Friday, December 23, 2005

A very Buddhist Christmas

No animals were harmed in the writing of this post.

Yesterday was Closing Ceremonies, marking the end of school during the year 2005, the year of the Rooster. The Japanese, in their typical "let's borrow a few pieces o' culture, mix 'em up, see what comes out" fashion, follow the Chinese zodiac, our Gregorian calendar, and the Japanese "nengo" Era Calendar- which means as I write this, it's the year of the Wooden Rooster, 2005, and the 17th year of the reign of Emperor Heisei. I myself was born in the 57th year of the reign of Emperor Showa (written: Showa 57)- for a kick, find out more about the nengo year system- so you can confuse people who ask you when you were born!

Anyhoo, so we had Closing Ceremonies yesterday. Before the "festivities" began, we once again marshalled the students and sent them on a cleaning binge. The teachers, of course, pitched in as well, which is how I found myself with a mop, a bucket, and a class of confused-looking first-graders at the bottom of a stairwell when the power went out.

Why'd the power go out? Because this year, the gods of winter have decided to visit their wrath upon Ritto with great and stormy vengeance, seeking a retribution beyond the ken of man. Which is my Lovecraftian way of saying: "Snow." Snow knocked out the power. They got it fixed in half an hour, while the students kept cleaning- no reason to stop, after all- and then it was time for the show....

The show was essentially was the same as Opening Ceremonies in August- with one important difference. There is no central heating in Japanese schools. So when all the students dutifully filed into the gym and sat on the floor in rows by class, their frozen breath rose in little puffs and wisped away towards the ceiling- from behind, where I stood with the other teachers, their identical black uniforms made them look like rows and rows of little factory chimneys, puffing away. The speeches were long, forgettable, and entirely in Japanese, filled with admonitions on the dangers of smoking, the importance of doing your homework, that sort of thing. We had one more class after the assembly finished, and it was my job to help one of my teachers keep an eye on a classful of kids who were simultaneously frozen solid (from the icebox treatment in the gym) and eager to get the heck out of there. He decided that now would be the perfect time for bookwork. HA. 'course, my arguments that they won't want to pay attention fell on deaf ears, so as he patrolled, ensuring kids were working in their workbooks, I decided it was time for a little culture lesson.

I grabbed a pair of slacking boys in the back who had already put away their workbooks, grabbed a piece of looseleaf, and taught 'em paper football. Pretty soon, the whole class (teacher included) had games going at their desks- it spread like wildfire. Best part? It was good English practice- I explained the game to the first pair (IN ENGLISH) and made them teach the next two who wanted to play, and so on. Seems that they didn't have this one before.

After the culture lesson, school let out for winter break. We were scheduled to have a "bonenkai", or "forget-the-year party" with the teachers, but the snow was heavy enough to stop the trains for awhile. It got cancelled. Fine with me- I went to another live jazz night with my college-bum friends (whose conversations are making more and more sense, thank God), got called a Gaijin a couple of times, and called it a night. Pretty normal.

This morning, I awoke to find that my water had frozen in the pipes. Had to wait for sunup to thaw 'em out so I could take a shower. Somebody send me a roll of Pink Panther Insulation- I think it's time for another Culture Lesson.

After a brisk (WHOO!) morning shower, I discovered an innocuous message on my cell phone from one of my native friends- something about a lunch party. Those who know me know I would never turn down lunch or a party individually- together, they are irresistible.

I meet her and her friends a couple of stops down the main trainline, and we all pile in a car and take off to Destination Unknown. In retrospect, this kind of lifestyle could get me abducted by the Yakuza one day... "Want lunch? Here, hop in this car with a bunch of people you don't know!" Destination Unknown turns out to be a clean, modern Buddhist temple.

A Buddhist Temple in which they are throwing a Christmas Party. Ladies and Gentlemen, I have found the Buddhist version of the Unitarian Church. It was all very pleasant and cross-culture festive- their big wooden Buddha out front was decked out in Santa gear, we had a veritable feast of vegetarian delight (remember, eating meat and killing animals is a Buddha No-No. I remembered this AS WE WALKED IN and took off our coats... one foreigner-sized leather biker jacket among a sea of cotton blends) and after the meal there was a short service.

