Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Otaku Report, Vol. 1

As you already know, among all the things I was looking forward to about living in Japan, one of the highest on my list was access to that good otaku life.  In other parts of the world, you have to wait around for the local anime convention (ie, AnimeIowa) or else instigate your own (for example, the nerd nights I planned at ASU with my favorite weebs.  Here in Japan, there needs be no special occasion - it's happening all around you.  You could, just for example, be sitting at the Shinjuku Express Bus Terminal and see a tall person of indeterminate gender walk past wearing high-heeled, studded boots and a kick ass outfit with those Sailor Moon-style twin buns in their hair (which may, in fact, have just happened.  Cosplay in Yoyogi Park is a regularly occurring thing, and if you find yourself walking on the streets (literally - they close it to traffic) of Akihabara on a Sunday, who knows what you will come across...last time it was some sort of gaming thing, which - not really being a gamer - I knew nothing about but still found interesting.

Before I got here I learned about Sora News through a friend who'd been living up in Sendai.  It often lures me in with a story, and on the side I'll see something exciting that I want to check out, only to find out that it's long since passed.  The good news is that most of the new stuff I've caught, and it's been fun.

For starters, I got to see Mikazuki Munechika in the...well, steel.  I mentioned the anime about boys turned into swords at least once before, and while Touken Ranbu isn't my favorite - it just seems like such a waste of cute boys to not have any hint of romance - but I have a healthy appreciation for both swords and cute boys, so, you know, it works.  Mikazuki Munechika is one of the five great swords of Japan, and considered to be the most beautiful because of a crescent pattern in the steel thanks to the way it was forged.  He's owned by the Tokyo National Museum, and they had him out on display this summer, so one weekend I went up to Ueno Park to check him out.  I got there a little after the museum opened, and went straight for the sword room - apparently all the fujoshis have been lined up taking shit tons of pictures, and I hate lines, but there were just a few women ahead of me when I got there, so all was well.  I couldn't really see the crescent pattern - it's supposed to be subtle enough that it really doesn't come out in photographs - but it was a pretty cool sword.  Not sure that it was any more beautiful than any of the other swords in the room, but maybe I'm not very discerning.

Along with that, I found out that there was a Touken Ranbu musical coming up in November.  Flower Boy posted that he'd purchased tickets for the Sailor Moon musical right before I came to Japan, and I had all sorts of feelings about that.  First jealousy, because I love musicals and plays and all of that.  Second, I was a little miffed because it was Sailor Moon, and although I watched about 10 episodes - it's a shoujo classic - I couldn't really get into it.  Maybe I'm too old.  At any rate, I wasn't going to shell out for Usagi-chan.  And finally, I was a little wary, because if live action movies are bad, would a musical be worse?  When I found out that there was a Touken Ranbu musical, I decided I'd find out for myself.  I diligently marked the day that tickets went on sale and went online to buy my tickets at the appointed hour.

And then my bank decided this was a great time to decide it was suspicious that I was ordering tickets in Japan, and blocked the purchase.  By the time I had called them and set them straight, tickets were all sold out.  Again the mix of emotions...I was PISSED that they chose that time to block my card.  On the other hand, while I was scrolling through the ticket order pages I found out that there was also an Ao No Exorcist stage show, and if Touken Ranbu is specially formulated to appeal to women who like beautiful men who aren't interested in women, Ao No Exorcist is not.  It is pretty much straight up shounen...and it wasn't sold out.

