Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Morning Commute

In all my life as an expat, I've never had to take public transportation to get to work.  The only time I've been more than a short walk away from my school was when I lived in the Emirates.  Back then, I'd either rely on taxis (because I could afford to) or bum rides from the other denizens of the Sunrise building.  That all changed about a month ago when my current employers moved us all to a shiny new, purpose built school.  I'm still not entirely sure it's a good trade.  On one hand, the air doesn't make me feel sick and there are tons of good restaurants to try out.  On the other hand, I have to be exposed to the public before 8 a.m., and that almost never turns out well...

It turns out that, as much as I claim to love public transportation, what I actually love is my freedom.  I love being able to go anywhere, anytime that I want, and not have to drive myself.  But when that turns into a daily forced migration, for which I must wake up when my alarm goes off (rather than ignoring it for an hour), public transit loses most of its charm.

This post actually began long before we moved, back when I went to that mokuhanga workshop. At the time, I was impressed by the fact that Tokyo commuters could all be dressed up in business suits and not spouting waterfalls of sweat off their jam-packed bodies, or that the women on the train were actually wearing make-up and it wasn't melting off their faces in a sheet.  Also with the fact that they commute on a daily basis without killing anyone.  Let me tell you, there is nothing like being crammed into a train car with a shitload of strangers to bring out your aggressively antisocial side.
Now, it was originally my plan to take one bus from my neighborhood all the way to Yokohama Station.  That first morning - which dawned way too bright and way too fricking early - I found myself puzzled that Google Maps was instructing me to walk from Higashi-Kanagawa Station instead.  Well, when I started looking at the bus stop sign, I discovered that my bus didn't go all the way to Yokohama for another hour and a half.  So I ended up taking the train the rest of the way.  My feet just were not up to a walk from Higashi-Kanagawa.

The next morning I took a different bus, one which stopped closer to my apartment.  I figured if I had to take the train anyways, I might as well make the bus part as convenient for myself as possible.  And then then bus showed up, already jam-packed with commuters.  Two stops after I got on, the driver started letting people in through the back door,* since there was no more room for people at the front.

As it turns out, I'm not cut out to spend even ten minutes each morning with the sweaty bodies of strangers pressed up against my various parts.  It brings out my impulses to smack people with my umbrella, fan, or hell, just to plant my elbow in the crotch of the individual who keeps bumping against my shoulder (with extreme prejudice).  Since I decided it would probably be a bad idea to get in a fight on the bus, I decided to go with the original bus, the one that wasn't crowded.

And that is the way things progressed for the first three weeks at the new school.  Maybe I had to reward myself with McDonald's for breakfast most mornings for making it in one piece and still letting people live.  I'd pretty much worked out the best route to go - the bus where I'd have a seat, the train with the easiest walk from the bus stop - but it really didn't matter.  I am not cut out to be a commuter.

And then Golden week came and went, and sometime during those days of freedom I got it into my head that I should walk to the nearest train station.  I needed the exercise after spending most of the previous month eating McMuffins for breakfast.
So about a week ago I started walking.  It takes me about a half hour, but it's flat the whole way, and at least half of my walk is by the stream that runs through the 'hood.  If I feel like as much of a zombie as my fellow commuters appear, well, that's only to be expected.  But I still feel like maybe a bit of an apology is in order.  Fellow commuters, I am so sorry.  If you hear me growl or hiss, or possible construct sentences strung entirely together with f-bombs, please understand that it isn't personal.  I hate literally everyone in the mornings right now.  Half the time I haven't even had my morning coke when you are seeing me bare my fangs.  I applaud you for the fortitude that it must take to deal with this day after day, stretching into years.  Personally, I'm just counting down the days til I'm back in Mongolia, where I can make it from the door of my apartment to the door of my classroom in two minutes or less.

