Tuesday, December 28, 2004

On Vacation!!

So I'm off to Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, for a few days. An odd bit of trivia, if you look at Kyoto, and then look at Tokyo, they basically reversed the sounds. So "Kyo-to" became "To-kyo." But the kanji character for 'kyo' is different. Kyoto is also Ground Zero for all sorts of New Year's celebrations, so we'll be at one of the major temples for the festivities. Chion-in, an ancient temple founded in the 1200s, has the largest bell in Japan, requiring 17 monks to ring it 108 times for the New Year. I'll post more when I return.

Btw, those of you who got my emails in the summer remember me complaining about how horrible the humidity was. Well, now I guess it's the exact opposite in the winter. It's crazy dry here, hardly any rain, and it's dried out my skin something horrible. I spend most of my time just itching. I asked some students what they do to remedy it, and they just kind of looked at me blankly and said they just itched. So looks like I'm going to be itchy for the winter. Damien gets to be Scratchy, though.

Has anyone heard about the earthquake off the coasts of India and Thailand? It caused tidal waves about 5 meters high in some places. The death toll's up around 21,000 so far. They say 2004 is the year of the disaster. In Japan alone, we've had over 2,000 deaths from the various typhoons and earthquakes. That's pretty good, considering over 40,000 died in the earthquake in Iran at the start of the year. Like I said, crazy. Maybe the cultists are right and the world really is ending.

Spirit of Xmas

Well, a belated Merry Christmas to all! I've finally finished work, and am now starting the designated New Year's holiday. It usually runs from a day or two after Christmas, until the 4th of January. Unfortunately, our company doesn't give us Christmas Day off, so on that special day, while you all were opening presents, I was teaching. Our benevolent masters were kind enough to give us early shifts, so we got off about 6 or 6:30, but it wasn't that great.

On the upside, a few of us got together and had an honest-to-goodness Christmas dinner, complete with a few chickens (small game hens, really), and various side dishes. I tried my hand at egg nog, and I presume it was a success, since nobody got food poisoning. That's how you can tell if a meal's a success: if no one dies. At least by my book.

It's rather surprising that Japan celebrates Christmas, it being a non-Christian country and all that. During the closed period, from about 1580 until the Meiji Restoration of the 1860s, Christianity was outlawed, and renegade Christians were mercilessly tortured. You think the Romans were bad? Check out what the Japanese would do. There's a really thought-provoking book called Silence written by a Japanese Catholic named Shusaku Endo. It's a fictionalized account of real occurrances.

But nowadays, Christmas is pretty similar to the USA, except that there's really no religion in it. It's just a commercialized mess, a reason for parents to buy their kids toys, and for couples to buy each other jewelry. Around town, there were tons of Christmas lights, and I even saw a house or two with Santa's sleigh and 8 reindeer made of lights. It's not bad, per se, but there's no real religious significance to it. Not that there's anything wrong with that. We have a Christmas tree and wreaths and holly and Santa that all came from pagan, decidedly not Christian roots.

So they sort of celebrate Christmas as more of a holiday to have a party than anything else. New Year's is coming up, and that's really the time to celebrate and have fun. But first, it's time for an extremely thorough housecleaning. Usually the lady of the house enlists any other females, if there are any, and they clean like nothing else. The department stores are having sales on everything related to that: lightbulbs, tatami mats for the floors, and every sort of cleaning product imaginable. Usually people will have a party or dinner, or stay up really late and watch the sunrise. Then the next 4 days are for going to the local shrine or temple and saying prayers for a good new year. 2005 is the year of the rooster (or chicken, depending on who you ask), so all over the place, products bearing a rooster or chicken are for sale. One of the major alcohol brands is offering I think a premium whiskey in a chicken-shaped bottle.

So yoiotoshio everyone! Meri Kurisumasu and Happy New Year!!

Monday, December 13, 2004

Site Maintenence

So, a few words as you view my site. See that little blue link at the bottom of the posts? It says 'x comments' where 'x' is a number that's probably zero. That means you can open it up and see comments posted by you, people who are probably my friends. This way you can comment publicly on what I say. C'mon, you're not chicken to post something are you? Heck, I post my feelings to the world (well, not the dark, brooding ones always, but something at least), so you can do the same. Disagree? Go ahead and say so. If you're my friend and you've thought through your position, go for it. If you haven't, expect to get skewered by myself or someone else.

