Monday, March 12, 2018

State of the Art

A week of teaching is a little like swimming to the bottom of a body of water.  It always feels a little chancy, and when you hit the bottom you still have to come back up before you get a nice lungful of air.  In this analogy, the weekend is the air I breathe.  Back in January that body of water was Lake Michigan.  It took forever to make it to the bottom, and by then I wasn't sure if I'd be alive still when I broke the surface.  By contrast, my weeks now mostly feel like the deep end of the old Glenwood city pool - I'm down and back before I have time to worry.
I started last week a little worried about my lung capacity.  My school was holding a PYP training, and if I had attended it, I'd currently be on my eighth day of a twelve day stretch - a dive to the deepest point of the Mariana Trench.  Since I'd already had that particular training, I begged out of it and ended up doing a different kind of professional development - attending the Tokyo Art Fair.  Once upon a time (about five and a half years ago) I wrote about the UB Art Fair, and how underwhelmed it left me.  I cited the Brookside and Plaza art fairs that I used to go to back in my college days.  Since writing it, I've realized that those KC art fairs would be considered as quaint to some people in the art world as the UB Art Fair seemed to me.  To the high rollers of the art world, those local artists were selling their pottery and photos for chump change.  Those guys look to catch bigger fish.
High rollers, of course, have a bigger buy-in.  When I first read about the Tokyo Art Fair, I was a little shocked to see admission was 3,500 yen (although you could get in for 3,000 if you bought in advance).  This very nearly made me fold; Japan isn't a cheap place to live on a good day, and my expenses here are much higher than ever before, except for possibly in those bygone college days.  Then I found out about a late pass, where you could get in for 90 minutes on Friday night for a single coin (one that is worth about $ careful giving your spare change away here!)  My friend Sensei helped me buy it, and at 6:30 Friday night I was heading through the doors.
Those high rollers were looking for investment pieces, works by artists with a certain amount of name recognition.  I saw a few of them - some Kusama, a few pop artists, including Lichtenstein, I think, Hokusai - but I didn't really spend much time on those (okay, mayyybe I stood in front of the Hokusai prints for a few minutes wishing I could buy one, but c'mon.  Hokusai!).  What I was hoping to see at the Tokyo art fair was works by Japanese artists.  Of course, I'm always on the lookout for artists who use that otaku aesthetic in their work, but since I began my painting lessons (which I'll write about someday.  Really, I will) I've been particularly on the lookout for examples of Nihonga art.
The art fair didn't disappoint in that respect.  Not all of the paintings that I admired were painted with mineral pigments, of course.  Being the weeb that I am, I enjoyed seeing the approach that these artists took with traditional Japanese subjects, regardless of the media they worked in.  My favorite by far was Shiki Taira's LoveX2 Youkai Show.  As I walked past the Art Gallery Natsume stall, I was struck by her paintings of youkai, Japanese demons...and then I saw that in one of them they were fighting with a figure - executed in the traditional style of Japanese portraits, who was, nonetheless, very clearly Dracula.  It was totally subarashii.  If I were still living my Mongolian high life, I probably would have had to buy it, but I had to be content with the exhibition catalog she gave me (and no, I didn't realize she was the artist at the time, or I probably would have devolved into a blithering fangirl).
There were plenty that I was able to recognize as Nihonga, though.  Most of them had what I'll call the "Panda effect" on me.  A few years back, I had an awesome student whose work made the self-esteem of a decent percentage of the class shrivel up and die.  I truly believe that art is a skill, not just a talent, but it is challenging to stay motivated when you realize exactly how far ahead of you another artist is.  After some of the setbacks I've faced in my second Nihonga painting, that is how these artworks made me feel.  At the same time, I had to admire the technical skill that went into them, especially since I am learning how difficult it is to use mineral pigments, which made me even more determined to continue my studies and make some kickass art.

What can I say?  I'm a walking contradiction.
The art didn't stop on Friday night, though.  The fair had several other components, including a hotel taken hostage by art, 3331 Chiyoda, and an award exhibition.  A combined ticket to get you into all of them goes for 5,000 yen, which was still too rich for my blood.  Art In Park Hotel, though, has a free preview section, and I thought long and hard about going to see that as well, but in the end, I only had time for one art show before my painting lesson on Saturday, and there was only one possibility for that.