*In Kanto, you enter the front of the bus, and pay when you get on.  In other parts of Japan, you get on through the back, and pay when you get off.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Seeing is Believing

(aka, Photography Course, Part II: The Unseen World)

So it was time to make the chimichangas.  I had some ideas and enough glow sticks to throw a rave.  What I needed to make it real, though, was some scenery.  After all, a rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a youkai in my bathroom just isn't a youkai.  (I mean, unless it's, like, one of those filth-licking bathroom youkai.  Or, a toilet ghost.  Or...well, forget about my bathroom already!)  I was thinking along the lines of temples and shrines.  At the right time of day, I almost wouldn't need to do anything else.
"Hitodama" - light painting at the cemetery of Shoin-Ji, Yokohama
I decided to start with something simple - a ball of spirit fire, or hitodama.  It took me two shoots to figure out how to get what I wanted.  There are a lot of factors, but most the most important ones seemed to be what to set the ISO at and how long to keep the shutter open.  I had to figure out how to move through the cemetery to get the swirls the way I wanted them, and that meant delaying the shutter to get into position.  I also had to move at the right speed to let the sensor pick up the light, and know when to cover my light with my hand so that it wasn't picked up.  I set up in a corner of the cemetery with some bushes behind me, and while I don't creep out easily sometimes noises from the other side of the brush unnerved me, especially the darker it got.  In spite of the hard work, I was pretty proud of what I got and encouraged by my results.
"Curse" - Light painting, long exposure, and some photoshop, at Nyotai Jinja, Kawasaki
And then I started on the second photo.  There is a ritual in Japan where you supposedly curse someone by visiting a shrine during the ox hour (between 1-3 a.m.) and nail a straw effigy into the sacred tree.  As I was scouting locations I noticed that the shrine I pass on my way to taiko class has one such tree, so I decided to stage my second piece there.  Rather than just relying on light painting, though, I used long exposure and a little cosplay to make an oni appear.  I had tried writing the kanji for curse when I completed my initial light painting experiments and it was hard as hell, so this time I used a stencil.  Which was great and all, but I never seemed to be able to get it into the right place.  Once again, I needed a second shoot to get everything right.  However, I got kicked out of the shrine the second time.  The owner came over after about 15 minutes to see what I was doing and asked me to leave, that the shrine was for praying, not photos.  Then he came back and said it was okay, but asked me to do it later.  I'm sure my attire did nothing for their patronage.  I came back after taiko class, but I was tired and not really feeling it anymore, so even though I was trying to avoid it, I ended up using photoshop to get what I needed.
"Shirohebi" - light painting at Kikunaike Benzaiten Jinja
My third apparition brought god into it...or rather a goddess.  Many of the gods of Japan have messenger animals, usually notable by their color, white.  From my study of Benzaiten last year, I knew her animal was the white snake, so after school one day I stopped at the Benzaiten shrine next to my train station, and spent about an hour trying to drag the glowstick in a way that would look like a snake.  I made the mistake of wearing light colors that day, so I had to stay out of the shot to keep the camera's sensor from picking me up, but I finally felt like I was getting comfortable with the technique.
"Kodama" - long exposure photography in Aokigahara Jukai
Unfortunately light painting will only take you so far, though.  I knew I was going to need to make some pieces to stand in for some of the youkai.  For my kodama photo, though, I decided I could hardly do better than appropriating the appearance of Ghibli's kodama, as a tribute to my favorite of their masterpieces, Princess Mononoke.  These I found on eBay, 5 pieces for about 3 bucks, so I bought three of them and took them out to Aokigahara.  If there is anywhere in the world tree spirits still thrived, it would be there.  Originally I thought it might be hard to get them to stand up on their own - even in my kitchen they had a tendency to fall over - so I spent about two hours that morning trying to glue the little bastards to a styrofoam board, and then hide said board with moss.  It was not a success.  By the time I took them out to start shooting in the forest, they had come unglued.  Oops.  Luckily it worked out to my advantage, since eventually it occurred to me that if I removed them during the long exposure shot, I could get the transparent effect that Miyazaki gives his kodama as they run through the forest.
"Shichifukujin" - light painting at a stream in Yokohama
And I suppose I could have done the same thing for my Seven Gods of Fortune - using statues or sculptures created as devotional objects.  But I'd been pretty inspired by the o-hina ningyo I made for my third assignment and wanted to see if I could improve on it.  Better boat.  Paper dolls with individualized features.  You know, the sort of pain-in-the-ass attention to detail that I wouldn't be able to finish properly.  I actually intended my boat to have a sail, and for the dragon's face to be painted, and a little more to those green designs on the side of the boat.  But I've been fighting a sense of inertia over the last month or so, and it wasn't until the final week of the course when I forced myself to sit down and finish what I could.  With about 24 hours til my bus was set to pull out of Shinjuku for golden week, I trekked out to the stream in Higashiterao with all my goodies to get my shots.  I'd like to actually do this one again, but I guess we'll see if I can manage it before the end of all things.
"Amefuri Kozo" - taken at Myoren-Ji Temple
I'd also like to redo my Amefuri Kozo.  When I realized I was running out of time, I decided he'd be an easier youkai to make than a kappa, my original intent.  I had a small paper umbrella I bought in Asakusa, and after cutting off the head of one of my dolls I had a halfway decent model.  What he needs, though, is rain.  It was supposed to rain the morning I left on vacation, but it didn't happen.  With the rainy season on it's way, I'm sure I'll have the chance to fix this one.
"Kyuu-bi" - Light painting at Etchuinari Jinja