So last night saw me hoofing it after work up to Roppongi, where the theater was located (this also worked out well - the musical was at the Tokyo Dome, and I would've hated to try to make it up there and back after a long day of work.  It wasn't exactly a walk in the park, though, because I'd realized when I was looking at the email during school that you're not supposed to use the English, foreigner's site if you're living in Japan - there was something in the email about having to bring your passport, so I wasn't super happy to have to run home for it.  Fortunately they didn't look through it to see whether or not I was here on a visa - the picture page was enough bonafides for them (phew!)  I got my ticket, went past whatever swag they were selling - DVD's, postcards of the cast, t-shirts, whatever - and found my seat.  And then looked around.  With the exception of the stinky foreign guy on my right, it seemed like the entire audience was female.  Like, you'd have to go to a women-only screening of Wonder Woman to find an audience with that ratio of ladies to men.  It was a little crazy.
The show was interesting.  It didn't seem to have any overlap with the first or second season of the anime, and I haven't read the manga so I'm not sure if the story was canon, but whatever.  Kamiki gets kidnapped, Shima is up to something twisted - I wasn't entirely sure why, because it was in Japanese.  Now, of course it was in Japanese, but for some reason this came as a bit of a shock to me.  No supertitles.  No helpful notes in the program.  But if you can follow an opera in a foreign language, a movie or a play aren't that much more of a challenge.  And the best parts - the action, and a lot of the comedy - you didn't need to understand the language for.  And I think that's what made this a success as a play - there's a lot of room to play with special effects when your main character is the son of Satan and he wields blue flames.  The actual staging of it was impressive, too - I couldn't believe what they were able to do with a projector, several stair pieces, and two platform things.  It kind of made me wish I was working on a musical this year.

A couple of weeks before, I was shopping at my favorite place, the Daiso store (have I mentioned this before?  I need to start a weekly, "Things I bought at Daiso," post).  And the muzak playing over the speakers, I suddenly realized, was familiar.  In fact, I heard it again last night at the play - the second opening song for Ao No Exorcist.  I hope there's a special hell for people who use good music like that for nefarious purposes.  Cause it sucked.

My final report comes from a gallery stationed at the aforementioned Tokyo Dome.  In fact, I teased the poster for this exhibition back when I was writing about a little more than a month the live action production of Fullmetal Alchemist is being released here, and Japan is great at promoting.  They have nendoroids coming out (Ed, Al, and Colonel Mustang), a new chapter of the manga is rumored to be a freebie when you watch the movie, and they had a big art exhibition featuring covers, pages, and at least a couple of interactive displays. 

It was legit.  I haven't really written about just how damn well Japan uses light and sound in art, but they've got it down.  My favorite was a room painted to look like Ed and Al's house, which had the alchemy circles projected onto the floor and Ed and Al's voices recorded - it really brought you into the moment. 
Much more creepy was the projection - hiding around a corner, so it catches you off guard - of Selim Bradley peeking out of blinking, watching shadows.  Unfortunately for most of the exhibition you weren't allowed to take photos, because I wanted to TAKE ALL THE PHOTOS.  I feel like there should be some sort of exception made for art teachers when it comes to that rule, because we are educating the world's future artists and we need to be able to show them examples of what we are talking about. 

Instead I bought the book - which I would have done anyway if any museum type people are reading this - which had all the gorgeous color paintings in it.  It was well-worth the 1500 yen admission price, and even worth the hour I stood in line waiting to get in, although I would have enjoyed it more if there hadn't been quite so many people.  FMA is one of those stories that kicks you in the teeth every time because it is just SO good.  I read the manga back in the fall of 2014, went back and watched the anime in the summer of 2016, and walking through the art of it made me want to do it all over again...I'll probably even break down and watch the live action movie, because even if that is the one thing about animation that America does better than Japan, it comes with a free, new chapter, so even if it sucks it's not a total loss.  Even if the movie isn't great, the characters - particularly the women - are top notch.  When the nieces get a little older I'm definitely showing them Fullmetal Alchemist, because whether they want to be mechanics, generals, snipers, or just housewives, there's a badass role model in there for them.  If you're in Tokyo and you want to check it out, you've got one more week to do it - aim for morning or late afternoon, the line was lethal when I got there at one.

