want to get away and be by myself.

If you ever have times like that, try Hyeri Art Village at 9:30 on a weekday morning.  Just make sure to pack a coke, or - better yet - a hot chocolate.

Anyways, from a shopping/cafe-sitting perspective, this jaunt was a bust.  However, it wasn't a total waste of time.  I wandered around the village for about an hour before I decided there were definitely more interesting things to get up to in Seoul, and got to see some interesting sculptures...this rhinoceros, for example, which made me think of the play I read in my AP Lit class as a senior in high school - I almost posted it to Drim's facebook page to ask for extra credit.
I'm honestly not much of a sculpture person and it took listening to Bill Lishman at the ACAMIS conference three years ago to help me appreciate the importance of public art.  Not that I'd explain the meaning of this one to you - I didn't really give it much thought because I was cold and caffeine-deprived - but, you know, I could talk to you about the use of the art elements and design principles, and the processes the artist might have used, and ask you some questions to help you construct your own meaning.  Because, hey!  Art teacher! ;-)  Although I won't, because I'm still caffeine-deprived, since I decided it was a good idea to drink my last coke at 10 last night and the shop's not open yet.
By far this was my choice for the most interesting work there.  When I was walking around and viewing it from a distance, it seemed to be just a bunch of mesh forms in a copse of trees.  When I got closer, though, I realized it was a colossal recumbent nude emerging from the earth.  (How's that for using some art jargon?)  There were holes in many of the pieces, allowing you to enter them - or at least, I'm pretty sure that was their purpose.  The thing about public art is, you're not going to be sitting there policing it, so if you don't want people interacting with it - climbing inside it, in this case - you can't put holes in it.

On the other end of the equation, though, is the fact that you may have a hard time getting people to interact with it in the way you want.  A few years back, when I attended the Summervision DC seminar, I took off my shoes and walked through a water feature in the courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery.  Then I looked up feeling childish and guilty, but the museum educator who was working with us that day encouraged me, saying that most visitors walk past it, ignoring the artist's invitation to play in favor of the sanctity of the art museum.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Return of Sgt. Becks

In high school I was well-known as a hard-core band nerd and a pain-in-the-ass bitch who was too tough on people.  For this reason, during my senior year my rivals started calling me Sergeant Becks - or at least, I always assumed that was the reason, although Baby Chicken Wing (as the youngest was called) will surely let me know over the summer if I've got it wrong.  Although I have changed over the years, one thing remains the same:  I am still a pain-in-the-ass bitch who is too tough on people.

My band days have long been over, but after Engrish took responsibility for directing the school musical this spring, I found myself agreeing to be a part of it.  Being in charge of artsy shit like costumes and sets sort of goes along with being the art teacher, although I ducked out of it last year thanks to the fashion show.  Without that, and with a couple of extra preps in my timetable, I really had no reason to say no this year.  My first responsibility was getting the scripts and scores back to Mongolia, a job I volunteered for because I knew I wasn't planning on bringing much else back with me.  Thanks to the traumatic flight path getting back to UB, they didn't actually make it into the school until several cold January nights later, but because I didn't have to re-check them anywhere, I managed to avoid any baggage fees, so it ended up costing a lot less to get them to Mongolia than it should have (returning them, on the other hand, took us from just breaking even to very deeply back in the red.  Oh well).
Having delivered the goods and chosen student costume and set designers, I thought my responsibilities were fulfilled for a while.  And then The Voice came in one afternoon and said, "So I don't want you to feel pressured, because I know you're busy, but do you want to play in the pit band?"  I think my answer was something like, "Well, I don't want to get in the way of the kids or anything, but I can probably work it into my schedule," because I'm all cool and everything.  Inside, though, I was like, "HELL YASSS!"  So he gave me the score and I started practicing with one of the school's flutes. 

Back in my flute playing days I read an article in Flutist Quarterly (yes, I was a member of the National Flute Association.  I told you I was hardcore) by this guy who had left music to serve in the military for a while.  And he said things like, "It's like riding a bicycle," and "It made me a better musician," but I couldn't believe it.  And during the first week or so carving my way through the score I still didn't believe it.  I've mentioned our sad sax player who honks and toots his way through old age, driving me nuts, and as I started learning the music, I thought I must sound like that to everyone else.  Yes, I could read the music, I could play the notes...but not very well.  I guess I forgot how hard it is learning a new piece (or 20) of music.  But eventually I learned the quirks of the school's beat up student flutes (and fixed a couple of problems on them), got used to using various muscle groups again, and managed to pull off a halfway decent performance (although it would have been even better if my Yamaha had managed to get here from Canada - my mom sent it to me via the principal's Canadian residence, but it got held back in customs.  Grr.)  I also forgot how much fun it was to play in a group, and especially loved working with my fellow flutist.
If you're not familiar with the musical Kiss Me Kate, it's the story of a theater troupe performing a musical production of The Taming of the Shrew.  The leads, Fred and Lilli, are divorced but still have feelings for each other, and during the performance, those feelings start to come into play.  The music is challenging and the material required a lot of maturity and hard work from our kids, a challenge that they rose magnificently to.