I'm not much the religious type, but this next part was pretty cool. Before the service, my friend asked me if I wanted to recieve a Buddhist blessing. Blessings are like lunch and parties- I'm an easy mark for karma. She had me write, clearly, my name on a form (why? Huh? Eh, just go with it) and fill out some quick info- age, birthdate, place I live, all that. This happens so often in this country that I've stopped asking questions a long time ago. She writes her name at the top of the slip, and carries it off to the priestess. About ten minutes later, the priestess files in with her entourage (three assistant ladies, all about forty years old), and everyone in the room splits up, half and half, by gender. Ladies sit on the left, gents on the right. I'm corralled to a spot in the front row. At the front of the room, there is a row of cushions on the floor. Behind them is a waist-high dark lacquered altar, polished so finely it looks like a black mirror. On the altar, a large stone urn sits full of sand. The urn is flanked by a pair of golden candlesticks with long white candles. Behind them, there's an arrangement of melons, oranges, and rice balls- all round objects- on golden trays. On a higher altar sits a porcelain statue of the Buddha. This particular temple is dedicated to the Happy Buddha- this will be important later.

The priestess walked briskly up to the altar, bowed twice, and presented a long silver candlelighter to the statue. Bowing again, she lit a small oil lantern sitting on a shelf above the Buddha's head, just below five long, framed golden scrolls, each inscribed with a different sentence. Then, she stepped back, bowed again, and lit each of the candles. She stepped aside, and her assistants walked just as briskly up to the altar and stood on either side, bowing a few times to the Buddha, the priestess, and to us. Then, the assistant on the right began rattling off the fastest Chinese I've heard out of a Japanese person yet while the priestess knelt at the altar, produced five sticks of incense, placed them in the urn of sand and bowed deeply five times, hands and knees on the cushion. The assistant to the left counted the number of bows out loud in Japanese, while the one on the right just kept going. She repeated this process with more incense, bowing, counting and chanting, and then she stopped, stood, turned around, and smiled, launching into a short speech about all of these trappings being merely to focus- the emphasis, in this temple, is a very humanistic approach. I'll skip the metaphysics- if you're interested, just email me.

So the assistant on the left then produced a long, folded sheet of rice paper, and began to read names. There were five of them. The last one was my own. Seems my name's been inscribed in the ledger of the temple, and also on this ricepaper. She hands the paper to the priestess, who says a few short words to the effect of these names now being inscribed in the Great Big Rollcall in Heaven, and commences to light the paper on fire with the two tall candles to either side of the urn. Then, she sets the paper in the urn, kneels, and bows deeply. The paper goes up in flames almost immediately after her head touches the cushion, and the ashes leap into the air, rising on the thermal current. Impressive.

The priestess rises, and calls the names more slowly. Each person responds with a loud "Hai!" as their name is called- like roll call at school. The people called step forward, and kneel on the cushions. Not wanting to disturb, when my name is called I too respond loudly, step forward, and kneel.

There's an older guy to my left, and a middle-school aged student on my right. The older guy is balding, wearing thick glasses. He draws five sticks of incense from a pile on the altar, and sets them one-by-one into the urn. We all bow five times while the assistants do their thing. After we rise, the priestess walks among us, talking very quickly about how happy she is we've decided to pursue enlightenment despite our ages, lifestyles, and nationalities. WAIT, WHAT?! PURSUE?!

She winds through the line of kneeling people, showing us how to hold our hands, anointing us with the smoke from a bundle of burning incense, and very soundly striking us on the head (OW!) to open our third eye- the "genkan", or "entrance". Then she tells us a few secrets- now, I may be dumb enough to blunder into a Buddhist initiation ceremony, but I'm certainly not dumb enough to blab everything I see- that's surefire bad karma, and my new protector the Laughing Buddha might stop laughing and kick my butt.