The last creature I added to my portfolio was the Kyuu-bi - the nine-tailed fox.  I planned to use a fox statue from an Inari shrine, but as it happens, I don't actually live near any.  Luckily the one in Toyama wasn't too far out of the way.  

Along with the photos we had to submit an artist statement.  Believe it or not, I've never had to write one for a class before.  What I actually found most challenging about it was limiting my writing.  I had so many ideas I wanted to express - and have even more now, thanks to Maria teaching me about shinrei shashin during the nihonga lesson where I showed her my photos - but this kind of writing is supposed to be concise.  Ironically, I also struggled to put into words how the artists I researched inspired my work.  This is something I'm supposed to be teaching my DP students, but I struggled to quantify exactly what I was taking from their work.  Regardless, here it is:

Artist Statement
We live in an age of contradiction.  According to the internet, if you don’t have pictures of something, it didn’t happen.  At the same time, the use of photoshop has become so ingrained in contemporary visual culture that we can no longer claim that seeing is believing.  This body of work aims to draw on both sides of this paradox as I explore Japan’s folklore surrounding the supernatural. 
Japan has a rich culture surrounding the paranormal.  The terms youkai and yurei are catch-all words for what in the West we call demons and ghosts, but they include a host of creatures, each, according to the lore, with their own distinct appearance and habits.  Artists continually draw on these legends, from ukiyo-e printmakers to contemporary animators, with the result that they are a well-known and easily recognizable part of Japan’s visual culture.  After exploring long-exposure photography I felt that this technique had great potential to uncover the hidden world of Japanese folklore.  
My photographic practice up to this point has been documentary in nature, showing the places I’ve been and the people I’ve visited. In Photography: A Critical Introduction, Wells states that “Historically, tension between the photograph as document and the personal expressiveness of art has been at the heart of debates as to the status of the photograph as art” (Wells, 2009, p. 260).  One of my goals in exploring Japan’s supernatural traditions was to bridge this philosophical gap, drawing on my strengths as a documentary photographer while introducing a more expressive artistic element to my work. 
Throughout its history, photography has been used to present similarly constructed realities.  Sometimes this construction is subtle.  The photographer Edward Curtis published images of Native Americans which documented a romanticized vision of these peoples, using clothing and props that helped to tell the story he wanted to share; a story which upon closer inspection proved to be fiction (PhotoDocus, 2014).  At other times, it is more blatant.  Such is the case of the Cottingley fairy photographs produced by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths between 1917 and 1920.  Some of these realities are unintentionally presented.  Photos of far-off places as seen in National Geographic, in a grandparent’s scrapbook, or even on a friend’s facebook timeline may give the viewer a mistaken impression of what those places are actually like.  My work embraces this tradition while subverting it, using the exotic architecture of Japan’s temples and shrines as a backdrop to present the unseen world in which to this day the Japanese, at least to some extent, still believe. 
In order to create these images, I used a variety of approaches.  During my exploration of photography techniques this term I was particularly inspired by painting with light.  In order to better understand the possibilities of light painting, I studied one of its progenitors, Man Ray.  In 1935 he produced his first light painting, which he called space writing (Space Writing, 2011).  It is a self-portrait in which his face is obscured by the writing he has created with a penlight.  Although I am using light painting in a similar way, I find Man Ray’s photograph particularly applicable to my body of work because of his interest in surrealism, and the worlds of the mind.  Unlike his automatic writing, though, my use of light painting is deliberate.  The lines and shapes I include in my work are by no means random, but rather connect with the traditions of Japan’s supernatural beliefs.  This is done specifically so that viewers familiar with youkai stories will recognize them. 
I feel my work also has a connection to that of Sandy Skoglund.  As I planned these images, I realized that I would not be able to capture these creatures merely with light painting.  Skoglund creates and photographs installations where man and nature interact in surreal ways, sculpting the actual animals that inhabit those spaces.  Similarly, I spent a great deal of time creating some of my subjects, notably Japan’s seven lucky gods and their treasure ship.  However, in contrast to Skoglund’s carefully crafted rooms, my pieces interact with the spaces of the real world, spaces which feel familiar to residents of Japan.  Her work also relies largely on color to create emphasis and mood, while this series of photos uses light and shadow much more heavily. 
When I first considered Japan as the subject of this portfolio I planned to do so in a very intellectual way, depicting the reality of Japan behind the exotic image most Westerners have of geisha strolling under cherry blossom trees.  Upon reflection, though, I had a hard time envisioning what those photos would look like.  In many ways my decision to move to Japan was about escaping reality; it seemed then only fitting that my work focus on the sense of magic inherent in Japanese folklore that continues to captivate me.  I hope that as others view these photos that they can share that wonder with me. 
Usually an artist statement is drafted after the work is finished.  Ours were due two weeks before the final submission of our portfolios, and during that time I came to the decision that I actually wanted to show my settings without their inhabitants, kind of a seen/unseen approach.  The truth is, I wasn't going to be able to complete 15 youkai pictures by my deadline, so I guess in essence these photos are filler.  I tried to make them meaningful, though, tried to show the shrines and temples in a different light, hopefully one that adds a layer of meaning to my work.  My classmates and professor didn't seem to view them as filler, so I guess I managed alright.  I won't bore you with all of them, but if you'd like to see the whole album, it's on Flickr.  And just like that, my semester is over.  Although I feel a little at a loss what to do with all the time I'm not taking photos, I honestly need the time to extricate myself from Japan.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Trick of the Light

