Wednesday, November 26, 2008

It's Christmas in Kagoshima

Last weekend I paid a visit to my friend's Kaori and Sayako who live in an old, traditional style house on the outskirts of Kokobu. Kokobu is at the top of the Kinko bay that I live alongside of, about forty minutes by train from Kagoshima City. They have three cats and their house has five or six rooms, meaning that it is very cold right now, but also they have lots of space to turn rooms into art space or "mediation" space... I met Kaori at a party a while ago and discovered that while going to school in Oakland (as an exchange student - she is Japanese) she had dated this guy who went to Kresge who was friends with my roommate freshman year! Can you believe it?
The river alongside their house. It's so nice to wake up and hear the sound of the river and trick yourself into thinking that it is still raining.
This bridge was built in front of their house, so to get to their house you park on this dirt road and duck under the bridge. We had a night of cooking (Sayako makes a mean Jamaican jerk chicken) and I realized that it had been so long since I spent time cooking with a group of people. I usually lure people to my house by cooking for them, but oh it feels so nice to just chop onions with someone and get a little teary-eyed together.
At one of my school's musical performances. This guy in the cap is a prime example of older people's attire here. I often see these cute old couples walking around together in matching sailor (what would you call them?) caps, khaki rain jackets and matching umbrellas.
Right next to Kaori and Sayako's house is a place where they are making monuments and tomb markers.
Heaven of heavens! One million kinds of "mochi creams," or mochi ice cream! With these babies at my disposal I will never crave Trader Joe's selection of mochi ice cream again!
Individually wrapped fish. Kind of beautiful in a way. I guess they seemed funny to me because it seems like at home you wouldn't really get the whole fish wrapped, just the fillet.
In malls they have these candy wheels that revolve to attract cute children.
Well, it has been Christmas in Kagoshima since the day after Halloween (there were lots of Halloween decorations in bakeries and supermarkets) and I am not exactly happy about that. I'm not going to lie, I really love Christmas and the Christmas season despite its overwhelming comercial presence...but here it is taken to another level. There are decoration everywhere and a lot of them are a little strange. Like this Christmas tree that was erected in front of the mall near my house - it looks like some kind of disco Hawaiian dream of a twelve year-old girl and at night it flashes lights like some kind of garrish Eiffel Tower copycat. At first I was a little annoyed, don't they know that pink and white are not Christmas colors? But when considering any Christmas decorations here I have to keep in mind that Christmas in Japan is basically Valentines Day. On the 24th couples go out for dates and give each other presents and eat this really fluffy cream cake and everyone is really excited about it. I am less excited about that element of it, but if someone would just kiss in public once here I think I would be really happy.
By night. Ugh, for the last month they have been piping the Christmas music of my nightmares into every store and public walkway. It's horrible! And that is being said by the person who has a permanent Christmas music playlist on her computer! They mostly play a lot of musak versions of the more religious Christmas songs...and listening to the soft sax version of "What Child is This " while I pick out meats in the meat section of the supermarket sometimes makes me irrate. Ha, in some of these annoyed moments I feel bitter about this country's overwhelming embrace of Christmas and think things like: there are hardly even any Christians here, why do they like it so much? It's not even their holiday! Ok, Christian or not, it doesn't matter. Everyone can have Christmas because the holiday isn't really about religion anyway. Especially here. It's about infatuation with yet another season change. I guess sometimes the altered version that I get of it mostly seems annoying rather than charming. Like if they didn't have Christmas decorations around at all, and instead had hella New Year's decorations that were traditional to Japan, I could get so into not celebrating Christmas and just forget that I won't be home for it. Attempting to pull together remnants of a holiday in a place where it isn't really celebrated is often more frustrating than trying to have Thanksgiving in a place where there is no turkey, no cranberries and no ovens to bake in. But I guess that when you are so far away from the familiar, sometimes you just need to hold on to whatever you can get.
Like Colonel Sanders in a Santa Suit.
Hard to tell, but these are some high school kids making out by the river near my house.
I was "investigating" a mall in town last weekend when I heard this wild gospel music and found its source in Tiffany's. These women has voices ten times as big as them and this little girl was in love. She was really jiving with them.
My down comforter was lovingly shipped to me by Tom McCormick (thank you, thank you!) and now I never want to get out of bed. The cold has set in and there is no insulation in any building in Japan. Or central heating. My students bring blankets to school and I am drinking endless cups of hot water just so I can have something warm to wrap my hands around.
Thank you to the loves who sent me pretty little cards and drawings! So nice to see every day! I sorely miss thrift stores, flea markets, and garage sales! It is one of the best things in the world to sift through old treasures and find some (super cheap) gems here and there. I miss finding old photographs and pictures and whatever...
A breakfast remninescant of Storey St. Pea shoot omlette with ham and tomato toast. Wish you could join me! Or that I could carry it out to the back porch and enjoy it in the sun!
They sell this kind of really small potato here that I am in love with. I have convinced myself that I hate potatoes for their often grainy texture and lack of any nutritional value whatsoever but these little guys I can't resist.