After the secret-secret stuff, we stand, and bow another couple of times for good measure, and return to our places. She says a few words, and we break off into two groups- an English-speaking group, consisting of me, two Chinese kids who are regulars at the temple, and my "insurer"; that'd be the "friend" who got me into this mess- and a Japanese speaking group (everybody else). They pull me into a smaller room alongside the main hall, and we listen to a tape of an older Japanese gentleman explaining, in English, a few "Buddhist Basics". Afterwards, I make sure I haven't just joined a cult (nope, not yet) and ensure that I don't owe anybody any money (no, not a pyramid scheme either), and that there will be no lasting consequences (not in the least). Turns out that this whole "welcome to the family" thing is their way of including me in the community- almost everybody in Japan has their name on ledger at a temple and at a shrine (covering both your bases, Buddhist and Shinto) and my friend wanted to make sure I was covered.

So we skip back into the main hall, and catch the end of the Japanese secrets explanation- it's quite more in-depth than the English one, and I wish I had been given the option to tough it out in a foreign language. Pretty interesting. Then, they close with more bowing and counting, and the priestess waves out the candles one by one with a fan, ending with the oil lamp over the Buddha's head. We all bow a few more times, and chat over coffee in front of the temple.

Weird day. Winter break lasts until January 10th- if every day is this interesting, I'm going to need another vacation. On the upside, I'm told that the Laughing Buddha is watching my back for the next 10,500 years- at which point he gets to let the next one take over. So I figure I can afford to take a day off- he'll cover for me.


Monday, December 19, 2005

Adventures, past and future (and typing, present)

Though thematically inefficient, chronological order seems to lend a certain continuity to the narrative that'll get abandoned right quick if I stray from it. So, to borrow a certain turn of phrase from one Lewis Carroll (and leaving aside any metaphorical ramblings about borrowing turns and turning phrases, as well as the possibility of two Lewis Carrolls), we'll begin at the beginning, and when we reach the end, stop.

Holiday shopping in Kyoto is comprised of equal parts of modern convenience and the uncanny feeling that you're walking through a city that every so often benignly forgets what year it is- and decides to make do with snippets of years that it CAN remember. I present as evidence the fact that any of you who go to see the new Memoirs of a Geisha movie (insert necessary book plug here- I'm the inveterate bibliophile son of a librarian, give me a break- and if you somehow missed this book, go out and buy yourself an early Festivus Present- read it during the Airing of Grievances) will see a largely accurate picture of the present-day streets of Kyoto- just add electric lights. All of this lead-up is really just to lull you into a false sense of security, as the following picture really speaks for itself.

No. They do not know what "Political Correctness" means. I asked. I'm fairly sure that it's not pronounceable in Japanese- too many R's and L's. The burning question in your mind is: "What the heck does this store sell?!"

Jeans. I really don't get it either- sorry. We report, you decide.

The next day, I headed out to Otsu to finish up the shopping at Parco, the local megagiantmall. Eight floors of boutique stores, one floor of dining, a bookstore, a movie theater, and enough capitalistic goodness to make me feel right at home. Besides, I feel myself strangely drawn to their ad scheme- it speaks my language.

But who's that little guy next to the exclamation point after "HAPPY GIFT!"? Could it be....?

Santa Mario, patron saint of video games and ever-enduring symbol of Christmas. I love this country.

On the top floor of Parco is an arcade and a food court- I last visited there with Dockett. This time, I wandered around the arcade and found a row of machines that were never empty. Never. What were they?

Purikula. It's the Japanese Sticky Picture Craze- every schoolkid in every one of my classes has a notebook full of little pictures from these oh-so-trendy photobooths. They and their friends enter through the side here, take a bunch of intentionally silly pictures, edit and draw on them on an attached tablet PC, and print out stickersheets at 400 yen a pop. It's amazing. They never get bored- they just run out of money. I need to buy one of these machines- I could live like a fatcat until the trends shift and I'm stuck with a half-ton semiportable photo lab. Best part? These machines speak my language too.

"New Beam Space" to concentrate all various lights on, and 8 Megapixel stylish duo camera,
Innovative snap shot has come into the world! New variable "RAKUGAKI" function and
Particular COCOA tools pop up. Infinitely large enjoyment!