One of the blogs I wrote toward the beginning of my time in Mongolia was about watching Hamlet at the State Drama Theater, and I think it's fitting that I'm writing about another production based on Shakespeare at the end of all things.  Even though Americans have a tendency to want to dumb down Shakespeare, I've always loved him, and when I figured out that the 400th anniversary of his death was a scant few days before Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham were opening the Shrew in Ulaanbaatar I felt like it was a felicitous sort of kismet that led Engrish to suggesting it.

Shakespearean-era costuming is hard to come by in Mongolia, though.  Engrish and I thought we'd sorted out our boys by borrowing a lot of good stuff from our sister school, but most of it was too small for them.  We tried a couple of costume shops, and ended up having a few things tailor made for the leads, but the biggest help was our dance teacher's connection with the State Ballet, from whom we were able to borrow some old jackets and dresses (although this time the girls had the problem - the dresses were made for ballerinas - but in the end nobody went naked).
The sets were a little easier to handle, mostly because I didn't have to do the cutting and screwing.  We have a really awesome maintenance crew at the school and they made the actual pieces...all we had to do was tell them what we wanted and then paint them.  Two of the pieces were from last year's production of Grease, and we were able to repurpose a door frame from two years back, adding an actual door.  The other pieces were made new.  There are basically two sides to Kiss Me Kate.  The play within a play is set in Padua, which I felt uniquely qualified to create, having been there just two years ago.  I tried to use warm, bright colors like you'd see in Italian architecture.  The other scenes take place backstage, and so we painted bricks on the backside of the 3 set pieces.
Most of all, though, I was proud of our kids, who worked damn hard to learn songs, dances, and lines.  Our lead actor was my very own Ukulele Man, who may have changed his hair several times since Istanbul but is still a huge pain in my ass.  Just a few weeks before opening night ("Three weeks, and it couldn't be worse!"), Engrish confided in me that Ukulele Man was stressing her out more than anything else - he still didn't know a big chunk of his lines and had a tendency to ad lib, which is apparently a big no-no with Shakespeare.  I'd watched the first act of the BBC Proms production of Kiss Me Kate to prepare myself for the set and costumes, but hadn't heard the lyrics to most of the songs before the band started to rehearse with the cast.  So it came as a huge shock the first time I heard him sing, "Where is the Life that Late I Led?" and he got to the line, "Where is Rebecca?  My Becky, Weckio?"  I may have panicked a little, thinking he was ad libbing again - it's possible that maybe I let the kids get away with calling me by my first name when we were in Turkey - before I realized it was actually part of the song.  But I assured he would come through, and he did.

It's been two weeks since we closed the show.  They've been busy weeks - we submitted our AP Art portfolios a week ago, and yearbook has taken up a lot of time, too - so my apartment is still a mess but they've gone by quickly, for me at least.  But Engrish confided that it was a little bit of a let-down: all that hard work, staying at school til 8 or later most nights, only for it to be over so suddenly.  I had to agree - I missed playing music and seeing the kids bring their characters to life, especially our lead actress, who did an amazing job as Kate the Cursed.  But in six weeks I'll be on a plane to uncharted waters.  She at least has next year's production to look forward to.

(BTW - Photography credits to B. Munkhbold - I couldn't very well take pictures and play in the pit band.)

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Grub on the Road: Table for Two

"Look up," he said...
Traveling with someone is not my normal state.  It's not that I want to be alone (although it's nice, especially when it comes time to write blogs) so much as that I generally can't be bothered coordinating travel plans with others.  I want to go where I want to go...but if one of my nearest and dearest wanted to come along for the ride, I'm generally pretty copacetic.  This trip didn't exactly go down like that...I maybe encouraged Five to go to Japan so that I would have an excuse to go back even though I just spent our October break in Kyoto, but since I still have no idea what I'm doing next year, I'm kind of okay with that.