Later this week I'll be taking my tenth graders out to learn a little more about architecture.  The Venice Biennale has an architecture exhibition, and the Japanese Pavilion has made it's way to Gallery MA in Roppongi for a show.  We've specifically been studying linear perspective, since I don't have a lot of space for 3-D work in my classroom.  The works in EN: art of Nexus, combine small architectural models and computer generated designs, which makes a great contrast to the art we've been making.  Another thing that I loved about it was the fact that the architects had used real case studies as the point of departure for their works.  I think I have a tendency, in my teaching, to leave the project too open-ended, allowing my kids to make the things they want, rather than giving them a problem and asking them to find a solution.  This is a positive in some cases, but looking at these models and reading about the solutions the artists came up with made me realize their critical thinking skills would be more developed if I sometimes set a problem instead.

Although I tend to play off my desire to live in Japan as the great otaku dream, it's weekends like this that remind me there was a lot more to my decision than that.  There are so many things that I can experience here as an artist and a teacher that even with my challenges it's more than worth it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Guise and Dolls

I may have mentioned it before, but Japan has a huge doll culture, going back a long time.  One part of this culture is Hina Matsuri, or the Girls Festival.  This festival involves setting up an ornate display of imperial court dolls, which - like a lot of Japan's dolls - are believed to absorb misfortunes, in this case of the girls of the home.

This weekend was Hina Matsuri, but this post actually began last week, with the precursor to Hina Matsuri - Nagashibina.  In the past, rather than just set the dolls up and wish for good luck, the tradition was to release the dolls on the river, and they would carry the bad luck and catastrophes away with them.  But there are very few places that still celebrate Nagashibina.  Fortunately I'm just a "short" ride from old Edo.  On the banks of the Sumida River each year they hold a Nagashibina ceremony, and since the Tokyo 2nd Ward now meets in the afternoon, I saw no reason not to check it out.

Online it mentioned that the ceremony would be cancelled if it rained, and as I got dressed I noticed that it was pretty gray out, but I headed towards Asakusa anyways.  I was worried about being able to find the right spot, but once I made it over to the Sumida River, it was pretty easy to figure it out - I haven't seen anything that big and pink since....well, never mind.  For the record, it took place on the Asakusa side of Sumida Park, pretty close to the station (coincidentally, one block over from the Coco Curry...if you use Coco Curry as a landmark...)

The big pink things were slides set up to launch your emperor and empress down the river.  Hypothetically this meant that they didn't flip over at the bottom like a kayak, but it didn't always end up that way.  When I first read about Edo Nagashibina, I wasn't sure what to expect as far as the dolls went.  There are doll memorials where actual 3D dolls are sent out to sea on their final voyage, but these were just paper dolls, which makes sense because you wouldn't want to add MORE pollution to the river.
I mean, besides a thousand paper dolls, anyways.  They didn't make it very far before the paper became waterlogged and they started to sink, but I've seen paper like this before in Japan, and it dissolves as it sinks.  Probably still not the most ecologically sound practice, but if it saves girls from misfortunes then who am I to judge?

Alright.  This is where I'm gonna take a break from my regularly scheduled blogging and rant a bit.  America.  Seriously, what the fuck?  Here I am in Japan, which is pretty much the safest place ever, and over here we're protecting our children with beautiful traditions.  In the end, yes, it's probably pointless, but nobody ever died because you sent a paper doll down the river.  Meanwhile back home the only solution you can think of is MOAR GUNZ!!!  I've had so many conversations in the last two and a half weeks, trying to be rational and calm with people whose kneejerk reaction is "THESE ARE MY RIGHTS AND YOU CAN'T HAVE THEM."  There is no empathy.  There is no ability to imagine that someday some asshole with a gun might hurt someone they love.  There is no realization that if that happens, it will not be where they and their guns can do a damn bit of good.  It will be at their school, out shopping, or in a movie theater.  But they will at least have their rights, so bully for them.