It's found art. It's poetry. It's the new name for my punk band. "Infinitely large enjoyment!" Our first song? "Come on! Come on! All Flash!" Gabba Gabba Hey.

Friday night, I went to visit a Japanese production company. I'll show you the pictures first, and then tell you what they do, because I'm a sucker for cheap suspense.

View from just within the front door- this is "reception"- just a long desk, and the beginning of the cube farm.

Everything in Japan is shorter. The normal folks work at these desks-without-walls on the left of the picture, and the bosses get the half-cubes (about a foot and a half tall on the desktop) on the right. It's not that they have no privacy- it's that they really don't want any. That'd impede the group work ethic.

Behind this safety glass and those reinforced doors are the Machines- the heart of this little production facility. Take a good look, see if you recognize them.

These beauties make potato chip bags. Just the bags. They also make electrostatic pouches for computer parts. And any other manner of puffed-air pillow packaging. The facility is bland, efficient, and makes a boatload of money- so much that in order to entertain their foreigner guest, they took me out to a delicious chankonabe dinner.

What's chankonabe? Sumo food. It's a big pot o' broth on a portable burner (hint: Nabe means "pot") and a plate of assorted meats and veggies that you toss into the boiling broth, and ladle into a bowl. When you've eaten all the meats and veggies, you then put udon noodles into the now-seasoned broth to soak it up, and eat those. Then you have rice with whatever's left- think "porridge" and you're spot on. If you're a sumo wrestler, you then go to sleep and gain a few hundred pounds. Since the party I dined with was mostly image-conscious female professionals (the local non-PC term is OLs, or Office Ladies), there wasn't so much an incentive for all of us to waddle off and fatten up- but it was still delicious.

Saturday and Sunday weren't nearly as newsworthy- I went to Japanese class, bought a snowboard for the insanity over winter break, saw the last of those outdoor collegiate concerts this year (too cold- they're hibernating for a few months), and had a few friends over on Sunday for dinner.

Today, however, I booked the package tour for Hokkaido- or, rather, my coordinator booked it and I nodded thankfully when she asked questions. It's 10% more exciting than last mentioned- I'm flying, rather than taking the train, and I'm staying in a hotel in downtown Sapporo. Yes, the city where they brew Sapporo beer- there will be restaurants in igloos (I kid you not), famous crab stews, ice sculptures, boatloads of snow, and a major city to explore in the evenings. I'm hitting four mountains in four days. There will be pictures in abundance. I'm going on the 5th of January, and getting back on the 8th, with snowboarding happening on both the day of departure and the day of return.

Best part?

Free breakfasts. In my case, free breakfasts, second breakfasts, late breakfasts and perhaps even the old "stuff a basket of croissants in the board duffel" maneuver.


Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Latest Thanksgiving

No news is, after all, good news. I've taken the last little bit of time to be wholly boring and take care of some mundanities of life- you've gotta do laundry SOMETIME. I've returned to the first school I taught at, and will be there for the next two months- there's a big break in the middle for the weeklong new year's celebration, with a half-week break before and after the holiday itself. As such, I get to spend a lot of time with the Ritto Jr. High kids- and I am proud to report that they remember a great deal more of what I taught them than I did. I walked in the door on Friday, and happened to bump into a fairly familiar-looking group of girls hanging out in the front hallway before school. One looked up, smiled, yelled "Andoryu-Sensei!" and proudly raised the Horns of Rock. The rest followed suit. Even after a two-month absence, my rock band remembers.

So work is a lot of fun- the kids surprise me in little ways every day, from English they know (that I certainly didn't teach 'em- there's a group of the "cool kids" whose catchphrase is an exaggerated, over-the-top "Oh my Gawd!") to Rocking Out, to asking me for dating advice ("Andoryu-sensei, there's a boy in my class I like. What shall I do?")- of all the schools, this one has really decided to treat me like a member of the family.

A source of concern, however, is the fact that in two neighboring prefectures there's been a rash of disappearances and murders that seem to target middle-school and elementary-school girls. Just last week, in Tochigi, a second-grader vanished on the way home from school. Witnesses say that a man, 30-40 years old, drove up in his car, hopped out, picked her up, threw her in the back and drove off. Her body was found later, in a field.