Anyways, back to my opening shot - traveling with someone is different.  When I'm alone in vacation mode, I sometimes forget to eat all day.  Or maybe not's just that I've got so many things to do that food kind of gets de-prioritized.  On the other hand, if my raison d'etre on the road is learning new things, Five's is to eat new things. For this reason I put her in charge of restaurants.  For about five seconds - I changed my mind after she announced that we were going to try raw chicken sushi.

That saying about how you won't know if you like it until you try it?  I call bullshit.  There are some things you don't need to try to know they're not good.  Salmonella is one of them.
Fire Ramen, on the other hand...  Five was reading up on places to eat on our second day in Kyoto, and came across this place on someone's foodie blog.  The lines are supposed to be long, so we decided to go the next day for an early lunch and walked right into a special news feature from Tokyo.  They hooked us up with mics and asked us some questions - kind of awkward, but then again, it seems to happen a lot around me.  I didn't think the flavor of the broth was that different, but the fire definitely had an effect.  There were tons of green onions piled on top, and when they poured the flaming oil into your bowl, apparently the onions soak it up, and take on this sort of smoky flavor.  I am not a huge fan of green onions - normally I eat around them, and that was my plan at Fire Ramen.  But I accidentally grabbed a few with my chopsticks, and they actually tasted really nice.  I ended up eating them all.

Afterwards she went to Nishiki Market, the food street I'd showed her the night before so she could try more new things.  I ditched her to catch up with the Kawaii Kingpin - after walking along the Kamo we ended up having an early dinner at Coco Curry.  He introduced me to it back in October, and I was planning to take Five, but she said she didn't really like curry.  Then another friend told her about it, and I came back telling her how you got to choose the size of your portion - in grams of rice! - and she decided that she'd give it a try for lunch on our last day in Osaka.  And ended up loving it so much that she bought a pack to bring back to Mongolia.

The next day we went to USJ.  Theme park food is generally not worth writing about - it's overpriced and the quality doesn't generally match up with said price - but eating fish and chips in the Three Broomsticks with a cold butterbeer was worth it.  The fish was tasty, and the ambience was on point.  I should have taken a photo, but I was less snap-happy this trip.  Which is dumb because that's one of the best things about having a travel buddy - having them take ridiculous photos of you - but there ya go.

We ate a lot of strawberries.  We were there smack dab in the middle of strawberry season, and although we couldn't quite fit in a visit to an all-you-can-eat strawberry farm we made up for it buying strawberries just about every time we saw them.  My favorite strawberries were in the crepes I found at the end of Teramachi arcade - just the right amount of strawberries smothered in whipped cream.
In Osaka we stayed near Shinsaibashi, first in a ryokan that smelled like cabbage when it didn't smell like cigarette smoke, and then in the historic first capsule hotel, located in Asahi Plaza.  This meant we were right in the thick of things, and we had the chance to drool over a lot of food.  Osaka is famous for its okonomiyaki, and it's generally a good idea to try the local specialty, but I had another reason for wanting to try it.  My first anime, Ranma 1/2, had a character who made okonomiyaki.  Five didn't know that when I kept referring to it, but when she finally figured out what I was talking about - apparently okonomiyaki rolls off my tongue a little too fast and explaining it as "this pancake-ish thing" didn't tell her much - she was interested to try it.  I think it was my favorite thing I ate all week.  We were each going to have okonomiyaki, but when we saw their yakisoba, we decided we'd share, and that was delicious, too.

Speaking of anime, I actually had some success in my shopping this time.  We passed the Jump Shop on our way into USJ, and it was still open when we left that night, so I picked up a reproduction of the sketch of the final fight between Naruto and Sasuke, along with a few other things.  In Denden Town I found several nendoroids I wanted to buy, but ended up only getting Araragi from Bakemonogatari (even if he's an idiot and falls for the wrong girl, he's still my most recent favorite).  But my best find was in the Mandarake Grand Chaos, across the street from our capsule hotel.  I originally marked it on Google maps because someone wrote about their selection of cosplay goods, but I didn't get that far into the store - I realized they were closing in 15 minutes while Five was getting her pot bing soo on our last night.  They had a huge selection and I managed to find something I'd been on the look-out for the entire trip moments after walking into the store - another nendoroid.  This one is from an anime I mentioned during my previous trip - Touken Ranbu - about swords that have been turned into boys.  Mikazuki's design is particularly beautiful, and I'm considering making him for the doll contest this summer.  So it's design research.  Yeah, that's a pretty good justification.