So that concludes the first volume of the Otaku Report.  I meant to finish last night but after a long ride down to Okayama on the Willer Bus and a full day of slogging through the typhoon, when I got to my hostel I kind of passed out.  Which is a shame, because it has a gorgeous Japanese garden, and I'm currently wrapping this up sitting at my first kotatsu (a little because it's chilly, but mostly because I'm trying to dry out my hoodie some - I'd do the same with my shoes but I don't want to stink up the place).  There are castles, temples, creepy doll villages, and - of course - art in the near future as I head into Shikoku and eventually to Hiroshima over the next week.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

My Kind of People

I'm not sure if you've ever had the chance to suddenly realize that you finally fit in.  I felt that for the first time in college, when I switched from attempting to be a music major to being an art major.  I never actually made it into the conservatory at UMKC - for whatever reason, their flute professor weighed me and found me wanting - but I took a lot of the basic music courses my first year, anticipating that I'd get in on my second try.  When I took my first art course, I was thankful that I didn't - I understood the art students.  They were relaxed and genuine in a way that the music students I knew never were.  They got me.

I kind of feel that way now in Japan.  I get the Japanese.  They are quirky and kinky and silent.  They love cartoons and cute things and crazy stuff like sitting outside and watching the moon.  And today I got to go check out two events that had me thinking I should have been born Japanese - a doll memorial and a cat parade.
Probably I should have saved the doll market for this blog, but honestly when I wrote last week's post I had forgotten the Ningyou Kanshasai was happening today at Meiji Jingu until I was looking through my Google calendar.  I've been to Meiji Jingu before, back in 2014, and even though it was kind of neat being able to recognize it when it showed up in an anime, I hadn't been that impressed.  Back then it was sunny and there were more people strolling the paths of Yoyogi Park, where the temple is located, than standing around in the temple.
Not so was packed, and it was raining.  Maybe that will start to give you an idea of how important this ceremony is in Japan.  Last week I kind of briefly mentioned that dolls are culturally important here.  And by dolls, I mean everything from puppets to plushies - if you look at the first photo you might begin to get an idea of the variety of toys that were presented at the temple today.  Conspicuous for their absence, though, were anime figures, presumably because regardless of what they look like and the use to which you put them, they are collector's items and worth money, so no genteel retirement for them.
Now, if you are the kind of person who didn't cry at the end of Toy Story 3, you might not understand why anyone would feel the need to say thank you to the toys they played with as a child.  If you did, I doubt you need any sort of explanation about dolls having souls.  For me personally, the idea of losing my "cat" Peppermint is so scary that I don't take her out much anymore.  So I found it really sweet to see everyone lined up in the rain, holding their bags of dolls, writing notes of thanks.
Now, let's say I did regale you with the history of the doll, and explain about their souls and the way they absorb a child's misfortunes, and you were not convinced.  Let me tell you a little story.  When we were kids, my great-grandmother had a room full of dolls in her house.  I don't remember the stories of most of them - I think my parents gave her at least a couple - but I remember how much I loved that room.  Each doll was different and special.  On the other hand, most of the cousins found the doll room creepy.  Before you scoff at the sentimentality that would lead a country to create a ceremony to properly send off their dolls' souls, ask yourself if you've ever had a doll give you the heebie jeebies.  And then see if you find the idea so far fetched. 

As for me, one corner of the display had a very kawaii miniature set of Hina Matsuri dolls that were all bunnies, and I was tempted to help them find a new lease on life at Babysis' house, but I was afraid one or both of us would end up with cursed-doll karma, so I left them to their fate and went on to Kagurazaka.

Another fun childhood story for you - one time my mom asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I told her I wanted to be a cat.  My mom very kindly explained that it didn't work that way, and I couldn't be a cat when I grew up...but my mother had never been to Japan, or she might have said differently.  Unlike almost every other place I've lived in Asia, the Japanese actually like cats.  And since they like cats, and they like pretty people (male, female, and everything in between), it makes TOTAL SENSE to put the two together (unlike, you know, monkeys and ponies, for those of you who've been to Skullcrusher Mountain).
So I definitely had to check out the Bakeneko Parade, since it was basically the fulfillment of my childhood ambition.  When I stepped out of the train station, I wasn't totally sure if I was in the right spot.  I'd checked to be sure it would still happen if it was raining before I left the house, but I didn't see anything to indicate that the area was saturated with cat people.  And then I heard the strains of music piping from up the hill, so I headed in that direction, and was delighted to find the Pipe and Tabor Society of Japan all in their nyanniest cat gear.*