(Alternate Title: Photography Course, Part I)

In spite of how often I find myself taking photos - for my family, my school, and (of course) this blog - I actually have very little training in photography.  And by "very little," I mean practically none.  I've read a thing or two here or there as part of my lesson planning, but I tend to trust in my camera, because it almost always knows what it's doing better than I do.  And that's probably okay for a casual photographer, but as a teacher it kind of bothers me.  After all, if I don't know what I'm doing, how can I teach my students?  So the fact that my master's program included a photography elective made it pretty appealing to me, and when it was finally offered this term, I signed up as soon as I could.
"Soft-focus Slaughter" - pinhole photo drawing on the theme of the body
I planned to get as deep into the process as I could, but then I woke up and realized that I hardly knew the first thing about developing and printing and I don't really have the resources to mess around with it.  Someday, I want to learn all of it, but this is not that day.  Instead, I ended up sticking with digital photography, for the most part.  Before this semester, I understood the general concept of exposure, and that it was affected by the light going into the camera, but now I can actually explain focal length, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO (I'm still working on white balance...it wasn't as big a factor in the class).
"Gaijin Sadako" - self-portrait exploring focal length and aperture
Like most of my art over the last two years, I wanted to include elements of Japanese culture and imagery in my photography projects.  But that was easier said than done; I didn't have a clear idea of what that was going to look like in a final portfolio.  As I created my initial projects on themes prescribed by my professor, I seemed to come back to horror a lot, but I actually intended to go about my portfolio in a very intellectual way.  Our readings exposed me to ideas about the reality of unfamiliar places as opposed to the picture postcard version, and I had toyed with attempting to show this aspect of Japan in my body of work.  I just couldn't get excited about it, though.  The thing is, living in Japan has been, at least for me, more about escaping reality than embracing it.
"Sinking Ship" - long exposure light painting using glow sticks.
It wasn't until we were exploring shutter speed via painting with light that I figured out what DID excite me.  By creating longer exposures I could make lights and other objects appear to float in the air, or turn transparent.  As a pink-blooded otaku, I've watched a LOT of anime about ghosts and other spirit creatures.  The supernatural is kind of my jam, so what better subject for my photography portfolio could there possibly be?  So I sat down with my sketchbook and started brainstorming how I could bring all it all to life.  But those photos will be the subject of my next post.
"Raise Yo' Freak Flag, vol. 3" - cyanotypes using manga imagery and kanji
For now, I'm not sure that I'm a better photographer than I was before.  I still think my Big Gun knows what it's doing better than I do, most of the time.  But as a teacher, at least I have a deeper knowledge, can explain what a camera does better than I could before.  And, well...  I ended up earning another A, so there's that.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Chasing the Horizon