So if you're thinking it's taken me a long freaking time to spit out this final blog, you're right.  I haven't really been neglecting the blog so much as neglecting everything in my life.  I decided to get involved in the school musical this year - originally I was supposed to be responsible for costumes and sets and things like this poster, but when our music teacher, The Voice, asked if I wanted to play flute with the pit band I realized it has been a really, really long time since I had played in a group, and that I really wanted to.  So I borrowed one of the school flutes - they're not great, but my flute was at home and is now in Canada, although for some reason the Canadian post held onto it for 10 days and as a result it didn't make it to Mongolia with my principal.  So that's taking up most of my time.  In fact, I'm actually supposed to be painting sets right now, but when I woke up from my Sunday afternoon nap, the sounds of sad sax were wafting in my open window, which I immediately shut and started blasting one of my Youtube playlists.  If hearing that in my apartment is torture, painting just upstairs from it is even worse, so I decided to order sushi and work on this post instead.

Moral of the story - if you're in Mongolia next week, you should come watch Kiss Me Kate.  As stated previously, my students are amazing and the things that Engrish and The Voice have managed to do with them make me so proud they bring tears to my eyes. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Size Does Matter

(Alternate Title: I Like Big Butts and I Cannot Lie)
For anyone out there who may be wondering, my interest in Japan goes back waaaay longer than my interest in anime.  When I was in third or fourth grade, my gifted class did a study of Japan and visited the collection at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, which served as my gateway, and later this would become my art home.  This influenced me to choose Asian Art for my non-Western history course, even though African/Oceanc/etc was usually considered to be the easier way to go..  Even now that I have been infected with otaku fever, I have a lot more reasons to want to live in Japan than just access to all the merch (although that definitely figures into my list).  Just like I'd been wanting to see a proper geisha dance since my first visit, there was another spectacle that I've been trying to catch throughout my travels to Japan, and Thursday I finally got to experience it: sumo wrestling.
Five is the kind of adventurous person who likes to try everything, so when I told her I wanted to attend a sumo tournament she was like, "Alright, cool."  Apparently I gave her the impression that it was in Osaka.  Perhaps because when I told her all I could remember was that it was close by.  Sort of.  Himeji isn't technically in the same region - it's in Hyogo, whereas the rest of our trip was spent in Kansai - but it's not that far either.  A two hour train ride isn't terrible, especially since sumo tournaments typically take place during odd-numbered months, and I seem to always be on vacation in the evens.  However, there are a few special tournaments that take place in April.  When I went to Tokyo three years ago, I missed the special tournament at the Yasukuni shrine by a few days.  I wasn't going to let it happen again.

The tournament in Himeji actually started at 8, but after a long day at USJ we were in no hurry to get anywhere that early, except possibly the McDonald's up the road in Shinsaibashi.  We managed to pull into Himeji Station around 11 and after a bite of ramen, made our way to the gymnasium - about a half hour's walk.  When we got in we were given a program, a calendar (in case we wanted to catch some wrestling later this year), and a plastic bag for our shoes.  We got some help finding our seats (Japanese-size, just like on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey) and figured we'd come in on some sort of opening ceremony.  There was a drummer playing some mad beats, and then all of the wrestlers paraded in, led by the referee, wearing these beautiful embroidered apron-like cloths called a keshomawashi (I had to look that one up, I'd never seen pictures of them before).  Some of them were carrying their babies with them, which Five thought was cute and I thought had the effect of making them seem even bigger than they already did.

Then before the actual wrestling, we got to see a wrestler have his hair done.  They all had their hair tied up in a topknot, which is part of the sumo lifestyle, it turns out.  It took at least 10 minutes (based on my file details...but it felt like it took longer).

Finally it was time for the main event.  My knowledge of sumo was almost non-existent, but I did realize there is a certain amount of ceremony to it.  Being Japanese, there is a fair amount of bowing.  Being a sport, there's some posturing thrown in as well.  Even ignorant gaijin like Five and I knew about the foot stamping part, where the wrestlers face each other in the center of the ring, lift their leg as they lean to the side, and then stomp it back down.  (Edit: Five knew about this because of Street Fighter, and was slightly offended at being grouped in with other ignorant gaijin.  See, this is the problem with sharing the spotlight!)

