Friday, December 29, 2017

Art of Your...Wooorrld!

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

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

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

Monday, December 25, 2017

Art is Magic*

Don't listen to the Brony propaganda.  I'm here to tell you that the true magic is art, not friendship (by extension, if Deidara is right, and art is an explosion, then true magic is an explosion, which means my childhood inspiration that fireworks looked like magic was right.  Birdwalk complete).  I'd guess there are a lot of people in the world who don't get a kick out of making cool shit, but I was never their teacher.  Last fall I found myself feeling nostalgic for my art school days - some of my favorite times in college consisted of staying up way past midnight, drinking tons of Hy-Vee cherry cola and working on projects.  Printmaking students were granted 24/7 access to the studio, and there was more than one time when after dark - heedless of the numerous drug dealers and rapists who were undoubtedly lurking (joking!!!  Everyone knows that sort of thing happened on the other side of campus) - I walked down the hill from the Tropicana, across Brookside, between the Twin Oaks, and back up past the conservatory and student union to the art building, where I'd call a campus police officer to let me in.  (In actual fact, I think I did this once under a tornado watch.  Art makes me want to do crazy things....)
My favorite painting from Taka-san's

So I spent a goodly portion of my last year in Mongolia reliving the glory days.  This started after being exposed to all that art and otaku culture in Kyoto...I got back to UB with ideas and a need to do something.  All the professional development I did that year probably also had a hand in it.  I had actually been thinking about doing more of my own sketchbook work after Amsterdam - in my IB training, we learned about the comparative analysis DP art students do, and I was very flattered when our teacher asked if he could use my gallery work from the Stedelijk for a guide he was writing about DP art, but I wanted to actually try it myself with something I was passionate about.  And that's why I started sketching and writing notes about ukiyo-e prints, Impressionism, Art Nouveau, and anime and manga.  Call me crazy, but it's FUN.  I learn something new, and it sends me off looking up something else.
I actually started with the paintings I saw at Taka-san's, which made me wonder about other artists creating "fine art" using the anime style.  This led me to Takashi Murakami's Superflat works, and his establishment of Kaikai Kiki.  As I looked up some of the artists in this collective, I found Aya Takano's Keisai Eisen with Oiso Station 9th on Her Back, which directly referenced the ukiyo-e prints I fell in love with back in my wild college days.  From there, I started comparing ukiyo-e with modern anime - the use of line!  The color!!  The compositions!!!  At the same time, I was finishing up a plushie.  Ironically, it was the only non-anime one I made, which I kind of hated, but while I was working on it, I had to make it a tie, and I ended up painting a plain scrap of silk to do so, which made me remember how much I liked painting silk.  At some level I knew this, or I wouldn't have had all the materials I needed for it, but actually getting my lazy ass in gear and doing it forced me to notice the way you can use line and color in silk painting.  After a lot of sketches and a little frustration because male characters are way harder to make artistic, not least of all because they tend to be less colorful), I finally made a painting...but I still haven't taken a picture of it - maybe I'll add it to this post once I get back to Yomaha.

Finally, I planned to share my resume.  I got this idea last December that I should make an illustrated resume, in manga style since I was hoping to get a job in Japan.  When I was living in Shanghai, with dreams of becoming an illustrator, I did the late night art party pretty regularly, listening to the deed-o deed-o of people coming and going from the Seven-Eleven across the street, which blew in on my cross-breeze. Sitting in my parent's dining room over the holidays last year wasn't really the same thing, but then again, having my Dad in the next room watching tv in his recliner and my mom bustling in and out as she worked on whatever - to some extent, it had that same way of demonstrating that I wasn't the last person alive.  It was comfortable, working on my resume in those circumstances. 
I ended up being ridiculously proud of the damn thing, but it still took me til June to get the job I'd been praying for.  The layover in Narita a year ago was a twisting knife in my gut - I read the newest chapter of Shingeki No Kyojin, smelled curry, was overwhelmed by enlargements of some of my favorite Hokusai prints, and teased by a duty-free shop called close, and yet so far away!  I actually didn't get to do much more art the rest of the year, because I was so busy wrapping things up in Mongolia, but that just meant that when I started working on the first class for my master's degree, a painting course that I just finished, I was full of ideas and raring to go. 

*So...this was sort of a flashback post.  I wrote most of it last year in Mongolia, but never finished it.  I figured it was a good lead in to writing about the work I did this semester, so went ahead and published it - albeit with a few tense-changes and slight tweaks.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

China Days

When I lived in Shanghai, I had a lot of what we used to call "China Days."  That was when living in China put you in such a rage that you couldn't shake it off.  Everything from pushy old ladies and people spitting literally EVERYWHERE could trigger a China Day.  By contrast, I didn't really have Mongolia Days.  While the cold and the pollution were more awful than I have words for, even when something annoyed me, I got over it relatively quickly.  This is probably why I still miss Mongolia.