Also, if you want to check out my photos, that link on the line at the top goes to my photos page, where, thanks to Yahoo!, I've uploaded a gazillion pics, usually of tanuki statues or me drinking.

So let's hear from you all out there. It'll make for some fun times. So far, my friend in town, Damien, is the only one to post. He's the one that says 'chook,' which may become the new name of this blog since I like it so much. That, or Tanuki

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Warning: Incoherent Rambling - don't mind the drooling maniac

I just started reading a book by one of Indianapolis' most famous sons, Kurt Vonnegut. I'd gotten to page 14 of Timequake when I was suddenly hit by an urge to write something. You should read this book; even though I've barely gotten through the prologue, it's pretty good. I was struck by a remark he made about a fictional story in which a 3rd airplane was sent to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I connected it with something my friend Glasser said once about how authors and actors shouldn't use their celebrity to promote this or that political agenda.

That's the point at which I thought, What gives anyone the right to determine how other people live? What gives GW Bush the right to be president and make all sorts of decisions that affect every single human being on the planet? He certainly never went to President school? He was a numbskull in his own university, one who would probably be a homeless druggie if he didn't have insanely wealthy parents who leeched off the lifeblood of people who actually do something somewhat productive for the world. He certainly isn't exemplary of the 'values' that the uber-conservative Indiana instilled in me: he didn't make his own was in the world, he never suffers the consequences of his idiocies, and he certainly doesn't practice what he preaches.

Then I thought, it's probably not nice to write that, I'll probably offend someone. The next thought that went through my mind was, Well, fuck them. People are way too goddamn sensitive.

So in short, read Timequake, writers should be able to have their voices heard, even if they're famous and I don't like them, and I'm definitely in need of sleep. Later.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Fire Festival

On Monday, I went with Ana and Dam-o to Odawara City for a fire festival at a Buddhist-Shinto temple/shrine. We got there just before dark (which happens about 4:30 in this country, something I've never quite understood), and the place was lit up with traditional red paper lanterns, with crowds wandering around buying okonomiyaki and mochi. Up at the temple, people would come to drop some coins in the prayer box, make a little prayer, and shake this giant rope connected to a large rattle. This I guess is so their wish comes true.

We found a couple of other foreigners seated in the temple. One was a religious studies doctoral student who is doing his dissertation on this type of deity. The other was an American teaching English in a suburb north of Tokyo. The deity is part of an old-style blend of Buddhism and Shinto religion, which was the standard religion up until the Meiji restoration when a separation of the two and purification of Shintoism as a state religion came about. He explained that the deity they were there to worship was a half-man, half-bird monster that was supposed to inhabit the mountains of Japan. The ritual was supposed to bring good fortune during the winter months. But nowadays, it's just an excuse for a party, it seemed.

The ritual kicked off with a procession of monks chanting and blowing gourd horns as they approached the temple. They entered and lit a sacred fire, and then proceeded to chant for over an hour, with one guy playing the drums the entire time. It was amazing to behold. The rhythm was so soothing that I wanted to fall asleep. Eventually it ended and two torch-bearers brought the flame from the temple to a bonfire constructed on the flat grounds below. They lit the fire and all the monks came to sit around it. They did some purification (?) rituals where they'd move around the fire in a square as the fire burned and collapsed on itself, making a nice bed of coals. Then the person I guess was the highest since he had a hood-type hat on, got up and blessed the fire, and then walked on the coals. The monks got up and and took turns walking across the hot coals. Then it was the bystanders' turn.

I knew I'd have lots of strange experiences here, but I never thought I'd participate in a mad rush to walk across hot coals. But nearly everyone, old women, children, gai-jin, everyone wanted in on it. By the time we got up there, so many people had gone through that there weren't many coals to walk on, mostly a dirt path cleared out. But it was still a little hot, though by that time our feet had been numbed by the cold.

It was so exciting to experience a ritual like that. If someone were to look at the pictures and see the movies I took, with the chanting and fire-waving, it might seem to be something more satanic than anything else. But everyone there seemed to have a good time, and after it was over, the monks stood on the balcony of their dorms nearby and threw packets of mochi and bags of prawn chips to the crowds. The Japanese, known for their politeness and respect, showed none of that there. Two middle-aged ladies were scuffling on the ground for a packet of mochi that couldn't have cost more than 100 yen, and everyone was trying to get something. Afterwards, we went out with Sheila to an izakaya for sushi and beer. On the whole, a satisfying experience.