My school's most recent music performance. That guy in the middle in the tux is singing the opera version of "My Way" in Japanese. Brilliant. "Frank Sinatra sings opera in Japanese" is the icing on my day!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Getting cold, getting rainy

There are many inevitable things about a rainy weekend, of them being that I will stay in bed for hours upon hours (oh, someone join me!), listen to the Carpenters songs, and now I have watched Love is a Many Splendored Thing and The African Queen.
This is the van that the nationalists drive around (the fascists drive one identical to it in black) and announce nationalist propaganda over a loudspeaker.  Can you believe this, in Japan of all places?  I mean, I would expect this nonsense in China or something, but Japan?  It's really annoying and makes me feel like suddenly I am in a militarist state.  I feel like complaining to some city authorities about this public nuisance.   The fascists usually say things about returning Japan to it's prewar state and getting rid of all foreigners.
The good thing about being a moderately well-dressed young female is that I can take a lot of pictures of really cute school kids and not arouse any sort of suspicions about my motives.
Ikebana takes a lot of concentration.
This is my Californian pomegranate that I bought down the street.   I couldn't resist!  It was the hit of my most recent dinner party when I cut open this magic apple to reveal all the seeds inside. 
Looking down the street I live on on an overcast day.
This is just ridiculous.  This guy in the neon suspenders wielding a light sabor is a feature of nearly every store parking lot from convenience stores to video rental stores.  For some reason people need the extra assistance parking and backing up as well as remembering to stop for pedestrians.  This is especially funny at gas stations.  The gas attendant accompanies the car that has just filled up to the street and stops any approaching cars so that the customer can exit the lot without without waiting for the oncoming traffic.  The attendant bows to the car that is waiting and to the car that is exiting the station.  It's too much! Why is this necessary?
Oh cute school children, you are so irresistible in your little outfits. 
As much as spending two hours arranging flower may seem like a yawn, I am really enjoying my Ikebana classes!  I never was so glad to spend time considering the relationship that flowers have to each other in terms of color, shape and size!
This is a Fall arrangement.  Everyone here seems to go wild over season change and so Fall themes are reflected in everything down to the tiniest detail.
Selecting the right leaves.
Like most of the fruit in Japan, this kind of chrysanthemum comes carefully wrapped.

It's hard to see in this picture, but there is a building on my street that is covered in what I think of every time I walk by it as irredescent  "mermaid tiles."  
The seafood in my local market is often really new to me.  I am craving a lamb roast but it looks like I will have to learn to cook this fantail shrimp.
To fight a recent bout of loneliness I have been hosting dinner parties for the teachers I teach with.  This is "Italian" night.  I made gnocchi, chicken roulades with sage, and bleu cheese and pears for desert.  I had no idea, but bleu cheese is the Japanese kryptonite.  Everyone freaked out and had me remove it from their dishes (they asked with the usual Japanese tact of course) so that they wouldn't have to smell it anymore.  This of course was wildly entertaining to me and I kept trying to get them to eat it or smell it and bit of huge chunks of it to get some gasps from them.