I was two hours into the trek from Toyama to Niigata, slogging back to Naoetsu station after an unappetizing lunch at the nearest restaurant I could find, a MosBurger.  I was bitching at the Kawaii Kingpin on Messenger about the fact that Japanese city planners or businesses apparently didn’t see the sense in putting restaurants next to the station.  He explained his watertight strategy of staying home, and I have to admit that at that point it had its merits.

Unfortunately I’m pretty sure Man With a Mission doesn’t do private gigs, and if they did, I sure as hell wouldn’t be able to afford one on my salary.  As it was, I was thanking my lucky stars for Sensei, who had tracked down a ticket for their sold out Niigata show on a resale website.  This seemed like the perfect way to finish my Golden Week, and if there was one show I absolutely felt I had to see before I left Japan, this was it.

One year ago, I’d never heard of Man With a Mission.  They’ve done a lot of music for anime and movies, but I hadn’t encountered them until I watched Golden Kamuy, the opening song for which is their “Winding Road.”  Hell, I’m pretty sure that part of the reason I love that anime so much is because of that song.  What is interesting is that I didn’t just listen to “Winding Road.”  When I looked it up on YouTube I ended up listening to - and liking - lots of their music.  I hadn’t tried that before with Japanese bands, and although I’ve tried to find other bands that way since, none of them have struck me the way Man With a Mission did.  It’s been a long time since I could say I had a favorite band, and I’ve gotta say, I really dig it.
So.  I made it to Niigata.  By this point in the game I was kind of done vacationing, as evidenced by the fact that I couldn’t be bothered taking a bus to my guesthouse - I took a taxi - or that once I was there I laid down to take a nap and read.  I did spend the morning before the concert wandering, but I didn’t even bother to take the Big Gun with me, instead snapping pictures of the shrine at which I inevitably found myself with my iPad.  I headed back to the guesthouse for a little while, recharging my tech, and a little before four decided to head over to the venue, Toki Messe.

It’s been a while since my last concert.  In Mongolia we got out to live music fairly regularly, but these shows were almost always in small restaurants, so I guess my last show was Jason Mraz, back in Shanghai.  As I found the right entrance and made my way to my seat - not quite as far back as my first concert (Smashing Pumpkins at Kemper Arena back in 1996) but further than I would have liked - I realized this was the first time I’d gone to a concert alone.  And I wasn’t totally sure how I felt about that.  I mean, I do a lot of things on my own - hell, most of the time I prefer my own company - but I couldn’t help wishing I had someone with me who loved the music as much as I did, like Brucie during all those Smashing Pumpkins concerts, or Diana and Cookie when we saw They Might Be Giants.