The fact that we have to rely on businesses - whether it's Dick's stepping up and saying, "We'll be responsible about what we sell," or companies withdrawing discounts to NRA members - is just sad and pathetic.  I applaud the hell out of them, but we actually already have people whose job it is to make our country a saver place - our lawmakers.  Shame on them.  We have students - kids who should be enjoying a so-called carefree adolescence (as if that time has ever been carefree in any age) - stepping up to show us the way.  Shame on us.  And so even though every time I go on facebook these days I feel exhausted and sick, I'm determined not to remain silent.  I've done that long enough, worried about offending family and friends, but the truth is the idea of a child I care about losing their life makes me sick, and I don't want anyone else to go through that.  So even if it means being patient and rational and trying to talk sense with people who don't want to hear sense, when all I want to do is scream, Imma ganbatte.  Imma register for my absentee ballots, and start writing letters and making a public nuisance of myself, because this shit is bananas.  And I don't mean that in a good way.
Right.  Rant over.  There was also a boat out on the river decked out in pink, that had girls launching their dolls onto the river.  I read somewhere that there is a lottery of some kind to be involved in Nagashibina, but without being able to read Japanese I wasn't sure how or where you apply, and since I don't have any daughters to take place in the ceremony, I didn't care enough to ask Google for help figuring it out.

This past Saturday was the actual Hina Matsuri celebration.  I considered a couple of ways of celebrating on my own - as a geek, for starters, although I ended up running out of time to make my display.  I also thought about going to the Mitsui Museum, or the Hyakudan Kaidan, both of which had displays of Hina dolls.  However, in the ass-backwards tradition that is inherently me, I decided to celebrate with an entirely different kind of doll.

See, Jindai-ji was holding its annual Daruma doll market.  It's the second oldest temple in Tokyo, originally built in 733, which kind of makes it worth a visit in its own right.  Or it would, if Chofu wasn't kind of out of the way; I had to take the train to Chofu station (two transfers), then a bus, and finally walk down the hill and around a corner.  It's probably still worth a visit, but I like to whine, and if it weren't for the fact that I used Darumas as part of my doll unit I might not have felt so inclined to make the trek...but I have my reputation as the creepy doll person to uphold, so I do what I must.
There was the usual festival atmosphere, with the avenue leading up to the temple crowded with food and game stalls.  Finally I fought my way through the crowd to the temple proper, which was overrun by small, round, red things - Daruma dolls.
Daruma is a type of wishing doll.  When you buy him, he has no iris or pupil - just a blank white eye.  When you make your wish, you're supposed to darken in a circle on his left eye (your right).  Then you hold the sight in his other eye for ransom until he's made your wish come true.  When that happens, you fill in the other eye and bring him back to the temple.
At Jindai-ji there were monks who would do this for you, with some nifty, super official calligraphy.  I didn't want to be rushed into making a wish when I wasn't sure what I wanted most, so rather than waste a wish I chose to go the DIY route with my eye-darkening.

In retrospect, I should have wished that our government would win their balls back from the NRA in a game of cards, or else grow a new pair.  Another good option would have been to have my countrymen wake up to the "evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days."  Oh well, live and learn.

There were several different colors of Daruma, and a couple of the merchants had a color chart, but none of the ones I saw were in English.  Since I wasn't able to pinpoint the meanings of the colors, I decided to go based on the colors I liked.  The big gold ones were really striking, and I was tempted for a while to get a black one, but in the end, I decided to get a gold one with red decorations, since red is by far the most traditional color.  It was just a small one though, because I was only four days into this month's paycheck and already wondering how I was going to afford all the things I wanted to do.  There were also a few different styles, like a maneki neko or a shiba inu - most of which seemed to have their eyes already.  These made me curious about how they were made, but I feel like holding his eyesight ransom is bad enough...dissecting him to see what he looks like inside just seems over the top.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

New Year, New You

I really had no intention of coming back to Chinatown anytime soon.  Although I really enjoyed the shengjianbao (Meen set me straight on their name), it's been getting warmer and besides, it's a little out of the way.  But that was before I realized that I needed to fill up my event hours for my course on multiculturalism and decided it would be interesting to compare and contrast Chinatown Chinese New Year with Shanghai (and Harbin's) celebrations.