Across the street there were several booths set up - one selling some tasty mini-cupcakes with cat decorations, others doing facepaint.  At that point, there weren't a lot of people, and I wondered if it was worth sticking around.  I wandered up the street a little, finding a shrine, where a wedding was being held (they were not, unfortunately, dressed like cats), and generally enjoying the neighborhood.  Apparently the cat in the Natsume Soseki (one of Japan's greatest novelists) book is from Kagurazaka, and that's why the parade takes place here.  I haven't read any of his works - yet...let's hope that Barnes and Noble doesn't fail me - but if it was up to me I'd pick a place from Haruki Murakami's novels, since they pretty much all feature cats.

Another famous resident of the former geisha district is Kobo-chan, a manga character from the 80's.  A couple of years back they put a statue of him up, and the locals dress him up for the season, which means he was wearing cat ears today, too.
I headed back to where the pipe and tabors had been playing, and was happy to see that there were even more people (and bagpipes.  I can't remember the last time I heard "Scotland the Brave," and I found myself wishing I knew the words - I've been in a singing mood lately).  One of the things that I loved the most about today was that everyone participated - foreigners, Japanese, old, young...real cats.  I seriously have no idea how this guys trained his cat to be so chill, but she didn't mind riding around the crowds on his shoulder.
I didn't stay for the whole thing in the end - my feet were already making their protest known, and I didn't really want to be home late, so I started walking back toward the station around 2.  On the ride back to Yomaha the trains caterwauled and I planned out what I'll do for my vacation in a week.  While I didn't mind the rain on my parade today in the least (particularly because it meant that Sports day got sort of cancelled again yesterday), I kind of hope it'll lay off around the inland sea next week.  If not, I guess my shoes will smell even worse by the time I get back, and that will be okay, too.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

All Dolled Up

So it's been a while since I've finished one of my plushies.  Sadly, but not really sadly, my "free" time has been taken up by my painting class, and most of my creative energy has gone into that.  Probably at some point I'll write about it, but that's pretty far down the list at the moment.  I still get a little work in during church on Sundays (because I'm a heathen and that's how I roll), but that doesn't get them finished, even if I have been staying for the whole 3 hour block of meetings most weeks since I moved here.
Still I haven't forgotten about my old obsession, and when I got an email from our curriculum coordinator a week and a half ago that said one of our students had invited the female teachers over that Friday for a doll festival and Indian food, I jumped at the chance.  If she hadn't been an awesome kid and a member of my new favorite class, it might have been a bit awkward.  Instead, it was one of my favorite experiences since coming to Japan.  It turns out that southern India has a tradition similar to Japan's Hina Matsuri, in which you put up a display of dolls - featuring the Hindu gods - to bless the girls of the house.  It was cool to see all of the dolls, and the way her mom included dolls and toys from a variety of traditions.
It got me thinking about my hobby again.  Over the summer I set up an Etsy shop to try and make a little money off my finished plushies, but so far I've just gotten a couple of views a week and not actually sold anything.  Which I guess is okay, since I'm pretty sure if I can figure out a venue to sell them in, I'd make way more money selling them here.  A venue such as the Ningyocho Doll Market.

I ended this week feeling kind of beat down (#expatrollercoaster) and thought I would just spend the weekend inside, licking my wounds.  And then last night, I remembered that I wanted to check out doll memorials, and that's kind of where this story goes from there.

When I went to AnimeIowa the first time, the panel that I actually enjoyed the most (because I - you know - learned from it) was about dolls in Japanese culture.  Most world cultures have dolls, but the Japanese have a whole set of beliefs about them.  They have a festival that features dolls as the centerpiece.  They believe dolls take on our misfortunes, that they even have souls.  And things with souls deserve a proper sendoff, hence, doll memorials.