But apparently, as I've learned while reading up on it, there's a religious side to sumo as well.  I'd seen the salt-throwing before, and knew that it was about purification (have I ever mentioned that I've watched a lot of anime in the last three years?), but it turns out that religious tradition still has a lot to do with sumo.  The canopy overhead is even modeled after the roof of a shinto shrine.
The match doesn't actually start until both wrestlers put their hands on the ground at the same time.  In some of the matches we watched, it took longer to get to that point than the match actually lasted.  They'd come to the middle, bow, stomp, get some salt, toss it - occasionally one would do this with panache, really throw it into the air...rinse and repeat.  Most of the matches were over in a matter of seconds, after all that.  Since you win by getting your opponent out of the ring, it's sometimes just a matter of lifting them and carrying them over the line (easier said than done when your opponents are this size, but you get what I mean, right?)
I don't think Five was expecting to enjoy it as much as she did, but I think she actually got more into it than me.  The matches are so fast paced that it never got boring.  After the first one or two, we decided to bet our small change on each match.  One of us would set the wager and the other would pick the wrestler they thought would win.  I was not doing well - I'm a terrible gambler - and eventually we had to stop because I didn't have any more small change.  Instead, we refined our strategy for picking the winner.  Five based it on the color they wore, picking the color she liked better, and going for the smaller wrestler if their loincloths were the same color.  I didn't really have a strategy, merely watching the way they moved and looking at their overall muscle tone (no, that's not a joke - these guys were seriously strong).  The exception to her strategy was if one was a foreigner.  There were several - one from Georgia and another from Brazil, as well as a few that we were sure were foreign without being sure where they came from - and I pointed out that for them to be this successful in a Japanese sport, they must be really good.
At one point the matches ended - this was the lower-ranked part of the tournament, I think - and one wrestler came out with a posse of other wrestlers to have a special rope thing (called a tsuna) tied around him.  Apparently this means that he's a grand champion.  There was more pageantry with two different yokozuna posturing for the crowd (this might be a religious thing, as of the articles I read said that grand champions have a god-like status).  But eventually we decided that it was time to head out, and left the gymnasium to find out that it had started raining.
Rain or not, I was still hoping to take a look at Himeji's castle.  It's a UNESCO world heritage site, and Five hadn't been to any castles yet, although we at least walked past Nijo on our way to Fire Ramen (that post is still coming, FYI).  By the time we got to the park surrounding it, though, the legs of my pants were wet and my shoes were soggy, so since Five didn't actually care, we just looked from the outside.  At least we finally got our fill of cherry blossoms - they were just beginning to get interesting before we left Kyoto, and our last night there the Kawaii Kingpin showed me the bar street, which was gorgeous with its blooms and small creek, as long as you didn't think too hard about the vomit and urine that had been deposited in the creek the previous night.  However, I'm an artist and at least a little bit of a weeb, so a trip to Japan in the spring just wouldn't be quite right without a legit amount of sakura.  Even if we couldn't sit under the trees thanks to the rain, I felt like we'd finally found that.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Attack on USJ

The other thing about Universal Studios Japan that I was really looking forward to was its Cool Japan features.  For the last couple of years they've had special rides and merchandise for several anime, including - in my humble opinion - one of the best anime of all time, Attack on Titan.  I honestly wouldn't have minded spending the whole day in Harry Potter World after doing the Attack on Titan ride.  After we had visited Hogwarts the first time, Five followed me over to the Cool Japan area.
We found the armored titan pretty easily, and got in line and had our photos taken.  They wanted 1600 yen for their printed photo, I think, but after laughing at them we walked away with the ones the staff had taken on our phones.  Then we visited the merch kiosk, where I bought my cloak and a special water bottle cover.  Afterwards I was ready to finally, at long last, esperience Shingeki no Kyojin in 4D.

Except that we couldn't.  When we went to get in line, we were told that only express pass holders were allowed in the Attack on Titan ride that day.  Ever.  Not for a certain time.  The entire day.