I don't miss China.  I missed my friends, when they lived there, and I miss my tailor (oh HOW I miss my tailor!), but I have no lingering nostalgia about any "good old days."  This is probably most of the reason why Yokohama's Chinatown had no particular attraction for me.   I didn't need to spend time in Chinatown, because I've actually spent more than enough time in the real China.  But when I was wondering how to round out my blogging for the year, Chinatown was part of the answer.  When I started following Hozuki on Twitter, I found out that the Kinokuniya in SOGO department store at Yokohama station was having a special exhibition the week before I left, complete with (of course) special merch.  So I waited none-too-patiently for the day to arrive - fortunately I was part of the winter concert committee, which kept me busy enough that I didn't go too crazy waiting.
One of the reasons why I'm in love with this anime is the fact that the art is just that good.  The mangaka, Natsumi Eguchi, is actually a fully-trained artist, rather than someone who studied manga.  For your average nerd, this may not make a lot of difference, but as an art teacher it's like day and night - the way he uses lines, the details...there's so much more substance there than in an average manga.  The special character designs for this exhibition really demonstrate that.  And since one of Yomaha's main draws is Chinatown - we were the first port to open to international trade - the special illustration for the event showed the characters in Chinese dress, standing at the main gate of our Chinatown.
So.  I visited the exhibition, bought a couple of things (I finally tried the bath salts, and immediately regretted only buying one pack) took photos of the artwork.  Ate Mexican (unrelated, but El Torito is in the tower next door).  It was not actually as exciting as I'd thought it would be, but I didn't complain - there are little otaku boys and girls all over the world who wish they had the opportunities I had.  With one Saturday left before I was home for the holidays (where I am writing this now), I decided that I would visit that Chinatown and make this my (maybe) last post of 2017.
Now, I wandered into Chinatown once before.  The night I met Flower Boy for the Harvest Moon he was a little late, so I went exploring, finding the temple pictured in the first photo.  This time it was under renovation, so it was just as well that I wasn't looking to pay my respects to the Sea Goddess.  No, my first order of business was lunch.  I wasn't sure what I was looking for, but when I almost walked past a signboard showing fried dumplings with soup inside, I knew I'd found it.
My friend Meen tells me these are not xiaolongbao, but that is what I called them for two years in Shanghai, and another five years in my dreams, because nothing would have warmed up Ulaanbaatar like a bite of one of these babies.  Because they have soup inside, you can't just pop them in your mouth - instead, you have to take a little nibble and suck the soup out before devouring the rest of the dumpling.  Its the kind of experience that in a certain anime would result in your clothes exploding off and some awkwardly sexual sounds...and that anime is the reason I bought the bun pictured (to be honest, although I enjoyed the Hozuki cafe, what I really want is to see someone make a Shokugeki no Soma cafe...every time I watch that show it makes me hungry).

After lunch I wandered down the streets.  It was pretty busy with people shopping, and the goods for sale mostly looked like what you'd expect to find - kitschy golden dragons and chopsticks, although I did find one shop selling some really nice hand-printed tenugui.  At first I wondered why a shop in Chinatown would be selling quality Japanese handicrafts, and then I mentally smacked myself, because it's a shop in a tourist attraction in Japan - of course they sell Japanese souvenirs.  Maybe it was the xiaolongbao talking, but for a moment my suspended disbelief had kicked in, and I was convinced I was in China.  But then reality took over, and I realized that everyone's behavior was way too polite for China, and I hadn't caught a single whiff of stinky tofu.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Autumn Leaves

In Mongolia, Autumn comes and goes within a week.  One Sunday you're on your way to church and you notice the trees next to the Tuul are turning gold.  By the following Sunday, there ARE no leaves.  If you count the changing of the larch, you might manage to sneak some more time into your fall, but it will be snowing before that happens.  By contrast, it seems like Japan's autumn just keeps playing the hits.