It makes me want to learn more about the different festivals and the Shinto religion. Most Japanese are pretty areligious. They get married in a chapel or a church, not very often at a shrine or temple anymore, because it's considered popular to get married in the Western fashion, with a white wedding gown and a priest to officiate. No matter the Christian implications. Just like how everyone has Christmas lights up now and displays are all over the place, but most Japanese have no clue what it's about. At least, I can't figure that out from my students.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Remembering Pearl Harbor

Well, here in Japan, people would rather not remember it, since it's a big source of embarrassment and strong feelings. Last Saturday I went to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. It's the one that's very controversial because, although it translates as the Peace Country Shrine, it's built to honor the war dead and has several convicted war criminals enshrined there.

To hear about it, it sounds like they have models of heads on spikes and crazy rightwing Japanese running around chanting and threatening war or something. But it's a rather unassuming place, very quiet there and peaceful, just like any other shrine. There's a nice Japanese garden with a pond and stone bridge and carp. Next to the shrine is the Yushukun Museum, which is dedicated to the military tradition of Japan. It's rather fitting overall, since of the past 2,000-plus years, only the last 60 have been devoted to peace. The Europeans who came here in the 1600s were apalled at the scale and level of violence in battles, and the general gruesomeness present in everyday life. These Europeans were certainly not squeamish or pacifist, but the Japanese regularly had battles consisting of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and surrender was never an option.

The ancient history part of the museum is very interesting. They show the tranformation of Japanese swords, archery, and armor. But about half of the museum is devoted to the post-Meiji Restoration period of conquest and expansion. And while it discusses it pretty well, it fails to mention much in the way of the atrocities committed. It's strictly facts and figures only in that respect. But it is a bit revisionist in some places. It tries to explain away the 'incidents' in Manchuria, and hardly even mentions Nanking, or the Korean occupation. It's a far cry from the prison-museum in Seoul that I visited that dealt with how the political prisoners were treated.

The discussion about the lead-up to Pearl Harbor and the US involvement in WWII is interesting. The museum basically claims that Japan was forced into doing it, despite many attempts at peace. I don't know the truth about it, American history books claim that it was a surprise attack, and that we'd never done anything to provoke the Japanese. In fact, I've learned from actually reading modern history books that Americans had sanctions running, and were basically starving the Japanese nation of oil and all sorts of resources. It's really amazing to see how they learn one version, and we learn something completely different. The museum claims that the fleet was wiped out in Pearl Harbor, whereas we're told that many of the important ships were on manoevuers at the time. The atomic bombs don't get very much mention, surprising for all the importance given them in actuality.

Every year, Prime Minister Koizumi pays a visit to Yasukuni, and every year Korea and China issue protests and vehemently denounce these visits. It's something to think about, because the Chinese and Korean perception of Japanese snobbery and insults is one of the key blocks to the region moving forward and becoming more open. Recently, a Japanese Supreme Court justice took 2 minutes to throw out a lawsuit by 2 Korean sex slaves seeking reparations from the government. It's things like these that make the Chinese act so viciously towards the Japanese, like they did at a football game recently.

I don't blame most Japanese for these attitudes and feelings. Like anywhere, it's a small percentage of hatemongers and bigots that ruin it for everyone. But the Japanese government is certainly not trying to change the status quo. From what I hear, the textbooks portray the Japanese as merely victims of atomic attacks, and completely omit anything that might make them feel uncomfortable, like discussing the massacres and atrocities committed against their enemies during WWII. This is a very touchy subject for most, and it's difficult to discuss it with them. It's verboten to talk about it at work with students, probably a firing offense if someone complains. So it's difficult to really find out what people think. But more on this later, it's time to quit for the day & get some rest.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

A Prolonged Weekend

We had a terrible storm here Saturday night. Ana, Damien, Julian and I went to see the opening of 'The Incredibles,' which is a great movie, I loved it. When we got out, it was cold and pouring down rain, so we all got soaked coming home. But after I'd gone to bed, the wind was howling, rattling the scaffolding that's still outside and whistling through the drafty sliding doors I have. Some say it was a typhoon, but some other students said it wasn't, so I'm not sure. But the weather here today is beautiful. There's not a cloud in the sky, and it blew away all the smog and pollution. You can see Mt. Fuji in amazing detail, he's got his snow cap back on. You can also see the island O-shima, which is at the mouth of the bay, maybe 100km or so away, but pretty clear. I think today we're going to a fire festival in Odawara. Not sure what that is, but sounds like fun.