This, understandably, has all of us quite concerned. We're kicking students out of school a half-hour early (4:30, rather than 5:00) so that it's still light out when they walk home. On Friday, all of the teachers got up and walked out of the teacher's room (largely without explanation!), and when I followed them out (this is a large part of my day, just kinda following the crowd and hoping I'm not screwing up) they explained that we were going to stand at all the exits of the school and make sure kids headed home in pairs or threes- never alone- and implore them not to dawdle. This took some work to understand- I'm not familiar with the vocabulary for "ensuring our children aren't abducted".

So far, nobody in Shiga's been a victim. But every few weeks, a note gets tossed onto my desk with the comment of "Please read this" emblazoned in English at the top that describes suspicious people near the station, or approaching kids on the street. It's a dangerous time to be a kid in Japan.

None of this seems to be fazing the students at all. They aren't afraid- they just go about their business, studying for the high school exams and worrying about the boy they like that sits next to them in homeroom. Just like American kids.

After school, after escorting the last students to the exit, I hosted the JET program late-Thanksgiving early-Christmas party. There were perhaps 30 English-speaking people crowded around a bunch of one-and-a-half foot tall tables in my living room, a DJ, and enough stuffing, mashed potatoes, and turkey to feed my entire Japanese neighborhood for a week. I'll be living off the leftovers for quite some time.

The next day, enjoying a post-Thanksgiving leftover luncheon with some friends, I was washing dishes when a pair of my students tentatively knocked at my door. They were riding their bikes by the house when they heard our loud English voices (my walls are like paper, held together at the seams with naught but good intentions), and they wanted to say hello. So we sat around and chatted. They were two of my best students, and as such impressed the heck out of the other teachers at the lunch. This is one of the things I love about teaching in a small town- my students are literally EVERYWHERE. I have not gone a single day without running into at least one in the street, or at the shopping district, or in a restaurant- and they all speak WAY more English outside of class than they do in school. During a lesson, getting one to respond or speak up is a combination of cajoling, pleading and outright trickery, but the moment the bell rings and they run into me in the hall, or on the street, they're downright loquacious.

After lunch, we went to Kyoto to pick up some Christmas gifts in the big shopping district of Teramachi. Teramachi, adjacent to the geisha district (yeah, that one- if you've read or seen Memoirs of a Geisha, you know what I'm talking about), has been a shopping center since Kyoto was the capital. There are stones in the sidewalk poudly emblazoned "Since 1670"- there are junk stores and doll workshops in this place one hundred years older than my country. We had dinner at Watami, a small-plates shop where the objective is to order as many different plates of food as you can, stuff yourself silly, and then order more. There's a central difference between dining in Japan and in America that makes itself evident at places like this- in America, you order ONCE, and that one order will supply you with enough food that you're not hungry again for a long, long time. In Japan, you are EXPECTED to continually call for more food. Everyone shares from small plates in the center of the table, and the sheer variety of dishes you can sample is mind-boggling. You almost never have just one thing for dinner, unless you're dining alone or at one of the many greasy-spoon Ramen or Donburi (the "stuff on rice" cheap-eats) restaurant.

After a marathon meal, we waddled back to the trains and shipped back out. It felt really late (the sun sets here at roughly 5:00 now), but it was still only 11:00. I made it home before midnight. I feel like an old man.

Next week is the last full week before winter vacation. I'm making a few elementary school visits, and as soon as winter vacation hits my adventure season begins. I'm going to visit Kobe (why? Why not?) with the proprietor of my local Ramen shop (cool guy!) and then I'm going to buy a "Juhachi kippu", or "18-ticket", that gives me unlimited rail access for something like a week. The plan? I'm heading North. I will have a white Christmas in Hokkaido- evidently, it's the one place nobody goes over the winter break. Not sure if they'll have Internet access up there, but that's a bridge I'll burn when I get to it.

Today? Today, given my zig-zag insanity the rest of the week, I think I'll go relax by the lake in Otsu- it'll be cold, but that city EMBODIES the lazy, sleepy, laid-back Sunday.