I feel like fall officially started the night I went to Sankeien with Flower Boy for tsukimi.  I mentioned a few posts back that the Japanese are the kind of people who think that sitting out at night to watch the moon is a great activity, and I can't disagree.  I like being out at night, anyways - no sun, so I don't burst into flame, and I feel like that magical feeling is stronger at night, although admittedly I like being a little closer to home than Sankeien is when things are over.  Still, the Harvest Moon only comes along once a year, so trek home or no, I made plans to visit this classical Japanese garden with him.
We finally got there around 8 o'clock.  It was kind of sad, because it had been an overcast day, and although we were thankful that it at least hadn't started raining (yet - we pushed up our visit one day because it was in the forecast), we were bummed because we didn't think we'd get to see the moon.  We paid our 700 yen and went in, and immediately started looking around for the music.  There was supposed to be a performance, but we weren't seeing it and couldn't even hear it.  We kept wandering, though, and eventually discovered that the house/museum section was open, and that night, at least, it was free.  And it turned out to be where people were sitting on the lawn, watching a woman play the biwa.
We sat and listened, and I tried to keep an eye on the sky - I still held out hope that the moon would put in an appearance, and I was not disappointed.  It managed to break through the clouds long enough to say hi, and for a few minutes, I stared up at the moon instead of the biwa player (turns out biwa isn't really my thing, anyways - no good for dancing, not much good for singing, either).  But sitting in a classical Japanese garden at night under the moon, listening to Japanese music with friends...that was my thing.
At that point, though, the leaves really hadn't begun to turn - it was Autumn in name only.  The real autumn actually kind of snuck up on me - it seems like I spend most of my time going between school and home.  One Sunday I walked past the park behind my house - I still hadn't been inside because it always seemed to be closed - and some of the trees were almost bare, and it seemed like the rest were never going to lose their leaves.  I almost went to an autumn illumination on the 24th of November, but the day before I went to Tokyo for the Hozuki cafe, and I decided I didn't want to do that two nights in a row.  Priorities, you know?  I'm sure Rikugien will light up their gardens next year, too.
It wasn't until the final day of November, when I was on a field trip with my seventh graders to an exhibit in Ueno Park that I thought, "Oh look, golden leaves!"  (There's a ton of ginko in Ueno, so it's a good place to check them out - I kind of wanted to ditch the kids and go play in the leaves.  Bad art teacher!)  That made for a good weekend, especially with the Chichibu Night Festival.
When I was stalking Tokyo for upcoming events - which, by the way, I think is a thing for me.  I feel like I spend enough time (particularly on Friday nights) reading up on what's happening in Tokyo that it qualifies as stalking.  Sorry, Tokyo - I realized I was going to miss out on some cool stuff by going back to the States (winter Comiket and a fox parade at one of the many Inari shrines around town most notably).  So when I found out I had the chance to see one more festival before I went, I jumped at the chance, even if it was far enough out of the way that it justified getting an AirBnB.

Chichibu is a fairly small town up in Saitama, but they host a night festival the first week of December.  Apparently Sunday was the day to go, but there was work the next day, and although I haven't had a rough day at school for a while, I also don't feel quite comfortable enough to pull a sickie so I can go to a festival (not that I've ever done that, but I was tempted yesterday, since I could have gone to the 47 Ronin ritual at Sengaku-ji).  Which was okay, since Saturday night still had the mikoshi parade, and still had fireworks, and street food.  The yakisoba, by the way, was delicious!
I was actually about to enter the shrine when I heard sounds floating down the street, and decided I would see what was going on.  Cutting through a parking lot I was able to get to the street a little before the first float - and it was huge.  I've been to at least a couple of festivals here at this point, and these were serious floats.  Huge crews were carrying them along, and they had lots of people on them, even on the roofs...
Although the leaves have been taking their time, the cold definitely hasn't.  It was quite chilly waiting on the platform for the train that would take me back to my AirBnB - probably because I don't have a decent winter coat.  When I bring this up in conversation, people look a little confused and say, "But...weren't you living in Mongolia last year?"

I assume most people ask rhetorically, since I almost never miss a chance to talk about Mongolia.  It's true, though, that I came without a coat - my trusty red cashmere was wearing thin long before the end of last winter, and I felt like, really, after 5 years in Mongolia, what could Japanese winters really do to me???

In fact, I remind myself often what the temperature is like back in UB, because it helps me to appreciate that Yokohama is really not that cold.  Unless it's raining.  Or dark.  Or, you know, I've just come home to my apartment.  When I first arrived in UB, I bemoaned the loss of the ondol floors in my Shanghai apartment.  Now I'd give anything to be warming my back against the radiator in the teachers' apartments at ASU.  My apartment - which I love, don't get me wrong - is none-too-well-insulated and heated by an AC unit.  It works well enough that I can't complain, but at the same time, I kind of miss sleeping with a fan year round - even when it's -40 out- because the heating system works that well. 

On the other hand, in UB I wouldn't walk more than a couple of blocks outside in winter if I could avoid it, so I guess there are trade-offs.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Crane Gang

I've been a plushie snob since before I started making fact, it's part of the reason I picked up my needle in the first place. I'd seen plenty, both on the interwebs and later in person last year in Denden Town, but I remained convinced that nobody could make a plush as cute as mine.  Until Hiroshima, where I changed my tune (well, on, MacDuff).  I had just visited the Animate and found myself in an arcade full of crane games, and without anything much better to do for the rest of the night, I decided to drop a few hundred yen, if I could find a prize worth fighting for.
Now, a thing you have to realize about me is that I suck at crane games.  Really, truly suck.  So when I came across a glass cabinet full of huge Hozuki plushies, my heart was filled with the utmost despair.  Even though I was hoping to find something I wanted enough to play for, the irony was that if I did, I wouldn't be able to win it.  The size wasn't even really the issue.  I had failed to ever win a prize of any kind - even candy - by grabbing it in a claw, whether back home, where they truly are rigged, or here...I dragged Five into several game centers this spring to try.  So I walked past the machine.
Down at the end of the row, though, I found Hozuki again, dangling by a pink nylon string.  I'm sure I must have seen the Barber Cut game before, but it must never have been loaded with a prize I wanted.  Now, though, here he was, dangling like Kandata from the spider's thread.  It was destiny - with my understanding of space honed through years of teaching art, I could do it.