I'm winding down my vacation time now, and starting Wednesday I'll have to work every single day but one between now and December 27th. And no, that one day off has nothing to do with Xmas, I'll still have to go to work Christmas Eve and Day. Which sucks, royally. But I'm trying to keep a Secret Santa/Xmas party organized and on track for Xmas Day, which should make it a bit more fun. One teacher last year supposedly read the Bible to every class, including ones who could hardly put together a sentence. Might be interesting to try.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Back from a trip

I just got back from a relaxing 2 day trip to the Mt. Fuji Five Lakes area. Specifically, Ana and I stayed in an amazing hotel/onsen (hot spring) on the shore of Kawaguchi Lake. There was an outdoor onsen pool, and the men's had a commanding view of Mt. Fuji. I got to bathe naked with a Swiss computer programmer who was travelling around the country. What do you ask a guy when you're both sitting naked in the same pool of water? Evidently, "Been in Japan long?" is a good icebreaker.

We also had an amazing seven course dinner with sashimi and nabe (Japanese stew served in the winter), as well as rice and tea. The only part that wasn't delicious was the side soup, which had something that looked like a small testicle floating in it, and evertime you put a chopstick in, it came out covered in fine green seaweed that looked like hair. Ick. There were only 4 other people dining then; the Swiss couple, and 2 young Japanese women. The waitstaff practically outnumbered us. I couldn't see it, but Ana said that every few minutes, one of them would rush forward to see if we needed anything. If we didn't, she'd back away quietly. I never heard a thing, but the moment I finished my little bowl of rice, she was right there to refill it for me. Strangely, I had to refill my water glass myself. Water isn't normally drunk often with meals in Japan, so if you ask for a glass, you get a very tiny glass. I drink a lot of it, so I practically drained the pitcher there.

It was very quiet because we went in the middle of the week, and during the late fall time, after all the brilliant colors have left the leaves. But it was still pretty breathtaking. The major downside was that since we went there on December 1st, lots of things closed or reduced their hours starting that very day. We tried to see a bat cave and nature hike exhibit, but it closed down the day before. But we did find a wild bird park, where several old Japanese men used multi-thousand dollar photo lenses to take really close shots of birds. Walking around, we evidently disturbed the guys, because one came running out and herded us around the side of the building. He never said a word to us, but motioned for us to follow him. He led us around down a small path and he and a friend began using their bird-callers to try and attract some birds. The small birds here literally eat out of your hands, as we learned when we held our arms outstretched for what seemed like an eternity, to have the little ones flit towards us, grab a seed, and fly back to the trees. It was pretty cool, and the old men seemed tickled to watch us feed the birds.

The whole day, we had Fuji-san towering over us. It was a strange experience, seeing such a majestic cone, for someone who grew up in the flatlands of Indiana. Before, I'd only seen Fuji poking above the distant mountains. I don't think I can see it from my window with the same sense of awe as when I had to crane my neck to look up, and that when I wasn't even technically on the slope upwards. It heightens my resolve, though, to climb it next summer. I'll be prepared.

Monday, November 29, 2004

A belated Turkey Day post

I wanted to have some semblance of Thanksgiving dinner in Japan, even if it meant making do with what's on hand. So my American friend Ana, Aussie pal Dam-o and I got together on about 2 hours notice and created ourselves a nice mini-feast. Most Japanese homes don't have an oven, and even if I had one, finding a turkey to stick in it would be near impossible. So we made do with a couple of small game hens precooked at a stall near work, mashed Japanese sweet potatoes, boiled Japanese pumpkin (a lot like acorn squash, really), and some assorted odds and ends to round it off. It worked out pretty well, we feasted and gave thanks for friendship in a strange land, and toasted our way through a bottle of wine and some Korean soju (rice wine, I think). Dam-o was, in typical Aussie fashion, partially lit beforehand, so he was incoherent by the end. Just another typical evening in Japan.

I think Roommated Joe was a little peeved that we had something going at home, and I disturbed the last 5 minutes of his movie with his girlfriend. So he hasn't spoken but a few words to me since Turkey Day, and I can finally be thankful for not having to hear his cracking voice. (More on Roommate Joe later.)

Friday, November 19, 2004

I'm heeeere

I've finally arrived! After so long trying to code/set up my own webpage, I broke down and went for blogger. I think it will be a good thing overall, especially if I don't have to pay anything for it. I've been pretty slack in writing, so you should be able to read more of my updates here. So stay tuned for more exciting adventures of...."Hoosiers in Japan!!!"