Thursday, December 01, 2005

One Half Kilo of Meat or 100,000,000 yen

Today, the sixth-graders went on a field trip to the local playhouse to see the Merchant of Venice- in Japanese. I am here to report that they take Shakespeare's "comedy" tag quite seriously on this island. The performance was done entirely in over-the-top slapstick boasting a physical comedy routine that is neither in the script nor would be out of place in a Charlie Chaplin film. In fact, it seems they stole the acting routine right out of the exaggerated Japanese Kabuki style- which, despite it's international status as high art, is in fact the hammiest crowd-pleaser this side of a Three Stooges act. Trust me.

So anyways, they managed to sidestep the curious anti-semitic angle by downplaying the religion angle. How, might you ask? Well, they still call Shylock a Jewish moneylender, but they dress him up in Chinese-style black robes. Antonio's goodness isn't borne out of inherent Christian Decency, it's his responsibility towards his friend- as that friend is a member of Antonio's in-group.

For more interesting cultural notes, consider this: The trial of Antonio is held with both parties (Shylock and Antonio) sitting in the traditional Japanese style at the front of the stage, and the assembled others standing around behind them. Thanks and goodbyes are with deep, Japanese-style bows. The language itself was very, very colloquial- no old and convoluted grammar to mimic the style of the original. The famous "Pound of Flesh" line is rendered as "One Half Kilo of your Body Meat, or 100,000,000 yen." Rough exchange rate.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but there aren't a whole lot of "You idiot!" lines in the original, right?

There were at least six. Every single one was followed by somebody getting smacked.

After the very Japanese interpretation of the Merchant of Venice, the actors pulled a gaggle of ten students onstage to teach them the fine art of Japanese acting. Two were pulled offstage at the very beginning- one girl, one boy. More on them later. The rest were put through a gauntlet of breath exercises and vocal practice that sounded like a really long, incomprehensible tongue-twister. I turned and asked the Japanese teacher next to me what it meant. She looked at me with a confused expression, and simply said: "There is no meaning. It is... from Kabuki. Just odd words. Blablabla." The first three sentences were in Japanese. "Blablabla" was all English.

So the kids each took a turn yelling this string of oddity across the stage and into the audience, and then they were told to take their seats again. The pair of volunteers that got swept off the stage at the beginning returned, clad in the costumes of the lead romantic male and female parts. The crowd went absolutely wild. The one in the lead male (Bassanio)'s costume was to read a short soliloquy on how he was a changed man, having recieved the ring of his beloved- and then (SCANDAL!) they were to embrace. Certain that this would be a problem (remember, to a middle school boy, girls are ICKY), the actors and actresses interceded, and each half of the romantic pair got to practice with their counterpart professional- with hilarious results. After two minutes of practice, the show was on.

Bassanio approached Portia, his beloved, and timidly held out his hand. Portia demurely placed the ring on his finger with the romantic aplomb of a woman intent on getting this over with as quickly as possible. To Bassanio's credit, he turned to face the audience and held the hand bearing this trophy high, spewing forth a lush, five-minute speech in Japanese that essentially translated to: "I am a changed man. I feel different." Then, he turned back to his paramour and the two collided for one brief instant, each quickly spiraling off into their respective corners like wounded boxers. Needless to say, the crowd LOVED it. It brought a bigger applause than the real show. Kids were out of their seats screaming for more. After some congratulatory speeches and some more bowing, the show was finished.

The best part, for me, was noticing about halfway through the show that all the male actors were wearing discreet, height-enhancing footwear. I can deal with the melodrama, I can dig the overacting, but the sight of a man in patent-leather pumps with a two-inch heel just shatters the suspension of disbelief every time. I pointed it out to my fellow teacher, and she nearly died laughing. She saw it in Act I, and didn't think anyone else would notice.

How can you NOT NOTICE guys in heels when all the women are wearing flats? Sure, it'd look weird if Portia loomed over Bassanio, but these were some SERIOUS shoes. At least Shylock's robe concealed his a bit- the rest of the men, in their brilliant white tights, had me wondering if this were a showing of Rocky Horror.