Let me back up and break that down for you.  Adult tickets to USJ cost 7800 yen.  That's just to get into the park.  Our brunch in the Three Broomsticks cost over 2000.  My survey corps cloak was 6500 yen.  To say that they are making money hand over fist is a gross underestimate.  And yet for the privilege of riding Shingeki No Kyojin: The Real I had to pay another 6000 yen?  But here's the kicker - there are only so many express passes per day, so actually even if we were willing to shell out, it wasn't possible.  For all intents and purposes, we were shut out.  And THAT pissed me off.
We went to the Spiderman ride from there.  I like Spiderman, especially in his current incarnation.  I thought this might ease the pain for me some.  Actually, though, it made me bitter.  When I should have been screaming and having a good time, I was feeling bad, thinking about how awesome it would have been to experience those special effects as a member of the Survey Corps.  Afterwards we lined up to have a picture with Spidey.  This is mine.  I feel like it adequately expresses my grief for the excellent adventures I might have had, if only I'd been able to experience Levi in 4D.  
We continued into the park, deciding to find out what a "walk through" was when we came to the Backdraft area.  Five had never heard of it, and I explained that it was a nineties film about firefighters.  The line moved relatively fast so it wasn't long until we got inside.  And were less than impressed for the first 80% of the presentation.  Watching Ron Howard dubbed into Japanese talking about the movie wasn't actually that great.  But the third room of the walk through - I connected with that one.  There was all sorts of fire and shit, and it reminded me of the burning anger in my heart that USJ's avarice had robbed me of a date with Levi.  And then the area where we were standing shook and metal stuff fell and it reminded me of how my heart fell when we found out that our time together was never going to be.
We kept going through the park, checking out shops and snacking, but the fun had sort of died for me.  I was perfectly fine paying bank for overpriced swag when I was going to experience the thing that I'd paid 7800 yen to do.  Without that experience, I was much less willing to give them my hard-earned cash (especially knowing a trip to Denden Town was in my near future).  I hold grudges - so sue me.  When we stopped for a meal in the Jurassic Park restaurant, I had a brief glimmer of hope: they had a "dinner and a ride" special where, for 500 yen extra, they'd give you an express pass with your meal.  Unfortunately the express pass for Attack on Titan was sold out, but this is my contribution to the interwebs' literature on USJ - if you find out the park did a dickish thing and made your ride unavailable except to express pass holders, go immediately to the Jurassic restaurant and buy dinner and a ride.  Bonus: you might get to see a dinosaur while you're there.
Eventually I (mostly) got over it.  (Maybe).  We got our timed entry ticket back into Harry Potter World and I drowned my sorrows in butterbeer.  Then we got to the Mirror of Erised and I saw my heart's greatest and deepest desire: to be on the Attack on Titan ride.


Thursday, April 6, 2017

Nerdy by Nature

So Five wasn't really sold on the whole Japan thing.  She had a bad experience one time in Narita which sort of put the kibosh on her desire to actually enter the country.  However, knowing how much I love it, she was willing to give Japan a chance.  And then I uttered a phrase that changed her level of enthusiasm for the trip: "Hey, you're a Harry Potter fan, right?"

