One of the amazing things about Japan is the schizophrenic culture here. Like the buildings here, everything is either brand new neon, pastel and tacky; or it's very old, traditional, and musty. I experienced this firsthand over the past week.
Last week, Ana, Damien, and I went to Tokyo to visit a place called 'Cats Livin.' It bills itself as a 'cat theme park.' Basically, you shell out cash to go into various themed rooms and play with cats. There are about 20+ cats running around the place at any given time. Others are on display behind glass cases and brought out for periodic shifts. Now keep in mind, these cats don't always want to be petted. Nor do they always get along with the other cats. One cat was brought out and tethered to a table leg so that customers could pet it and coo over how kawaii (cute) it was. It squirmed, yowled, and generally didn't want to be touched. And for some reason it was named "Caribou." Go figure. And there was the obligatory little boy who'd pet the cats and then suddenly clap his hands loud to try and freak them out.
Afterwards, we hit the top of the Tokyo Metro Government Building, which has a free observatory that has to be the best observatory I've seen in Tokyo. The day was crystal clear and from the 48th or so story you could even make out Mt. Fuji in the setting sun. It was really good to see.
So that was the kitschy, cute side of Japan. Last night I saw one of the older sides still set in tradition. I've wanted to do something for a long time that would force me into using my Japanese and increase my knowledge of the Japanese culture somewhat. All I know of it now are an obsession with cute animals and Frog Style.
One of my students told me about a community kendo club at an elementary school in Hiratsuka. They meet on Mondays, and I dropped by to see what was going on, what it was like. I arrived a bit late, I guess. I walked into the gym and was completely lost. I was on the complete opposite side from the spectators (mostly the parents of the kids practicing). I stood in the doorway for awhile before I decided to dive in with my crappy Japanese. One of the instructors approached me and used his few sentences of English to tell me that he climbed Mt. Rainier in Washington last year. He invited me to watch, so I sat down next to one of the parents to watch what was going on. Evidently though, they thought I should jump in. The head instructor lent me the use of his shinai (bamboo sword) to practice with and sent me over with the tiny kids to practice. I ended up taking turns trying out various attacks on a dummy with a number of 7 year olds who would just stare at me when not galloping towards the dummy or pretending their shinai were rifles and shooting at each other.
Towards the end, the head instructor brought over his katana sword to teach me how to grip the handle and swing the sword. He cleared the area behind me, but everytime I swung back, I had an image of swinging back and lopping off a little kid's ear or something. It was pretty cool to see and try out, I'm definitely going to go back to see if I can learn anything. I have a feeling I'll be put with the little ones again, but since they're about at my level of Japanese I might be able to carry on a real conversation with them.