If you are ever in a Japanese bathroom there will be some version of this little censor.  Motion activated, it plays the sound of running water or a stream so that others can't hear you pee and to ease your peeing.  In one of my schools there there aren't any of these water-noise boxes so if I  go into the stall next to one of my coworkers, she will continuously flush the toilet while she pees so I can't hear her peeing! This is a little much.  I mean, we all know what peeing sounds like, so who cares?  I understand how its embarrassing if you have some explosive diarrhea but peeing seems so harmless to me.  Also, everyone folds down the corners of the toilet paper after they use it like a maid service does so that the next person can easily find the end of the toilet paper.  I appreciate the gesture, but I really can't bring myself to do this.  It just seems like too much.  It's not that hard to locate the end of the paper, just give the roll a hefty spin and it will fly out!

Since I wrote about obnoxious generalizations that get made about Japan, I started thinking about my own generalizations that I have cultivated about Japanese people since I have been here.  Here are a few:

  • People are really nice.  If you ask for directions, someone may just walk you there, holding their umbrella for you so you don't get wet.  You can go into a store just to use the bathroom and the workers will greet you with a warm "irashaimase!" (welcome) and after you blatantly only use the bathroom and are on your way out will thank you, "de gozaimashita," just as warmly for coming.
  • Everyone eats rice like its going out of style.  I mean duh, but it still amazes me how you can eat rice three times a day and not get tired of it.  People are very serious/honorific toward rice - usually finishing every single grain of it.  The same with soy sauce.  You get served a very small amount of it so that you can make sure to finish it.
  • Most women over 30 seem to be married or already have children.  This might only be a regional thing, since like most southern parts of countries in the world, Kagoshima is rather conservative.  But man, I have had so many conversations with worried 32 year-olds about not being married yet.  What is this?  1952? It's really hard for me to have patience with these conversations.  
  • Japanese people never cease to be amazed that as a foreigner you can use chopsticks.  Or eat sashimi or wasabi (many Japanese people have said that it is too spicy for them).  Ugh, the chopsticks thing gets old really fast.  All the time when I am eating with chopsticks during lunch at my school teachers and students will saw in awe "hashi jouzu desu!" (wow, you can use chopsticks so well!)  Like all foreigners are mentally challenged and it takes incredible skills to master chopsticks.  Or sometimes when I first meet someone they will ask me if I know how to use chopsticks and it is alway my first reaction to want to ask them if they can use a knife and fork.  I mean, give me a fucking break.  It's not brain surgery.  One stick, two stick. Got it.  
  • Thou shalt obey traffic lights.  The law in general is taken very seriously here, but especially cross walk lights.  Even at four in the morning when there are no cars you see people waiting for the crosswalk light to turns green.  This is just nuts to me.  I have taken it up as my own personal form of rebellion to jay walk as much as possible.  Small thrills every day...
  • No eating on the go.  I noticed really quickly that you never see anyone walking and eating an ice cream or drinking a smoothie and I asked a credible Japanese source why no one ate just standing on the sidewalk or in a bus or something and she responded: "only poor people do that."  Socioeconomic status aside, it seems like most people think of eating on the go as something a little crass.  So I make sure to do this as much as possible also.  It seems really silly to me and sometimes I just want to go for a stroll while eating an apple.
  • No one eats the skin of fruit. One day I was eating an apple at my desk and I noticed that everyone was sneakily staring at me, so I said "What?! What?!" and finally got it out of someone that it was really strange to see someone eating the skin of an apple because it just isn't done here.  I had never seen someone eat a fruit here so I had no experience with this.  I guess it has to do with superstition about pesticides being in the skin or something.
  • Everyone seems to take their jobs very seriously.   I haven't encountered any sort of sarcasm/attitude from workers here in terms of how sometimes at home (home being the US and A)  you can really tell that a gas station attendant really hates his job.  Everyone here, from taxi drivers to bakery shop workers to convenience store folk take their jobs really seriously.  As a result, I as the customer, am consistently 100% satisfied with the service.
  • Small children are in awe of me.  Yes, children from 12 months to around age 8 most often will stop dead in their tracks when they encounter me and just stare, jaws dropped open, or point and say "Mom, there's a foreigner!" 