When I was here in October, I argued a long time with myself about whether or not I should go to Universal Studios Japan.  I really wanted to go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but I thought it would be kind of lame to go to a theme park by myself, and in the end I was way too busy.  This time, upon uttering the magic words, there was no going back.  Five was all about it.
We each did lots of research about USJ and we agreed that we would get our entry ticket for later in the day, but when we got there, we couldn't help ourselves.  We wound our way through the Forbidden Forest to the gates of Hogsmeade, where we commenced to indulge our consumeristic impulses and made like rich people, buying overpriced food and dope yolo swag because it's really easy to justify it when you're on vacation. 
Five was more into the merch, and picked up a wand and a scarf.  Meanwhile I fell in love with butterbeer.  It tastes a lot like cream soda, but that foam on top makes it.  I obviously don't know what is in it.  If I had to guess, I'd probably say crack.  I don't even care.  It is everything I imagined it would be.  Besides tons of butterbeer and lunch in the Three Broomsticks I picked up a cauldron cake from Honeydukes, and that was tasty, too.
As an art teacher, I thought the portraits were particularly good
Eventually we headed out of the village towards the school.  Hogwarts offers two options for people interested in checking it out...the castle walk or the ride.  During the morning we tried the walk.  It was nice, because you kind of had the place to yourself and got to see lots of things, like the entrance to Dumbledore's office, the portrait of the Fat Lady, etc.  And we thought that was pretty cool until we saw where the ride finished: in the Great Hall, with all the candles over the ceiling.  So we decided that when we came back later we'd put up with the long line and do the ride.  The line was bad.  Not the worst in the park - one ride reported a 300 minute wait - but we were in line for an hour and 20 minutes.  Most of which we spent discussing which attractions we needed for Middle Earth, our Lord of the Rings theme park (aka, plan case the Tolkein estate or Warner Bros. happen across this post, these were some of our ideas: a Barrel Ride, a dragon roller coaster - there should maybe be some fire in it? - an electric parade and fireworks for the eleventieth birthday party, a haunted house for Orthanc, and a finale walk through in 3 stages where you beat Shelob, rescue Frodo from the orcs, and throw the One Ring into Mt. Doom.  Make it happen.)  We almost fell out over creative differences a couple of times - I still say LOTR is not a children's franchise - but thanks to that conversation, the time actually flew by.
Even if it hadn't, it was SO worth it.  You legit feel like you're riding a broomstick.  It is scary and magical and fun and the minute we finished the ride we went and got back in line AGAIN, wait or no wait.  That's how good it was.  Unfortunately, just as we were getting close to the front of the line the second time, the ride had to shut down temporarily.  Five thought someone threw up - I believe it was probably someone losing something because their dumbass took their phone or their keys or something with them.  Whatever the case may be, we sat there for at least 20 minutes waiting for the ride to start again before Five took pity on me and decided we should go; I was hoping to hit the Jump Shop in the shopping area outside the park on our way home, and I'd already suffered one crushing disappointment for the day.  
We did more at USJ, of course, but I'm saving that blog for tomorrow, cause I gotta write one of my signature angry blogs and I need to properly wind myself up for it.  Instead, I'm going to rewind to a related experience from Kyoto - our visit to the Owl Forest.  Now Harry Potter world has an owlery in Hogsmeade full of packages and toy owls, but since I knew the Owl Forest was in Teramachi Arcade (at the south end, if you're interested in checking it out), I was sort of hoping Five would want to do that, too.
The Owl Forest is a fairly small attraction, although there is a second forest in the same building under the same management with bengal cats.  It offers the opportunity for visitors to see and - in most cases - touch different species of owl.  I'm fairly certain most people haven't seen owls in real life, them being nocturnal and all, so this is a pretty cool thing.  Especially when you're able to touch a snowy owl named (surprise!) Hedwig two days before you visit Hogwarts.
Both of us had some reservations about the experience, particularly after that one time we went dogsledding.  For starters, owls are nocturnal, and the owl forest is open during the day.  There's also the fact that they are tethered, although that one concerns me less, since I've seen eagle hunters and know that this isn't necessarily harmful.
On a scale of one to ten, I'd give it a 5.5.  Owls are wild animals, and are probably not as happy as they could be tethered indoors for the amusement of humans.  At the same time, they all seemed to be extremely well cared for - their feathers were soft and glossy and they overall seemed to be in good health.  The people who visited while I was there all seemed to be very careful and I'd even say they had a kind of awed (or is it awwww-ed?) expression on their faces, and I think that's a valuable point.  If we as human beings have a chance to interact with animals we might be putting in danger with our actions, maybe we'll be a little more careful.  Maybe I'm just justifying it, but I don't think it's totally a bad thing.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Here There Be Dragons

(Subtitle: And Foxes) (Sub-subtitle: A Dragon of a Different Color)

While Kyoto may be the place to be in spring, one thing that was different this time when I started planning our trip was that there were almost no festivals going on (unless, you counted the geisha dances, which are kind of a big deal).  I kind of remember reading six months ago that some places have more celebrations in the spring, but in Kansai the harvest is the thing, and that means fall festivals.  I was very pleased, though, that I could show Five one really cool festival-type thing: Seiryu-E at Kiyomizu Dera.  But we'll get to that in a minute.

I never really blogged about my first trip to Kyoto, but that's okay - I was only here three days back then, and anyways, I'm doing a lot of the same things this time.  That's probably because I felt that I'd gotten as much out of Kyoto as I could in 3 days.  During the five seconds that I thought I might be planning a trip here for my high schoolers, I imagined putting a lot of those things on the itinerary, as well as a few things I missed.  With Five, it was much the same, except that she's not interested in things like ninja training or making noren.  My absolute favorite part of that first trip was Fushimi-Inari-Taisha, and before I went there on the same day as Kiyomizu Dera, so for some reason I thought it made sense to do them together again.

Maybe it does, but my feet hate me right now.  Five and I decided to take it easy today instead of trying for Kuyo-No-Taki and seeing Arashiyama.  After all, we've got big plans for tomorrow...

The Fushimi Inari shrine is one of the most magical places I've ever been.  It was the only place I wanted to revisit when I was here six months ago, but when I came, it was so swamped with tourists that I turned around and left immediately.  So I told Five we were getting up early and heading there before everyone else.  This has always been a successful tactic for me in the past.  We got off the train a little before 8 and weren't part of a horde of people...until the next train arrived.  So we didn't have the place all to ourselves, but we early enough that we at least got a few photos without too many people in them.