Then Man With a Mission took the stage, and as we all stood up, I realized everyone there fit the profile.  They clapped in time to the music.  They were jumping with excitement, hard enough to make me question the structural integrity of the stands that our seats were arranged on.  As the band played, we waved our hands, pumped wolf-claws in the air.  Lit the flashlights on our phones and waved them in time with their ballad, “Find You.”  (Maybe because I’m getting old I didn’t find it as stirring as the flames of a thousand Zippos, but I didn’t burn myself, either).
Not my photo...taken from the MWAM Twitter, w/o permission
Beyond that, I’m not really sure how to tell you about this experience.  I keep lamenting that the clock is running down on my time in Japan, which makes everything seem that much more precious.  Even if I hadn’t felt united with all the thousands of fans around me, I don’t think I could have been my usual cranky self.  The music was too good.  A few songs into the first set, they played “Dead End in Tokyo,” my other favorite song, and it was perfect.  I sang along, and the sound from the stage was so overpowering that I didn’t have to worry about ruining the song for anyone next to me - there was no way they could hear me.
Playing a concert is hard enough work normally, but Man With a Mission performs in wolf heads.  When I first encountered them I thought maybe it was a tie-in with Golden Kamuy but eventually I figured out that they’ve been using the masks since they first got together.  So they took a couple of well-deserved breaks, playing short videos featuring the band between sets.  These I didn’t really understand because they were in Japanese.  One of the reasons I enjoy MWAM so much is the fact that they have a lot of English lyrics - “Dead End in Tokyo” is sung entirely in English - so I think it’s possible those videos might have been in English, or at least subtitled, at their shows outside Japan.  If they make it to Ulaanbaatar, I’ll definitely have to find out.
Finally - FINALLY - they played “Winding Road,” which was definitely a high point for me, and then (I think - I may be misremembering) they played “Fly Again.”  In the middle of the song a canon blasted silver streamers out over the crowd.  I was too far back to get one, but then some of the crew came up the aisles with arms full of them, so I got a memento after all.  I was afraid this meant it was the end, but after clapping, cheering, and another video - this one announcing more Japanese concert dates - they retook the stage and played their new single, “Remember Me.”
Also (sadly) not my photo.  My thanks to their Twitter.
And then it was the last moment, and the band held up their towels, saluting the crowd while seemingly every fan in the place held up their own, smaller towels in return.  Every fan, that is, except me.  Throughout the day as I’d been wandering, I’d been able to pick out who would be at the concert with me that evening, because they all had towels emblazoned with the band’s name and a wolf’s head slung around their necks.  Japan has this really cool thing they do where it’s kind of normal to carry your own hand towel around, to dry your hands after you use the bathroom (or your sweat, come summertime), and that’s kind of what I thought the towels were about.  I’d never been to a Japanese concert, I had no way of knowing what it would be like - other than what anime told me, and since nobody was waving flashing penlights I was kind of glad I hadn’t based my expectations on anime (for once).  I made sure to stop by the merch stand on my way out, though, and pick one up.  Maybe I’ll never have another chance to get to one of their concerts.  I don’t know.  But considering I saw my last favorite band in concert four times, I’d be willing to bet that I’ll need it at some point.

Besides which, Summer is Coming.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Statue of Limitations

With two Golden days left, I got back to Tokyo, and even convinced myself to go to church today...although afterwards I came home to revel the rest of the day away lying in my OWN bed, reading.  Which is probably where I should still be, but my dedication to you, oh six faithful readers, knows no bounds.
I managed to find one more magical place to check out in Toyama, Sotoshu Chokei-Ji.  Perched up on a hillside on the west side of the Jinzu Kawa, the river that splits the city, it's home to 500 rakan, statues of Buddhist disciples.  I've come across temples with schloads of these little statues before, most notably at Nenbutsu-Ji, several trips to Kyoto in the past.  What I hadn't really thought about before was why these feature in Buddhist temples.  I hadn't realized before researching this blog post that it was a theme, not only in sculpture (landscaping??  Installation???  I'm not sure how you'd classify this, artistically speaking) but also in painting.  In Japan it seems like they tend to be memorial in nature, although I wasn't able to track down a specific explanation for the Gohyaku Rakan at Chokei-ji.
But what does seem to be true, not only about the rakan in Toyama but also at other temples is that each is an individual.  You might be wondering if it's even possible to create 500 variations on the "bald guy in a robe" formula.  In fact, I was reminded (particularly when facing this rakan) of a recent episode of my favorite current anime, Dororo, of a sculptor who tried - and failed - to give a fierce face to a Fudo statue.  However, as I made my way from level to level, it seemed like the artists who created these rakan managed it.  It's possible I was secretly hoping to find one with an arrow on its head, but apparently these guys never met Aang. 
This grouping had a different feel to it than the 1200 at Nenbutsu-Ji.  More structured, I guess is the way I'd describe it.  The sculptures and their stone lanterns were arranged on terraces ascending the hillside.  I found myself wishing it was fall, since it seemed like all of the trees were Japanese maples.  Since it wasn't, I played with my new photography skillz, trying to capture the textures of the stone and the moss.