Now, today was not one such memorial.  Hopefully I'll make it to one eventually - I was kind of pissed that I missed the ceremony in Kyoto last fall by one frickin' day - but there wasn't one today.  At least, I don't think so.  See, one of the search results Google was so kind as to cough up was Ningyocho's doll market, and the article I read about it mentioned a doll memorial in conjunction with the event.  I found the temple where it supposedly takes place - Okannonji - and there were dolls displayed in the prayer hall, but they didn't seem to be in immediate danger of immolation.  Maybe that was later in the day, though...
Ningyocho is a street that historically had a lot of dollmakers and their shops.  On a normal day, the name is about all that's left of the history - ningyo is the catch-all word for the whole spectrum of dolls, from plushies to puppets.  There are clock towers on the street that have automatons which give a little bit of the history and show off scenes from the old daily life, but otherwise it's just another street of Tokyo.  Most days, at any rate.

This week, though, Ningyocho gets back to its roots and hosts a doll market.  Along the sidewalks vendors have tents selling a variety of dolls.  Some are the kind of cutesy, handmade dolls that you might find in any craft store in America.  Some are very traditional Japanese dolls - the ones for Hina Matsuri, for example - which my countrymen would probably find as creepy as I find their continuing assertion that they should be able to own as many guns as they want, in any variety they want... I still pissed???  Oh yah, you betcha.  As we say in Japan, ばか...

Several of the vendors were also selling pieces of kimono fabric.  I had deep regrets that I've blown through so much of my paycheck already, because I could have gone a little nuts buying cloth, even if I haven't been able to finish a character in several months.  As it was, I was looking at some of the flashiest pieces in one of the last tents when I realized that the next plushie I started wouldn't need flashy fabric - no, Hoozuki would need the black silk that I'd seen at the other end of the street for only 500 yen, so I promptly marched myself back down there to get it.

It was fun to see everything that was for sale.  Not sure how I would go about getting in on the action - probably actually learning to speak Japanese would be a start - but my dolls are definitely different from everything else that was being sold.  In addition to the fabric I bought my own hime (princess) doll, so that I can set up a display when March comes around.  I didn't buy a prince doll, though - I'm going to take a page out of my student's mom's book and improvise to give my Hina Matsuri a distinct otome flavor (mwahahaha).  On the way home, I had to make an additional transfer because the local Keikyu train wasn't running and the express didn't stop at Shimbashi.  I was not impressed initially, but when I found the above fountain on the platform when I was transferring back from the Yamanote line, I was so delighted that I decided it was all worth it.  After all, it's not every day you get to see the pissing boy dressed up and on a train platform in Tokyo.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

This Land is Your Land

Over the last two years, my principal at ASU would give current events updates during our morning announcements.  The world being what it is, some of these announcements were sad and scary - shootings and terrorism, and the occasional update on the American president's newest idea - but she always ended on an upbeat, "Be grateful we live in Mongolia, where we are largely unaffected by these issues."  Because kids don't shoot each other in Mongolia's schools, and while we have two big scary neighbors, they basically cancel each other out.
I woke up this morning to another shooting - Las Vegas.  I grew up believing in the right to bear arms.  They are kind of part of the country life.  My Grandpa, Dad, and brother all owned and used them - my brother had his first BB gun before he started kindergarten.  From a young age, I saw them used responsibly (mostly...maybe someone got the glass on their truck shot out by a young BB gun enthusiast once, but nobody ever got hurt), and had the truth of what they were impressed on my mind.  Guns were useful tools, but they were deadly.  They were not toys.
Today a student asked me if I missed America.  If you've been around long enough, you know I have a complicated relationship with my home country, but I honestly don't know what to say about it anymore.  The fact that these shootings keep happening again and again while lawmakers stand there impotent is inexplicable.  Two athletes kneel peacefully in protest during the national anthem and the USA loses its fucking mind.  Jobs lost, endorsements dropped.  But what will be the repercussions from a shooting so bad that it stands out even amongst the last few bloody, bullet-riddled years?  Most likely, people will post on facebook, "Prayers for Las Vegas."  A few people will lose "friends" because they will take a stand and their friend will disagree violently.  But the people who make the rules will be too cowardly to actually take action.  I urge you to call them anyways, and make the next few weeks as uncomfortable as possible.

