Welcome to Japan - where contradictions are a way of life. We'll get the meaning of that in a few paragraphs, but first I need to apologize for my extended absence lately. I didn't intend to be gone from the site this long, but I guess I just got into the groove of being lazy this winter vacation. It's so easy to get accustomed to waking up at noon every day and thinking, "Man, what am I doing up so early?" Either that or maybe I've just been distracted by my unbridled lust for the glorious new iMac, who knows? I mean, can you blame me? Just look at it!! That's not just the monitor on a stand that you're looking at, that's the entire computer!! How does Apple do it!? I must have at least two, just in case something happens to the first one. I swear, I think I could write love poetry to Apple computers.
<ahem> Moving on...
It's been a while, so this is gonna be a larger, more picture-laden update to help quell the hate-mail my friends have been sending over the lack of activity on the site lately. It's also kind of an update on my life so I apologize if it's a little less Japan-centric than normal. I try to spin it to include commentary on Japanese culture, but sometimes I just lose track (Please see the above iMac comments if you don't believe me).
We've also got a few more entries in the Engrish section for your brain-melting pleasure, which can be found here.
So while most people I know were going to exotic places for winter vacation - back to the States, off to London, over to Thailand, et al. - I opted for doing absolutely nothing. I had no desire to mess with travel agents and all that crap, and by the time that I figured out that I really kind of wanted to go to Hokkaido, it was far too late in the holiday season, so I decided it was better to just bag the whole thing and chill. I still kind of needed to get 'away' from Japan though since I was kind of burnt out and sick of being a foreigner, so I basically stocked up on food, locked my doors, declared my apartment Scottland (no, that's not misspelled) and succeeded from Japan. It was actually kind of fun declaring independence from a major nation, and I strongly suggest trying it sometime. I wasn't even contacted by Koizumi demanding I renounce my sovereignty or anything.
Anyway, the first amendment in Scottland was that all citizens must strive to subsist on no more than Pepsi and video-games. Actually that's really the only law I managed to come up with. But for a week and a half the population of one was entirely law-abiding and the picture on the right was about the only thing I saw.
Sure I feel a little guilty about it all. I mean, I come all the way across the world, have two weeks of free time to go anywhere and do anything I want and I lock myself up and ignore the world? How lame. On the other hand, I was rapidly approaching burn-out and sometimes you just need to let your mind and body be idle, you know? The last thing I needed was a "hurry up and relax" vacation.
I did manage and get out a little on Christmas and New Year's However. So even though the season is largely over, I thought I'd share a few of my photos and experiences as kind of a Holiday Retrospective, if you will.
BUT FIRST.... It's time for a:
Random Movie Moment
All right, what the hell is going on around here? I've been going about my life for 25 years now, proceeding under only three basic assumptions:
1. Star Trek is the coolest thing in the world...ever.
2. The scientific method, while not always perfect, is the best way of interpreting and verifying the information we observe through our senses.
3. Musicals suck.
I'm happy to report that the first two are holding steady, but for the second time in the past year, Number 3 has been proven false. Again, I ask you - what is going on?!?
I'm referring of course to the films Dancer in the Dark and the more recent stroke of genius, Moulin Rouge. These are both movies that more or less follow the musical tradition and both are movies that I am (rather unexpectedly) completely in love with!! Well, it's not entirely accurate to say that I love Dancer in the Dark. It's hard to love something that rips your heart out of your chest and snaps it across it's knee like a dry twig. Then again Björk is in it, so maybe love is the right word to use after all. ;)
And then there's Moulin Rouge which I just saw during winter break. Where do I begin? This film is pure, inspired madness!! It'll go from slapstick mayhem to heart-breaking tragedy in the space of two minutes, and the weird thing is that it actually works.
As I said it's a musical, and to say that the music is anything less than brilliant would be an understatement. The movie takes place in Paris, 1899 yet you have masses of upper class Parisian clubgoers singing a modern dance-club version of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit. Not to mention that both Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman can surprisingly (or maybe not-so-surprisingly) turn out a tune with the best of them. They both do fantastic jobs singing their hearts out, which is probably most apparent in the Elephant Love Melody scene, in which they sing back and forth to each other bits and pieces of all kinds of famous love songs which everyone is sure to have heard at one time or another. The whole scene itself is simply fantastic and I'm going so far as to say is one of the finest moments in cinema in the past 10 years. You go, Obi-Wan!!
Suffice it to say, if you haven't seen it yet, you are hereby requested and required, by the Sovereign Empire of Scottland to run, don't walk, to rent Moulin Rouge, turn out the lights, crank up the volume as loud as it'll go, and watch one of the most bizarre and engrossing movies you're likely to see in a while.
And then if you're still not sad enough after that one, go get Dancer in the Dark. Just be sure to pick up a box of kleenex on the way home.
Say what you like, but I think that Steve Miller Band is great. :)
So I had mentioned that I was going to be playing Santa at a couple of Kindergartens over the holiday season. As you'll recall however, I got extremely ill and was able to cop out of one of the visits, but not before St. Nick paid a visit to Jingo Kindergarten. The teachers opened the floor for questions to Mr. Kringle and of course the first one was, "Can I have a present?" Kids are kids wherever they live I guess. :) They also thought it was funny that Santa occasionally had to look up what they were saying in his handy electronic dictionary. Ungrateful little maggots.