Now, here's a little myth-busting/confirming for you.  To win the Barber Cut game, you have to line up a little pair of scissors with a string.  Depending on who you ask, this is either the easiest game in Japanese UFO game centers, or the hardest.  Since I found it, I've read that some places dull the blades, so that even once you're able to line it up, you still have to get several cuts.  This seemed to be  the case at the NAMCO in Hiroshima.  When I finally lined those scissors up with the string on my seventh try, I knew I had it.  Hozuki was as good as mine.  But the string didn't break - it merely frayed.  And that put me in a terrible position, because it was my last 100 yen, and apparently there are vultures out there who swoop in and steal others' prizes when they go off to get more change! Fortunately the girls who walked past my game didn't try anything, or I might have had an exciting blog to write you about prisons in Hiroshima.  Instead, I came back with 10 more 100 yen coins, and before I got to the last one I was the proud owner of my own scary-cute* demon.
Mine, all mine - mwahahahahah!
It is possible that I have been a little judgey when it comes to Pachinko addicts.  Personally, I can't understand the appeal of spending all day in a loud, smelly room plunking money into a game designed to make you lose.  Spending a little time, though, in a loud but not smelly room plunking money into a game from which you might walk away with some kawaii anime swag...that, apparently, I understand, because ever since coming back from vacation I've been wondering whether or not it was a fluke, and if there might be more games I can win.

I began in Akiba, which I'm definitely going to write about in depth one day.  There are TONS of arcades in nerd central, and while some of them will give you a free try, most of them didn't have the string game...the few Barber Cuts I found looked sketchy, and there was nothing I wanted to win.  The last one I came to, though, had some little Hozuki swing plush all stacked up in a huge pile in a traditional crane game, so I sank about 5 bucks trying to win one before admitting defeat.  That's another thing about these games in Japan - you're paying a dollar each turn rather than a quarter.  Pricey, compared to back home, but I'd rather spend $5 and win on the fifth try (or, you know $16...considering the size of my prize, this still wasn't bad) than $1.25 and walk away empty-handed and demoralized.
I lived to fight another day, and decided the following Friday after school to hit up the arcade I kept going past on my way up to Daiso in Kawasaki.  I love Kawasaki.  When I went to a festival there once upon a time, I walked past this shopping district and could feel its potential but I had bigger fish to fry back then.  Now it's just one stop away from my nearest train station.  It didn't take me long to find a crane game with those damn swing plush from Akiba, but this time there were three of them laid out individually, close to the edge.  There is plenty of advice online about how to win at "UFO Catchers" and I'd read a little since my last attempt, but after 10 tries. Hozuki had moved so far to the back that the claw couldn't even reach him.  Now, sane people would call it a loss and walk away at this point.  I have never been one to pride myself on my sanity, though...I walked away, but only to find one of the attendants to ask for a "resettu."  This is another thing you can do in Japan - if the prize is turning out to be too hard to get or like this dumbass, you manage to shift in too far in the opposite direction, the people working there can fix it so it's easier to win.  He moved my little prize and I began again.  This time, Hozuki ended up next to another one of the prizes, and in the process of working on mine, I ended up with both.  I've started doing math like Five, and I think this means instead of wasting $20 to get a prize, I wasted $10 each on two prizes.  It sounds much better that way.

This is where I should quit.  I should definitely not be thinking to myself, "I wonder when prizes change, and what else might be offered."  But that IS the next logical step.  So I looked online and while I failed to find a comprehensive listing of upcoming prizes, by searching MyFigureCollection I found some of the prizes that came out when Hozuki No Reitetsu's first season came out, and the truth is, it's all over.  I'm officially in training, because there will come a day when the only way to get the prize I want is to have mastery over the claw.
In the meantime, there's no chance of winning those old prizes...but I've read I might be able to pick some of them up secondhand.  I'd briefly stopped into Nakano Broadway the day I went to the Koenji Awa Odori, but I'd been carelessly meandering in and out of Mandarakes at that time.  When you're on the hunt though, it changes everything.  Let's start with books.  I'm a sucker for art books, and being an art teacher makes it a justifiable expenditure...I might even be able to claim that on my taxes, if I filed them (oh, wait - I did file my taxes!  Like most things in life, actually doing it was less hassle than I imagined it to be in the...well, let's not think about how many years it had been).  I found several Hozuki no Reitetsu books online, and had been trawling the shelves of Book Off looking for them (and picking up the manga volumes along the way, which, no, I can not actually read...yet...) but hadn't found them.  The first Mandarake I stopped into on Saturday, a foreign employee asked me if there was anything she could help me find, so I pulled up the photo on my phone, told her the title, and in like 5 minutes I had the book I wanted in my hand.  It was AWESOME.