This summer, I spent my first Independence Day home in several years, and I was looking forward to barbecue and blowing shit up.  On the 2nd, I went to church, where our usual fast and testimony meeting had a patriotic theme:  more than one person came to the pulpit to testify that they knew our land was blessed, that it was the greatest nation in the world.  The blessed part is Mormon doctrine, so I guess I can understand how so many normally good, normally intelligent Latter-Day Saints got suckered into voting for the Great Orange Monstrosity.  The shocking part to me was that six months into his presidency, they were still spouting that shit.  Two days later, my Mom and I went to a patriotic worship service at Glenwood Lake Park that morning.  The preacher was a little more moderate, imploring us to put aside our differences and unify.  He went on, though, to honor first responders, policemen, and the military.  I bristled over the fact that he didn't include teachers, because here's the thing: using a gun is not the only way to save a life.  In fact, it's not even the most effective way*.  But don't let me get off topic - I was ranting about guns, not about the rednecks who have swapped their Confederate flags for the monochromatic Stars and Stripes, because "Back the Blue" sounds a lot less racist than "If the South had won we woulda had it made."
Shaggy used to talk about how guns don't kill people - people kill people, and I know he's right, but here's the thing:  they're a pretty damn effective way to kill people.  He would quote Switzerland's statistics, a country with similar guns legislation to the US, but I guess the Swiss aren't batshit crazy, because they don't have mass shootings - there's been one in the last 100 years.  The US by comparison has had seven in the last week.

Since I woke up this morning I've read arguments on Facebook, about how guns are our constitutional right.  Actually, assholes, it was an amendment, which is no less binding, but amendments sometimes need to be changed...or do you disagree with the repeal of prohibition?  Because bringing that back might make your obsession with guns slightly would investing in mental health.  But since that isn't happening, maybe you should go out and buy yourself another gun, because apparently that's the only way to protect yourself.  If all those people at the concert had guns, this wouldn't have happened, right?  #sarcasm
Listen.  This is not okay.  Maybe it's not my place to say; I don't even live in the US after all.  But I have these kids, nieces and nephews, who shouldn't have to worry about being shot when they're out shopping.  At a concert.  Watching a movie.  At school.  I've traveled all over the world, walked down the streets of Cairo after dark and hiked the Diamond Mountain in North Korea and hardly given a second thought to my safety.  A child growing up in the "greatest country in the world" shouldn't have to worry that they're going to be gunned down, and neither should their parents.  If you think I'm overreacting, then you are NOT PAYING ATTENTION.  If you are not scared and angry, then you are NOT PAYING ATTENTION.  Wake up and start giving a damn before it's too late.

*I didn't want to make this post about teaching, so I'll skip over everything else America's teachers sacrifice and just say that - all things considered - they put their lives on the line each day, too.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Scarecrows and Firelight

Friday I made a decision: I would swap out my summer clothes for the ones in what I thought of as my autumn suitcase.  This was predicated by the fact that I had just ripped a hole in one of my linen (ie, summer) pants, and wanted to be sure the rest made it as least as far as the beginning of summer.  It might not truly be cool (yet.  Most of the time), but my standard cords will stand up to my demanding teacher lifestyle a lot better.
Yesterday started a helluva lot earlier than I would have liked.  The school has an annual picnic in September, and this year we held it at Kishine Park.  It's not that far away, but have I mentioned Yokohama's hills?  I could have met everyone at the school and gotten a ride over, but I decided it would be much more after my own idiom to find my own way there, and that went well enough, but to make sure I caught the right bus I was out the door at 7, where I found this friend waiting for me. 

I mentioned a couple of weeks back that the week had finally reached terminal velocity, and this week I found that at least some of the people around me didn't suck (probably none of them suck, but you know me and my antisocial tendencies).  Monday I found myself chatting with three of the people I miss the most from Mongolia, feeling like the world was at an end, but by the time work was over the following day, I felt much better.  The expat life is kind of like that - rollercoasterish, with its ups and downs.  Still, when the clock ran out on the "family picnic" I was ready to get the heck out of Yomaha.