Friday, November 7, 2008


It's the extremes of society that I find less and less interesting. They are easy to seize upon, to highlight and put so much emphasis upon, but in fact do they have as much influence upon society as we assume? It is very easy to start viewing Japan in terms of extremes, the most common theme being the "clash" between the hyper-modern and the traditional. Now that I have started to settle in, I thought it would be interesting to watch Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. I hadn't seen it in years and I remembered it dealing exactly with this idea of the often confusing "conflicts" of Japanese culture. The main character finds herself amidst loud gambling and video halls, karaoke cubes and is overwhelmed by the bright lights of Shibuya one day and the next day goes to Kyoto for her dose of the traditional, tranquil shrine. This us usually the way that Japan is portrayed, no shades of grey.

Last weekend, listening to a wailing Satsuma biwa performance in front of the Terakuni jinja (the main temple in downtown Kagoshima), I looked up into the hills behind us and couldn't avoid the Shiroyama Hotel. The Shiroyama is one of the fanciest hotels in probably all of the prefecture, and sitting prominantly on top of the hills overlooking the city it is a famous site for over the top weddings. For the Christmas season, all the trees on the hillside have been decked out in blinking Christmas lights, and as you can imagine a huge hillside of blinking lights doesn't mesh well with a religious musical performance that has it's roots in 17th century high court of southern Japan. But one gets very used to this, and I would argue that rather than have one's experience in Japan be defined by tradition and modernity exisiting in opposition to each other, they in many ways use and fuse into each other.
Whereas Scarlet Johansson's character feels constantly jarred by the "modern" Japan that a tourist staying in Shinjuku for a week is likely to get a taste of, nothing here has struck me quite in that way. But then, it hit me that her character is a total moron! What kind of jerk comes to Tokyo, stays in one of the raddest neighborhoods of Tokyo that is next to some of the other raddest neighborhoods and stays in her hotel room all day long? When I first saw the film in freshman year of college, I felt I really identified with her character (I think a lot of us did), but I realize now that the only thing I identify with is her sense of isolation and inability to connect with some of the characters who are closest to her. Except one tired, aging actor.

The problem exists that whenever you go somehwere new, even within your own country, but especially when you find yourself in another, that the easiest thing in the world is to begin to see society around you as essentially represented by contrasting forces. When I try to explain American politics to my students it is always easiest to say "well, there are the Democrats and the Republicans." Or, "well, there is the West Coast and the East Coast, and everything in the middle..." Most people in Japan understand the excitement around Obama's victory as mainly an issue between African American people and white people (I gave a lesson today about why I was so excited about Obama winning. "He is a symbol! It's about recognizing that the United States and other countries are made up of so many kinds of people, not just white people or the elite who we always elect. Oh, and he's just amazing.")
Anyway, I think that Sofia Coppola's film is beautiful and does a great job of portraying what it is probably like when you come to Tokyo for less than a week (and just realized that you are married to a douche bag) and are also going through a some life-questioning. I suppose it also shows you how easy it is to miss the point of a place when you are there only a couple days. While I am here, I am doing my best to open myself to those shades of grey, constantly in search of something more interesting, something more complicated.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Ever the Limbo Between Cultural Doings and Not so Cultural Doings

Halloween happened and I looked like this, jammed in between millions of drunk foreigners and Japanese people dressed as Mini Mouse.  This look is called "I totally don't give a fuck about Halloween and just bought cheap fake flowers to make it look like I am in a costume or something."  Halloween turns out to be a popular holiday for some Japanese people..I'm sorry, I really should have gotten pictures of them... but these situations when everyone is taking pictures of everyone make me NOT want to take pictures of anyone.  I'm working on this.
I am still reaping the glorious benefits of Philip's visit with me from Italy - bearing the sweet, sweet gift of six months worth of Italian coffee and this dainty little percolator.  
A detail of the obi, the tie that goes around the waist of the kimono-wearer, that one of my teachers was wearing.