I'd planned to go with Flower Boy and his partner for the actual New Year's Eve, but after fighting a headache all day I surrendered, messaging him that I wouldn't be able to make it.  Instead, I made my way down my nearest train line to Motomachi-Chukagai the following night.  Leaving the station I followed the signs for Chinatown, but when I got to street level I didn't recognize anything - this wasn't the way I'd come before.  I didn't have long to consider my options, though; when I heard the drums I knew I was going in the right direction.
I followed them down the street and found myself under one of the gates of Chinatown, at a corner where a rhythm section was laying down beats for a dancing blue lion.  The tang of gunpowder hung in the air.
The two dancers in the costume were moving through a restaurant, blessing the place with good luck for the New Year.  They moved between the tables, shaking their groove thang (aka, head) at the customers.  They finally emerged from the restaurant, bowed at the entrance, and then moved on to the next business, where their arrival was heralded by a barrage of firecrackers before the process began again.

After watching from beginning to end, I moved along to let others enjoy the spectacle.  I moved up the street and got reeled in by the promise of tasty treats.  I stopped for an order of four shengjianbao at the first vendor I came across...after my initial discovery last time, I realized how many actually were there.  I was told they would be ready in seven minutes, although I think it actually took a little longer before the bowl of piping hot dumplings was placed in my hands.  As I nibbled a hole in the wrapper and sucked out the soup I scalded my tongue, but they were too delicious to wait for.  I ate them walking down the  street, passing the blue lion again before finding a trash can outside a combini to dump my bowl and chopsticks in.

I realized then I was hearing drums both ahead of as well as behind me, so I followed them til I found a green lion, and eventually a yellow one, and a red one.  At some restaurants, the dancers stood on one another's shoulders to stretch the lion up onto his "back legs," when he would snatch an envelope and a bunch of lettuce being dangled out of a window on the second floor of the establishment. 
On the way to my last lion I passed a temple and faced a moment of indecision before concluding I would return after seeing the lion.  In truth, I'd been looking for it.  Temple visits are a traditional part of China's New Year festivities, and I'd actually managed to come across the one I hadn't seen before, Guan Di Miao temple. 

The temple was bathed in light, and incense wafted over the wall.  I climbed up to the entrance, and decided I wanted to burn some incense.  I've mentioned more than once that I'm the Mormon flavor of Christian, and I've also mentioned that I enjoy visiting places of worship of other faiths.  I'm sure this might come off as contradictory and possibly even blasphemous to some who read my blog; on the other hand, I think that the ability to learn about other faiths and try to understand their beliefs is inherent in my religion, no matter what other Christians do.  So I paid my five hundred yen and received 5 sticks of incense and a ticket for admission.  A temple worker lit my incense in a brazier and pointed out the order in which to place my offerings in the large, open vessels.  Inside the building itself there were four shrines, accepting prayers to the deities worshiped inside the temple.  I stared particularly long at the ceiling, which reminded me of one I used to admire at the Nelson-Atkins. 

After leaving the temple, I started moseying my way out of Chinatown.  I passed by bustling shops full of "Made in China" trinkets that were definitely not at authentic Chinese prices.  It was an interesting contrast with the New Year back in Shanghai, where you'd think the city was deserted if it wasn't for the fireworks exploding nonstop for two weeks.  Lots of shops and restaurants were closed, although admittedly it was a different story in places like Yuyuan Garden, where there were enough people to make up for the empty streets elsewhere.  Yokohama's Chinatown definitely had a different does this's possible most of the content I wrote for the reflection for my before realizing that it was much longer than I wanted it to be, hence a more scholarly approach to my writing.  Rest assured, next week I should be back to my standard foul language - Hina Matsuri is coming up and I've got some truth to speak along the lines of protecting children from misfortune.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Flower Power

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Bean Counter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 5, 2018

Teacher of Fortune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 29, 2017

Art of Your...Wooorrld!

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

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

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