There are three floors chock full of otaku goodness in Nakano Broadway.  A lot of the stores are the tentacles of Mandarake, which means that you can ask at their information and they can search it for you and direct you to the right place.  But if they don't have it, there's still a chance one of the other dealers does, and since you're in the same building, it's a lot less hassle to search them all than in Akiba.  It was a good day of shopping and I managed a pretty decent haul, although I didn't find any plush.  Maybe this is just as well, since the closer I get to finishing my own Hozuki, the more I'm reminded that nobody makes a plush as cute as mine. 

*It amuses me to no end that this is koai-kawaii in Japanese.  They are almost the same word.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

A Very Otome Thanksgiving

Fair warning given:  the next few posts will be a fairly tongue-in-cheek, somewhat self-deprecatory look at just how "native" I've gone.  If you are scared to look into the abyss of exactly how deep obsession may go, then by all means, turn back.  Otherwise, I'll repeat Dante's caveat: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

I'm known for having controversial ideas about how classic American holidays should be celebrated.  For example, if it were up to me, we'd eat Italian for Christmas instead of ham (the pork industry in the States is horrible, and Jerusalem was a part of Rome back then...makes sense to me).  Normally I would say that Thanksgiving is a holiday for Mexican food, but this year, it was a day for curry.

This year I'm giving thanks that I discovered my new favorite anime just before its second season started airing.  In the near future, I'll regale you with tales of how that happened; for now, suffice it to say that every anime I've ever enjoyed has been eclipsed by Hozuki no Reitetsu, an anime about the sarcastic, sadistic asshole who keeps hell running ('nuff said).

I'm also thankful that I FINALLY figured out why people use Twitter.  I happened to pick up a flyer for something related to Hozuki a while back, and when I squinted at it hard enough last week, I realized they had a website and a Twitter.  There may have been some weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth when I realized that I had missed some opportunities in the last few months.  It turns out that it's not good enough to live in Japan - if you can't keep up with all the events that are happening, you'll be kicking yourself when you hear about them later.  Without a strategy, and without the right tools, you won't be able to fully appreciate and embrace the good life.  My strategy and tools had been sorely lacking.

Luckily, all was not yet lost.  Animate Cafe in Ikebukuro was currently hosting a special Hozuki theme cafe, and when I went to the website, I found out I could make a reservation for Thursday night.  Normally I hate going to Tokyo on a school night, but Thursday was a sort-of holiday...we had our open house in the morning, but were finished by 1:30, so I slogged my way through the sign up (Google Translate isn't perfect, but it's still kind of a miracle worker), and started impatiently counting the hours.

Theme cafes are kind of a regular Japanese thing.  I've read about Hello Kitty cafes, My Little Pony cafes, and there's going to be one for my first anime, Ranma 1/2, in...January, I think.  Most of them, unfortunately, are for a limited time only.  There's a permanent Gundam cafe in Akiba, but most of these cafes you have to catch at the right time.  And probably that's okay - considering how much anime there is out there, you couldn't possibly keep them all going, or visit them all.  But I personally think it's worth it to try once - I mean, just for the blog, you know, not because I'm obsessed or anything - so once we'd had our post-open house reflection meeting I was out the door and on my way.

The main features of a theme cafe - based entirely on my one visit - are the decorations and the food.  This one also had special, limited edition merch for sale, on which I was happy to plunk down a few yen.  For Hozuki they had life-size banners of the characters hanging all over the walls, and if only they'd been for sale, I would have plunked down a few more yen, because I'd feel way more motivated to cook if I had sushi-chef Hozuki in my kitchen peering over my shoulder.  The life-size Zashiki Warashi figures were adorable, and got me wondering if I could find the right material and alter my pattern to be small enough to make them as plush.
The menu is the other part of the equation.  The cafe offers food, drinks, and desserts based on the show.  Some of them are directly mentioned in the show - I ordered the curry, which a recent episode talked about Hozuki making - and others are loosely based on things like the characters' appearance.  Each item was served with a coaster, but you don't get to pick which coaster you get, which seems like a brilliant strategy to keep people ordering.  I was lucky enough to get the coaster I wanted with my main dish - the girls at the table next to me both got the same two coasters twice.  Apparently sometimes the cafes have cosplayers, too - the list of instructions the staff had in English mentioned them, but I didn't feel like staying til the bitter end to be sure.  After all, it was still a school night, and it's possible I prefer my characters to stay 2D.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Fresh off the Boat