My friend and I went to a performance that took place in front of the largest temple in the city.  The performance was a collection of musical pieces and traditional performance pieces taken from Noh.  As you can see, we were the youngest people, and the only foreigners.
A dance/marching/chanting piece featuring this guy in a crazy mask.
This orchestra played some of the most interesting sounding instruments I have ever heard.  There were flutes that looked like pan-pipes but were held differently and sounded like an organ was inside of them, a flute that sounded like a bagpipe, and of course this giant gong.  The music was wailing, circular, incredibly sad, and lasted for a long time.  There were three little Japanese ladies sitting next to us who started getting restless and began to wail along with the music to make fun of it.  It was incredible! People are so publicly composed here, that when you experience someone doing something a little more "out there" it is all the more stunning.  And really, really funny.  I wanted to wail along with these little ladies in knit hats.  They seemed bored, and before the concert was over, they left.
This last Monday was National Culture Day, and all schools spend the day having a school bunkasai, or culture festival.  This event reminded me of a mix of back-to-school day and a talent show.  The students did dances, sang songs, put on plays, held small bazaars of their old clothes and games, turned classrooms into haunted houses, made science-fair-esque displays and most importantly had food booths!  The PTA made udon noodles in a large pot for everyone!
Students made "sausegi" (Japanese pronunciation of sausage).
One of my favorite teachers led us in tea ceremony.  
Her father is a kimono maker on one of the southernmost islands of the Kagoshima prefecture.  I was informed by another teacher that this kimono she is wearing is incredibly expensive and made with the finest silk.  Kimono are really hard to wear - there can be lots of layers underneath the main piece and they are quite complicated to learn to tie and fit correctly to the wearer.  Many of the teachers I know take classes just to learn how to properly wear kimono.
Students perform a traditional fisherman-themed dance.  See, they are pulling in the nets.
Now they are doing a "hip-hop" dance.  
If you would please, look to the left of this picture and locate the person in the mustard cardigan.  That's me! Singing "A Whole New World" with my students, in front of the entire school.
Another "hip-hop" dance performance.  A lot of the dances my students did were really racy, and it reminded me of how in high school there was always the ongoing debate about how sexy girls should be in dances.  At the time I couldn't really care either way, as long as our rights as individuals weren't being repressed... but seeing my high school students, who look like they are junior high age do these really provocative dances was somehow really alarming... Am I getting old?

These mushrooms in my local grocery store cost 18,800 yen, which is about $188.  What? Apparently these are the truffles of Japan... I will never find out what they taste like.

Toast, jam, and coffee have become really important to me to start the school day.  I found this really great bread with all kinds of nuts and raisins in it that I think about eating at least five times a day.
The Japanese people seem to have an unfortunate all encompassing and blinding love for white bread. Thick slices of the fluffiest, most nutritionally deficient bread in the world.  The third-grader in me who was deprived of white bread rejoices at this treat, but the realistic, every day-me knows that there must be whole grains in my bread! There must be texture! Finding whole grain bread is quite a feat in this country, but due to a great stroke of luck, I happen to live right down the street from a quaint, pseudo-German bakery featuring my much desired bread!
Yes, German words.  That means "authentic."
I am taking a picture of the front window!
Oh, but their treats are quite tasty, albeit with distinctly Japanese twists.

My apartment is rather devoid of color and character.  What it has are a lot of drab walls.  Japan is heartbreakingly lacking in gaudy gilt-gold framed landscapes and portraits from 1962 that I normally rely heavily upon to decorate my living spaces with, so I decided to be productive and make a wall hanging of my own.
I wanted it to somehow relate to Japan, so I decided upon the gingko leaf.  The gingko, or ichiyo is everywhere here, and though it may be a little cliche, I do love it.

In my free time at school I drew and painted many, many leaves.
Then convinced students to help me cut them out. "This is really fun...." They just want to be near me in our free time, so they will do anything I tell them.

I made small piles of them on my floor and tried to pretend that this Fall that I am having is a Fall where there are large piles of sycamore leaves to jump in (when have I ever had that Fall? Not in Ojai, CA) and not the Fall where any leaf that falls on a city street is carefully swept, or that falls in the countryside is soon burnt in a huge pile.

In conclusion, my students are so great!  They do cute things! All I want to do is shower love upon them and help them understand that they are all wonderful and special and I love them (only the nice ones).  I'm serious...