On my way up to the temple I passed the Toyama Municipal Folkcraft Village.  I'm pretty sure that I could spend years researching all the different craft traditions of Japan, if only I had the time and money.  Since I have neither, I suppose it's just as well that my studies are generally restricted to dolls.  And here - for once! - I finally managed to find a doll workshop conveniently located and affordably priced.  Sure, it was just a simple ohina-sama doll, but even if it lacked the complexity of my current artist crush, Hiromine Nakamura, I think I did a pretty good job of individualizing mine.  I used my own features and an amalgamation of all my best boys, while simultaneously adhering to aesthetics.  In fact, I could probably make another 499 of them, to create my own take on the Gohyakurakan.  Maybe in my next Japan life.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Who Needs Holland?

It’s not entirely unfair to wonder how I spent my time in Toyama, since I didn’t stay up all night to watch for squid on the beach.  It isn’t all that big a town, and I’ve been here before, after all.  But what you may not know if you’ve never been to Japan is that there is ALWAYS something to discover.  You just have to find it.

My discoveries started Sunday night.  I was reading about something - I’m not even sure what it was at this point - and it mentioned Tonami, a town about an hour away on the train.  I knew because I looked at Google maps, and while I was there, I noticed they had a tulip park.  There was also a little pink date marker on the map, so I googled the next day’s date and Tonami.  The marker was undoubtedly for the ongoing tulip festival, but I also happened to discover that there might be children’s kabuki performances that day as well.  It was a little hard to tell, because I found two different dates on separate websites.  Regardless, I decided that I needed to make an excursion to Tonami.

On my way I decided I’d find out about the kabuki first.  Tulips are nice, but they weren’t something I could “miss” - they’d still be there later in the day.  Since I wasn’t entirely sure when the kabuki was taking place (or even IF it was that day) I didn’t want to miss it.  Also, it seemed like every last person who was on the train with me was going to see the tulips, so good riddance to people!  As I was about to go down the stairs on the north side of the station, I saw a poster announcing the Demachi Kodomo Kabuki Hikiyama Matsuri was the 29th and 30th of April.  I went into the information center to check the location - another thing that was sort of unclear from what I’d read online - and the oba-san pointed me in the right direction.
Now, allow me a brief interlude to admit that kabuki is not my favorite Japanese performance art.  The last time I experienced it the story was Naruto, and that still wasn’t enough to keep me awake through to the end.  That said, kabuki is unlike any other drama I’ve ever experienced.  Of course the costumes and make-up are distinctly Japanese, but even the way the actors move, using stilted movements and the kind of poses that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, is so unique.
Likewise the voices used.  I found the young actress’ speaking particularly striking.  A little backstory for you: originally kabuki was performed entirely by women.  Then men took it over, as they do, declaring it indecent for women to be on stage (also as they do).  So for a very long time, all the female parts have been performed by men, at least in professional performances.  Children’s kabuki seems to play by a different set of rules, though, because there were girls in the play I saw, as well as depicted on the posters.  The way that she pitched her voice, though, sounded more like a man speaking in falsetto than a natural female voice, so it seems that an artistic necessity has, in this case, become the convention.
Another thing I preferred about this performance over the Naruto kabuki was the fact that I could take pictures.  The audience sat on stools in the middle of the road.  The performance took place in front of us on a small portable stage which reminded me of nothing so much as a mikoshi.  The crew mostly stayed inside the structure, hidden behind the scenery, although they were visible during costume changes and when the fox appeared early in the act.  Although everything was in Japanese - I’m pretty sure I was the only gaijin in attendance - I did catch the title: Yoshitsune Senbon-Zakura (otaku vocabulary for the win!). It seems like they were specifically doing the fourth act, based on Wikipedia’s synopsis.  It moved relatively quickly, but I decided after it finished that I was satisfied with my kabuki experience and moved on to the tulip park.
Now THAT was a completely different beast.  One regret I had after visiting the Netherlands back in 2016 was the fact that tulip season was over before I got there.  Last month Sensei visited her daughter there and her tulip pictures made me sick with envy.  So I thought I might be able to get a small taste of that experience in Tonami, and I did.  The park sprawled out, surrounding you with tulips of every color imaginable, and there were water wheels and fake windmills to give you that good Dutch feeling.  So Claude Monet never painted the garden in Tonami - I can hardly hold that against them.  However, when I saw that it was a joint project with some kind of Turkish organization...maybe I held that against them a little.  It’s not their fault that I’m a little bitter against my current employers, but after the Director teasing me that the school was following me on vacation (which I’ll explain when I’ve seen the end of the school year), I didn’t really appreciate the reminder of my indentured servitude.  