I wasn't completely without the authentic Spirit o' th' Season® this year however. Kindra, an ALT the next town over was having a pot luck party and everyone was invited. Besides meeting tons of cool people and having a cool little present exchange, let me just say that Kindra's meatloaf and sweet potatoes have a special place in my heart that few meatloafs or sweet potatoes will ever know (huh??).
For Christmas Day itself, I just couldn't bring myself to stay in my flat locked up from humanity. Call me a sentimental fool, accuse me of having watched Bill Murray's speech at the end of Scrooged one too many times, I'm guilty of it all. There's just something about Christmas in the city. So with that in mind, I headed into town in the hopes of hearing some Silver Bells.
Sure enough, even in Fukuoka, there were lights everywhere and even a group of a Capella carolers who set up a stage in the heart of the shopping district and were wowing the crowd, including myself, with their renditions of Christmas classics. They're accents were surprisingly good and it was so touching to hear The Christmas Song that it nearly brought a tear to my eye.
Then I had headed over to Canal City, one of the largest malls in the country, where happily I was able to see the giant Christmas tree you see above, but regrettably was also able to see this nightmare-inducing sight to the right. I overheard that little girl saying, "Hey look! It's Santa...er, the Easter Bunn...wait, the Christmas Bunny, uhhh... Daddy, what the f#*%!?!?"
My thoughts exactly, little girl.
In Japan, the "Big" holiday is New Year's Day. It's a lot more solemn then it is in the States and there's lots of reflecting, visiting family graves, prodigal sons returning home, et al. I grabbed my camera, hopped on my bike and went out on the day before (also known as "New Year's Eve") to search for pics. I didn't find a whole lot since I was apparently the last person on Earth, but when visiting a park in town that I know of, I came across one of the cooler things I've seen so far in Fukuma.
There's a concrete staircase leading up out of a remote corner of the park that obviously doesn't get a whole lot of use as it's heavily overgrown with bushes. Of course, that's just an invitation to explore as far as I'm concerned so up I went, carefully avoiding the massive brain-eating spiders that seem to infest the countrysides of Japan (I don't think they actually eat brains, but I'm not taking any chances!). When I got the top of the hill I found a couple of old family graves that apparently everyone has completely forgotten about. As if the day couldn't get any more quiet, try to imagine being on the top of a hill in a deserted forest on a windless day, looking at a trio of decaying stone graves. I've said it before and I can say it again without it being any less true: This is why I came to Japan.
The first visit of the year to a Shinto shrine is called Hatsumode (literally, "first visit") and it's a very big deal. Even though most Japanese people aren't that deeply religious, almost everyone practices this tradition. I was in the city a week after New Year's when smack-dab in the middle of urban chaos, a beautiful and quiet Shinto shrine jumped out of nowhere and sucker-punched me in the gut. I was in the middle of a shopping district for crying out loud (as you can see in the picture below) and yet here was a rather large ground, with numerous buildings and smaller shrines, lots o' ancient trees and everything you would never expect to see in the middle of a city of 1.5 million. The unexpected contradictions in Japan never seem to get old, no matter how many times you rediscover them.
I ventured in and was surprised to see so many people taking Hatsumode so many days past New Year's. As you can see, it was packed and people were still coming in by droves to pay respects to the Gods.
Here's the way it works. After washing your hands and mouth at the temizuya (stone basin) to purify your soul, you enter the shrine grounds and approach the entrance to the shrine. You don't actually go inside, but instead toss a 5 or 10 yen coin into the donation box behind the rail (I'm not sure why, but 5 yen coins seem to be the more prevalent choice). After that grab a hold of the large rope hanging down and give it a good shake which rings a bell to wake up the resident God and get his/her/its attention. Then, once you're sure it's looking, bow twice. Then you clap twice as per Shinto tradition, to make sure the God is still paying attention (apparently it's not unusual for Shinto Gods to suffer from ADD) and bow your head, making a brief prayer thanking the God for the fortunes of the past year. When it's all done you bow once more and you're off.
I'm not entirely sure what happens after that, but if it's anything like 80% of other Japanese "traditions" it involves going to the nearest yakitori joint and getting drunk off your face while stuffing yourself full of roasted something-or-other. Like I said, the contradictions in this culture never seem to get old. ;)
Around the corner in a quiet area of the shrine grounds was a rack holding Ema (literally: horse-picture). Each one has a personal message expressing wishes for the New Year. Because horses were once considered messengers of the gods, each one has a picture of a horse on it, hence their name.
It appears the theme for this post is contradictions, because they seem to keep popping up. Keeping with the trend, I've got to mention that right in the middle of all this man-made and natural beauty, in the midst of solemn and soul-enriching traditions which stretch back hundreds and hundreds of years carrying on a sacred link between the living of the present and their ancestors in the ancient past, in the middle of all this... was a statue of a kid peeing. Right near the rack holding all the Ema New Year Wishes no less. Classless. :O
So there you have it. That's what I've been up to while I haven't been updating the site. On the whole it was a pretty neat vacation, and I didn't have to spend a single yen on airfare. So, that's all until next week, when we'll look in depth at the story about how I completely ignored all the feedback people sent in on my hair and got a perm anyway. You can hardly wait, can't you?
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