Last weekend I stumbled onto Tokyo Cheapo's events page, and found out this weekend there would be a firelight Noh performance at Zojo-Ji.  Putting it on the Cheapo site may have been slightly inaccurate, since the cheapest seats were still 2,000 yen, but since we got paid on Thursday I was flush with cash, and so that was my plan.  And then I found out there was a local street festival "next door" at Higashi Azabu, and I figured between the two it would make up for working on a Saturday.
After finding Zojo-Ji and figuring out if tickets were available and how to buy them (if you're reading this around the end of September 2018, they'll set up a table at the bottom of the stairs near the main entrance around 3:30 or 4), I had two hours to kill, so I wandered past Tokyo Tower and found the area of the festival.  It was...interesting.  It's called the Kakashi Festival, which means scarecrow but also happens to be the name of my favorite character from Naruto (which may have influenced me to go check it out, cause, you know...nerd).  Apparently it was an import from Tohoku, where some of the residents of Higashi Azabu originally came from.
So scarecrows are the main part of the festival, although this being Japan, there were plenty with their own cute twists.  A tent was set up with several on display - entered by local businesses and maybe schools?  I kind of wanted to find out if anyone could enter one, because it would amuse me to no end to participate next year by entering a huge version of my Kakashi-sensei plushie. 
There were tons of street food stalls, and games, of course.  I decided I needed one last shaved ice, only to discover it is not nearly as tasty on the last day of September as it is in mid-August.  For some reason that I still haven't been able to fathom, no matter how hard I rattle my brains, there were hula dancers, as well as a kind of cheesy magician.  I thought his tricks (ILLUSIONS, MICHAEL) were fairly transparent, but the kids seemed to be enjoying the show, and I had to admit he was still better than the magician who performed at ASU's TEDx last year.
Finally, I headed back to Zojo-Ji.  When I first got there, I was so busy trying to figure out about the performance that I didn't fully appreciate it (that and the incense.  I'd been trying to fend off a headache all day and the incense wasn't helping.)  There is a nice prayer hall, and apparently the treasure house is currently open.  But I didn't really pay that much attention.
See, the reason I knew the name Zojo-Ji is because I'm an art nerd, and once upon a time the Joslyn had a copy of Hasui Kawase's "Zojo-Ji Temple in Snow" on display, and it made enough of an impression to remember.  While I don't intend to visit all of the famous ukiyo-e scenes of old Edo...probably......I mean, really, there's just too many of them...this was too good a chance to pass up.

So I got back from visiting the scarecrows and entered the crowd, finding my seat and reading while waiting for things to get started.  The special thing about the Takigi Noh - which is what it's called - is that it's performed by firelight, with a little help from some electric lights.  When they finally lit them, I was pretty stoked.  They got the stage set up, and finally, the performance started.  And once it started, it didn't take me long to figure it out.  Noh is not really my cup of tea.
Japanese aesthetics can be a bit...subtle.  In a print, or painted on a paper screen, that comes off very elegantly.  As I sat and watched the first of the three performances - a number of priests sitting still while the two main characters declaimed at each other (calmly and thoughtfully, I thought, although I had no idea what they were saying) I had the entirely inappropriate urge to burst into a rendition of "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."  While the wailing of the flutes was poignant and the hits of the drums called out into the night, the stillness of the actors failed to move me.  So maybe I can't be called a weeaboo in the truest sense of the word, because I left after the first play.  This might have been unfair - the second was supposed to be kyogen, which I've read is comedic, and the third was about a woman who turned out to be a demon, and maybe on a normal Saturday I could have appreciated them, but after the picnic, I was just done.

As I walked away from Zojo-Ji, down a street lit by lanterns and lined with restaurants, I realized there is a good chance I've been unfair to Tokyo.  True, it doesn't have the same magic as Kyoto, but there is something about walking down its streets that feels entirely right to me.  It reminds me of how Seoul used to feel like it was my own personal amusement park, except more.  Walking through Tokyo feels like the whole city is just part of my home.  After all, there was a reason why Hokusai and Hiroshige's most famous prints were of Edo, not Kyoto.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Artful Adventures: Yokohama Triennale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Howdy Pilgrim, Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Howdy Pilgrim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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