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

I Squid You Not

So.  I had a dream.  I dreamt that I would spend every night on the shores of Toyama Bay until I saw the hotaruika no mirage - the firefly squid on the beach.  I booked a room at the Sky Hotel Namerikawa back in October or November to be sure that I was close enough to walk to the beach every night.  I was sure it was going to happen, because the new moon was on the first day of vacation, May 4, but I made plans to stay for several days, just in case.
Beautiful Toyama, on a not-too-beautiful day.
And if you’re paying attention, you may be noticing right now that I’ve been on vacation for several days already, and yet May 4 was not one of those days.  And if you have deduced from that fact that I fucked up and booked the wrong dates, you are correct.  What you may not have realized is that I didn’t figure this out until the Monday before the holiday.  And the holiday was an unprecedented 10 day vacation in Japan, thanks to the ascension of the new emperor.  Which meant that, basically, I was screwed.  I found two options that weren’t fully booked - one in Uozu, close to the shore, but looking sketchy as hell.  The other was by Toyama station (ie, inland), and was going to set me back $500.  Have I complained to you about my salary?  So, yes, things were looking quite bleak for me.  And then I wondered what my options would be if I tried Couchsurfing.

Now, for those of you who aren’t savvy, Couchsurfing is the predecessor of AirBnB.  The idea is that travelers host one another freely, paying it forward to the next couchsurfer who comes to their town.  It’s a good model if you like people and adventures.  Since I only like one of those things, I’d never tried it, but desperate times called for desperate measures.  And that is how I came to be staying with a young college student and her family here in Toyama.

Back to the squid: so my idea was that I was going to go out all night watching for them.  That was my plan until I got to my hostess with the mostest’s home Saturday night.  After a full day of wandering Kanazawa, following an overnight bus from Shinjuku, following a day of teaching, and THAT following two nights short on sleep.  Basically I decided I couldn’t do it.  Not that night.  But even the next day was cold.  Also, I’m not staying anywhere close to the shore.  Google maps estimates that it’d take me an hour to walk there, and Google seems to think I’m a faster walker than I am.

Well, I decided I could find a solution for that.  If I had a bike, it would be manageable.  I found out that Toyama has a bike sharing system, CycloCity.  I signed up for a weeklong account, and went to the station to get started.  It was super easy.  Problem solved!  Or so I thought.  Turns out that the system works only if the bikes keep circulating.  In order to avoid tourists who use the same bike for hours at a time, potentially leaving it unattended to get stolen, the first half-hour is free, the next half-hour is 100 yen, and each hour after that is 500 yen.  So riding around all night wasn’t going to work, either, as there were no bike racks near the beach.

It worked okay for getting me to the Inari shrine I needed to finish my photography project, at least.  Although even that I didn’t accomplish in the free half hour.  I mean, it takes time for the photos I was shooting.

I’ve been trying to convince myself since then, convince myself that it’ll be worth it to spend at least two hours on my feet, but honestly there’s no guarantee that even if I do that the damn things will make their appearance.  If it was as easy as “go to the beach, see squid,” I think I could muster up the enthusiasm.  I think if I had a travel buddy with me to keep me going (or that I’d at least be too ashamed to wuss out on), I’d be able to suck it up.  But.  Well.  That is not the case.  So I haven’t gone to shore.  I haven’t seen the firefly squid.

Instead, I’ve seen Avengers: Endgame.  It was awesome.  It didn’t involve me standing on my feet for several hours (although I was holding my pee for at least one).  Afterwards I got a nice wagyu burger from Shogun Burger.  See, maybe I don’t get to see the squid this year, but that’s okay because I really do like Toyama.  It’s a nice chill town with good food and places nearby to explore.  And I’m going to go explore some of them now.  So I’ll catch you on the flip side.