After hitting temples and wandering the shopping streets of Matsuyama, I was ready to take my last ferry across to Hiroshima.  Usually being a resident foreigner works against you - we can't get the #-day JR rails passes, for example - but when I got to the port I was pleasantly surprised to get my ferry ticket to Hiroshima for almost half the price.  I cringed when she flipped my passport to the back where my visa was, but she gave me the foreign price anyway, and pretty soon I was sitting in comfort looking out over the open sea.  Of all the forms of transport I've used during this trip, I think the ferry was my favorite, leisurely floating over the water, up on the deck where you can feel the wind, or seated inside on a couch at a table.  This time, I worked most of the journey in my sketchbook.
I hopped my first streetcar right after getting off the boat.  This is a big thing in Hiroshima - they have all sorts of old streetcars, which they buy off other cities.  It's kind of like a moving museum.  I was glad I got on at the first stop; by the time I hopped off it was so crowded I had to body check a few people to get off, and I was right next to the door.
I scanned the area close to my AirBnB for restaurants while I was on the ferry, and found a Turkish place, at which I arrived perfectly in time for dinner.  Probably I'm a heathen for not looking for a good Japanese restaurant.  Hiroshima is famous for their okonomiyaki, and I made sure to eat some the following evening before getting on the Willer Bus back to Tokyo.  But I love Turkish food and I owe a lot to the Turkish community in Japan, since they're sort of the reason I have a job, so I ate at Karsiyaka.
After stuffing my face with iskander kebab and hummus (I stopped short of the baklava...barely...) I started walking to my AirBnB, just on the other side of the Peace Park.  I passed an Animate along the way, making a note to come back and check to see if they had any good swag.*  I was feeling giddy - I had one more day of vacation, we'd just been paid - when I came to the river and found myself facing the Atomic Bomb Dome.  I was steps away from ground zero.

The building before me reminded me of the old, crumbling churches you sometimes see in paintings, complete with a churchyard full of tombstones: the rubble from the blast serving as an additional reminder.  One of the things I love about anime is the way it offers us an alternative reality - not just an escape, but a different set of possibilities.  In Naruto - which I reference fairly often but it is just that good - the evil ninjas set out to create a weapon so bad that it will force everyone to make nice (nevermind all of the people they have to kill along the way).  Naruto - who has literally lost everything - manages to come out of his rage and talks to their leader, and convinces him that causing more pain won't bring peace, but rather will just continue a longstanding cycle of revenge and hate.  It's a pivotal moment in the series.

The real world might be a better place if anime was a religion.  Probably a creepier place, too, but although there are at least a couple of things about Japan that drive me crazy, the creep factor is actually negligible.  I feel far less skeezed out by the otaku in Akiba than by the gaijin in Roppongi...but maybe that's because they're my kind of people...

The next morning I got up and went to Miyajima - the temple group with the floating torii.  One of the things I read reminded me to be sure and check the tide table, but ain't nobody got time for 'dat - another typhoon was headed that way, so as soon as I got up I headed out.  I didn't beat the rain, but I hoped it might scare off the tourists.  It didn't, but I think it might have put a dent in them when it started raining in earnest.  Unfortunately, the day before the sole started to separate from the upper on my only pair of kicks, so my enjoyment of the shrine with fewer temples war marred by even squishier feet than at the beginning of the week.

(For the record, I am still wearing those shoes half the time.  It sucks, but they're the only Chucks I've got right now, and I'm too busy - read: distracted - to buy new ones.  I very nearly ordered the Hoozuki No Reitetsu sneakers I found on pre-order at Animate after I got back, but they won't really help me now, not to mention I can paint my own for cheaper and I'll like them much better...)
I sat on the...porch?  Dock???...of the shrine for a while under the eaves of a pavilion painting the torii and watching the tide roll in.  With it came the scent of the sea, the saltiness of things living under the water.  It gave me shelter from raindrops, but when it began to rain in earnest the flood of water creeping along the plank toward the sea pushed me off.  I got up and explored the rest of the area, watching the creepy deer and purchasing a couple more ema for my collection.  And then I went back into Hiroshima. After a week of constant motion, I was pretty much done.  I parked in Starbucks for a while to type, went after that okonomiyaki I was told I had to try (meh.  I liked Osaka's better...), and tried to stay out of the rain while waiting for the Willer Bus to take me back to Shinjuku.  I don't feel like I really did Hiroshima justice, but I think that's okay.  I think it just means I'll have to come back, and I'm totally okay with that.

*I seem to do that with every one I pass.  It's ironic, because Akiba is a straight shot up the Keihin Tohoku line, but I'm my mother's daughter after all, and I can't tell you how many times she dragged us through random Wal*Marts we passed on vacation...

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Finding Inspiration

Everybody has something for which they hold the opinion that, "If you've seen one, you've seen 'em all."  For example, the summer I moved to Korea for the first time, my parents took my younger siblings and I on a road trip to Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Now, if family road trips are challenging as kids, trust me when I say that they are even more difficult when you're adults, because everyone has an opinion and they all feel entitled to them.  My opinion was that I wanted to visit the art museum in Minneapolis.  My mom, on the other hand, had the aforementioned belief that as she'd already been to a few galleries in her day (mostly on my account) and thus, was good.

I bring this up in my Matsuyama interlude because I went to - you guessed it - more temples in Matsuyama (and - guess what?!? - there will be one more in Hiroshima.  Don't shoot me).  I had a really good reason for visiting so many temples and shrines.  Of course there was the pilgrimage and the fact that spiritual seeking is one of my things, but there was a little more to it than that this time.