It's one of the most photographed places in Kyoto for good reason.  The early light streaming through the trees sets the bright orange of the endless tunnels of torii on fire.  Inari is the god of rice and sake, and the last time I was there the altars were covered with offerings; this round there were none, but maybe it was too early in the day.  His messenger is the fox, and so throughout the shrine there are fox statues - guarding the entrances to pathways and at the sides of the altars.
As we will eventually be discussing, not only does Five have a high tolerance for dorkiness, we are also nerds of a feather.  Although she hung up her otaku hat long ago, she has a past with anime.  She also supports my dream of starting my own plush company, so she put up with me dragging one of my newest creations - Uka-no-Mitama from Inari Konkon, Koi Iroha - around with us at the shrine and taking photos of her.  She's part of the Inari group of deities, and the anime is actually set at this shrine, so when we decided to come here for spring break I started working on her (although it took til Friday night before I was finished...I maybe got a little distracted).

When we decided we'd had enough of mountain climbing, we left Fushimi-Inari-Taisha (via the gift shop!  Seriously, there is so much swag to be had - I got Uka her trademark fox - and the food stalls are like a festival every day) for Kiyomizu Dera...which, again, involved climbing a mountain.  This was also really crowded, but was also good people watching - I've never seen so many people wearing kimono.  We arrived well before the start of the ceremony, so we had time to find Malebranche (Five has a thing for macarons, although I liked their strawberry and cherry delicacies more than she did), a bite to eat for lunch (curry udon is the only kind of udon for me, although it's messy as hell), and wandering the temple grounds.  I showed her the Love Stone, which I have already failed and she had no interest in trying, although we did make offerings to Daikoku - and the irony of making "offerings"(ie, getting rid of our loose change) to the god of wealth wasn't entirely lost on me.  We saw Otowa-no-Taki, but decided neither of us needed health or good test results enough to wait in the long line to get a drink.  I'm a little sad that I forgot to show her Tainai Meguri, because that was really cool, but we were caught up in the procession by then, and there was no turning back at that point, womb of Daizuigu Bosatsu or not.
Now, as I mentioned before, the whole point of going to Kiyomizu Dera yesterday was to see the Seiryu-E.  I explained it to Five as a blue dragon dance procession thing, but that doesn't really tell you much.  Now that I'm sitting down, trying to relate it to you in a way that is somewhat coherent, the blue dragon is supposed to be the guardian of the east, and is a particular guardian of Kiyomizu Dera, thanks to the spring Five and I decided we didn't need to drink from.  Nothing in my sources told me the best place to be for it, so after we'd wandered around, we tried to figure it out, and ended up parking ourselves by the drummers.  There was a whole ensemble of them, and when they finally got started drumming, it was intense.  The beats literally thrum through your whole body.
 But that was after the procession started.  After a ceremony of some kind (we couldn't see from where we were camped out) the blue dragon...

Yeah.  If you're squinting at the picture thinking, "It sure doesn't look blue," you may be wondering, like Five did, if I actually knew what I was talking about.  Most of the articles I read about this event called it the blue dragon.  Props to Kansai Scene magazine for mentioning that green is often referred to as blue in Japanese.  When I read it, I kind of remembered hearing that somewhere, and that there are other points of disagreement when it comes to color between Japan and the States, but since I don't seem to be able to get a job here, I may never get to explore it more deeply.  #endbirdwalk
Anyways, the blue dragon set out from the inner sanctum of the temple, led and followed by his attendants.  First he went up through the area of the shrine, and then back through the temple and out the front.  Five and I were trying to struggle our way through the temple when he came back, so we followed in his wake (you could call us his groupies) as the procession made its way to the huge front gate of the temple.
When he got there, he coiled himself up, and his attendants made a sort of honor guard, each set taking it in turns to move though the gate.  Finally the last of them went through, and then he unwound himself and followed, streaming down the stairs and then winding back up them, displaying his full magnificence to the crowd gathered outside the temple grounds.
The procession continued down Sannenzaka, with the dragon occasionally rushing headlong into a shop along the way.  With such a fearsome expression, I'm sure he gets a lot of mixed reactions, but I imagine having him enter the shops is actually good luck for them.  As for me, I'm a dragon person, and I considered it good luck to be able to be present for this really cool ceremony; it was so different from all the others I've been to in Japan.  Maybe they're all unique - I'd die to find out.  Instead, we followed him along down the hill until he turned around to come home, at which point we made our way down to Gion to sit and have a drink at Starbucks.