I was hunting dragons.
I've mentioned my painting course in passing a couple of times, and I'm planning to eventually write about my body of work for the semester, but this is not (really) that post.  This is relevant because the subject of my second work is a kawaii pink dragon.  He has been a pain in the ass because I can't seem to get the back legs right, and to be honest, I'm not entirely happy with the front legs, but it's not exactly like I can call up my neighborhood dragon, and be like, "Yo D, my homes - come over and help me re-enact that scene from Titanic!"  So I've trawled the internet, the National Museum, and more than a few temples looking for source material.

Now, if I wasn't dragon hunting, temple hopping might get a little boring.  If, you know, I wasn't me and digging the atmosphere and taking shit tons of photos.  But because I had something to find, it made me take a closer look, really noticing what was in each shrine and temple.  So the moral of the story is that if someone you love is annoying the everloving crap out of you by dragging you to five bazillion things that - as far as you're concerned - are completely and totally indistinguishable, try and find something to look for.  Make a game out of it.

Or else you could ditch them.  I mean, either short-term or long-term - up to you.  One of my favorite things about being single is not having to pretend to be interested in other people's stuff, and this includes traveling, although I guess the argument could be made that you miss out on opportunities.  Really, the ideal travel buddies the ones that you can confidently leave to do their own thing at times - I pretty much refuse to go anywhere with someone who doesn't meet this qualification.
I was also trying to find ema - the wooden plaques you write your wishes on at temples and shrines.  In the last post I talked about the paintings I saw on some, and I've been toying with using them for my final painting project to create an installation of self-portraits about wishes.  The dragon at the front on the left was a particularly good score, since it references my current work. 
I can squeak one more dragon reference into this post, and bring up Spirited Away, Studio Ghibli's masterpiece about a girl who falls in love with a dragon in a bathhouse.  (Yes, that makes it sound sketchy...I prolly did that intentionally).  I've read in more than one place that Dogo Onsen was Miyazaki's inspiration for the bathhouse in Spirited Away, and after checking it out, I can believe it.  Dogo Onsen is one of the oldest in Japan (a country that loves their public baths), and their spring is known as kami-no-yu - the water of the gods.  Its facilities aren't as extensive as some I've been to, but you can feel the history etched into the walls as you soak away your train-induced weariness.  Considering its long, glorious history - everyone from empresses to Japanese literature's greatest writer have visited - the 410 admission seems pretty reasonable.

Speaking of Japan's greatest writer (according to some...) I coincidentally started my first Natsume Soseki book in Matsuyama - I Am a Cat, although I realize (now) it should have been Botchan if we work on the same principle that led me to re-read Kafka on the Shore this trip.  It's interesting, but so far my vote is still for Haruki Murakami.  I'm sure that will come as a surprise to nobody who both a.) has read any of his books, and b.) knows me.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

One, Two, Skip a Few...

Sorry for the gap in writing - I've been back home since Sunday, but between my painting course, work, and my newest sewing creation I haven't been able to conclude my adventures.  So picking up where we left off, Sensei gave me some advice about things to see, and one of them was her friend, Ikuko.  I was supposed to stay with her on Wednesday, but I screwed up the day (I was actually in Tokushima on Tuesday), and when I hadn't heard back from her that Tuesday would be okay I panicked and rented an AirBnb for the night instead.  And after I clicked confirm, I noticed that my phone was blinking with a message.  I felt like a complete idiot.  But we made plans to meet up anyways and have dinner together.
Something you might realize about me if you've been following this blog for any length of time is that I'm a pretty solid introvert.  I like people okay (most of th...sometimes...) but it takes me a while to warm up, especially if I'm talking to another introvert.  Ikuko, on the other hand, is an extrovert, and she was so friendly and chatty that it was really easy to talk to her and her boys.  When she picked me up at the train station she asked if I'd been to Ryozen-ji yet, and off we went to my first of the 88 temples.
One of the notable things about Shikoku is it has a special pilgrimage, the hachijuhakkusho-meguri.  Most of the temples on the route were either restored or built by a monk known as Kobo Daishi - who just happened to also create the kana syllabary (aka, the way to read Japanese without learning thousands of characters) and founded the Shingon sect, Japan's take on esoteric Buddhism.  In the old days, pilgrims would walk the route, but now most people take buses, as Ikuko said her colleague did (although, she explained, being a gaijin and one who enjoys his adult beverages, it still took him several years to actually make it to all 88). 

When I originally read about the Shikoku pilgrimage, I thought, "That would be pretty cool.  I could do it on a bike!"  Maybe if I hadn't actually got a job this year I could have done it...but probably not.  I think my days for that kind of adventure are long gone.  But when she suggested we check out the first two - because Gokuraku-ji is very close to Ryozen-ji - I was happy that I'd at least get to start the route.

It was late, so we were the only visitors at the temples, and they were a little spooky, but also really beautiful.  It seems like all the important temples in Japan are big and intimidating, but there was something about these quiet temples that was really approachable (of course, I might change my tune in the daylight if they were crowded with pilgrims...who knows).  But exploring the temple grounds with Ikuko and her boys was really nice (bonus - when you're with little kids, you don't feel silly ringing the bell).

As Ikuko was driving me to Tokushima station later after dinner, she invited me to come back again to visit.  I said I had to - I still had 86 temples left to visit!  We laughed over the fact that I'd still probably get them finished sooner than her co-worker, and I said, "Oh, I think there are a few in Matsuyama - I might get another one or two in."  And as it turned out, I did, although not in Matsuyama.  After confirming that no, I would not be able to visit Nagoro on this trip (aka, another reason I have to come back to Shikoku), I took the next local train I could out.
Now, on a map, Matsuyama looks like a straight shot west from Miyoshi, but on the train you have to go up to the coast and then head south west.  One of the issues I think Google maps was having directing me was the fact that most of the trains along the route don't go the whole route...unless you're on a limited express.  Being determined that I was NOT going to do the limited express thing, I bought my first ticket as far as Tadotsu, and from there, got a train bound for Kan'onji.  After I got on the second train, I started wondering if there was anything to do in Kan'onji - the name sounded like a temple, after all, and in fact Kan'on-ji turned out to be the 69th temple, so I decided that would be an excellent pit stop on my very long train trek.  FYI - while I'd prefer to have my internet sorted out and have a real internet connection at home, the pocket router has proven to be pretty damn useful - I can't tell you how great it was to not have to go looking for a 7-Eleven or McDonald's to poach wifi.
One of the things I came to really appreciate in Shikoku is that it seemed like every station had lockers.  I dumped my bag in one of them after making change in the adjacent coke machine, which poured fountain cup into a cup of pebble ice.  (This is my new favorite thing, and I've been on the lookout since coming back for this kind of vending machine - while normally this coke connoisseur prefers cans, that is merely because five years in Mongolia have conditioned me to not expect fountain coke).  Having done this, I set off in the direction of temples 68 and 69.  67 and 70 were close by as well, but Google maps wouldn't tell me where, and I decided not to be a glutton for punishment.
Along the way, I noticed a theme.  There were posters and banners that featured that old-fashioned kind of golden coin with the square hole in the middle.  Relying again on my pocket router, I looked up Kotohiki Koen, which seemed to be what the fuss was about.  I was both shocked and delighted by what I discovered - there was a gigantic sand sculpture of a coin just on the other side of the hill from Jinne-in and Kan'on-ji.  After visiting the temples, I hiked up the hill to take a look.
The Sand Dollar (get it?) was supposedly first constructed in 1633 to honor Daimyo Ikoma Takatoshi, who was visiting.  According to the placard at the top of the hill, it was made in only one night, and twice a year volunteers help spruce it up, since even giant sand sculptures are no match for the wind and rain.  It is said that anyone who looks at it will live a long, healthy life without money troubles, so hey - bonus!

Rather than going back the way I'd come, I decided to follow the path onward, assuming it would end up at the torii I'd passed on the way to Kan'on-ji.  The gate apparently marked the entrance to Kotohikihachimangu, a Shinto shrine.  I've done a little research about Japanese spiritual life as part of my process journal for my painting course, and I found it interesting that Shinto and Buddhism - two very different religions - have managed to coexist peacefully in Japan all this time.  When I stop and think about the fact that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are essentially THE SAME F*@($NG RELIGION and yet we STILL haven't figured out how to get along, it makes me never want to leave Japan.

This shrine seemed almost abandoned - there was a guy up there doing calisthenics, but otherwise, there was no other sound, as I checked out the emas - votive tablets you write your wishes on.  I was checking out some of the really beautiful paintings that had been done on them when I became aware of a knocking sound.  I followed it to the back of the temple grounds, and found myself in front of a small building, where it stopped.  Part of me was tempted to poke around and find out what it was...the other part of me is whimsical enough to halfway believe that's a good way to fall into a well and end up back in the Sengoku Jidai...*
When I looked up Kan'onji at first, I also looked up the next seemingly major stop along the Yosan Line, Imabari.  It also hosts a couple of the 88 temples, and I thought it would be another good opportunity to stretch my legs.  However, when I got back to the station, the next local train went all the way to Matsuyama - I had just enough time to grab my bag and another of those fountain cokes before jumping on the train, and once I was settled, there was no way I was getting off.  It trundled along the tracks, through tunnels, past villages and rice paddies, and I decided it was just as well that I was going to have to come back to visit Nagoro - I really loved the leisurely pace of taking the train around Shikoku.  Although I may wait until I've left Japan and come back as a tourist so that I can do it with a JR pass instead of paying at each station...

*This is how a manga/anime called Inuyasha starts.  It's one of my favorites, but involves more bug-type monsters than I'd like to deal with in real life, and is set in the very dangerous Warring States Period, so if I was going to get sucked into an alternate reality based on an anime I've watched, I wouldn't choose that one.