Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Gaijin Tales! Spooning and the Curse of Years


A lot of foreigners here talk about getting stared at, and I certainly had that experience a few years ago, yet now that I live in a much smaller area I don't. Even my dormmates talk about it, and yet I'm spared. So what's up? Can they smell the Japan on me? Have I developed a distinctly Japanese gait? Have they finally succeeded in converting me?

I did, however, catch the sidelong eye of a half-cut 20-something as I was walking home after some Midnight Nakau, her swaying along in my general vicinity. After the third round she saw me seeing her and scurried away a bit.

Girl: いぇーい。
Me: (thoroughly amused) 何か?
Her (giggles, starts to go into a restaurant)
Me: 楽しんでな!
Her: うん!

*

“Wait a second,” I say. “At the tabehoudai just now I ended up getting four beer for 500 yen. And at this bar I just paid 600 for one.”

My four Japanese companions raise their glasses in unison: “Welcome to Japan!”

*

The last time I bought ice cream at the Circle K, the girl behind the counter gave me, not one of the tongue depressers they usually dole out, but a real, honest-to-god plastic spoon, with star shapes cut out of the handle, even.

Me: You know this means she has a crush on me.
Anarchy in the UK: Today, it's a spoon, tomorrow, spooning.

*

Hecuba: I'm cold.
Me: Are you kidding?
Hecuba: This is like a Hong Kong winter.
Me: This is like Canada in the middle of July.

*

Walking through down the Sanjoubashi riverbank I saw an older white guy forlornly seated on a low wall. In at least his 50's, he looked morose and dejected, beer in hand, all alone. I imagined that he was probably out for some young pussy, banking on the rumours he'd heard of Japanese girls being crazy for the white dick, and so he'd come to this hangout spot only to find that nobody was interested in a sad, ugly old man. What a loser, I thought.

And then I thought, oh God, that's going to be me in a few years, isn't it?

*

I'd been too busy and too lazy to buy a Halloween costume for the dormitory party, but in a flash of half-assed inspiration I realised that if I pulled some stuff out of my closet and arranged it in just such a way, I could totally pass as a cowboy.

"What are you," people asked me, "a serial killer?"

It's nice to know that when I wear my normal clothes, I look like a serial killer.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Halloween in Japan


Wednesday may be October 31st, but as far as Kyouto is concerned Saturday is Halloween. Seven, bleeding profusely from her face, escorts me to her part-time place of employment, a Nepalese restaurant on the fifth floor of a building that also houses a carport and a Softbank office. Every surface is blanketed in exotic fabrics, including the walls and ceiling, giving the impression of being inside a fancy square pillowcase; it recalls a Yemense bazaar I saw at Expo 2005. I meet more of her friends, a decaying doctor duo, and we sample some Nepalese cuisine on Seven's yen. It's basically bread made of pure cheese. It's amazing.

We'll be meeting Hyeong and 2012 at our destination. I'd already spoken with 2012 about the club in question, called Butterfly. After wondering if it was a gay bar, I inquired as to its general qualities:

2012: It's practically the only club in Kyouto.
Me: That good, eh?
2012: No, it's terrible. The drinks are expensive, it's dirty, the music is awful...
Me: That's what a club is. At least it has a good atmosphere, right?
2012: No, it's pretty boring most of the time.
Me: But the girls have gotta be good.
2012: No, the girls are just plain loose...
Me: As long as they're hot.
2012: They aren't.

I was psyched. You would never, ever guess by looking at me, but I love clubs. I'm not going out every weekend or anything, but I love alcohol, I love to dance, and I love crowds.

Outside we run into Anarchy in the UK and I'm Not Chinese, as I'd suspected we might. Luckily, they're among the few of my roommates whom I actually like. A cold J-girl is also there and so is Arzenchia, who speaks Spanish (the most annoying language ever), whistles interminably (making me want to punch her in the face), and gets pissy when stressed (because she's kind of an idiot), but they're basically harmless, so overall it's ok.

If for any reason you're thinking that Japan is some quaint Asian backwater without real nightlife, set yourself straight right now. There's even legit ID and weapons checks, a first for me in Japan, though of course both have their workarounds, as I later confirm with a group of hot 18-year-olds. The first thing Anarchy in the UK and I notice is the apocalyptic cloud permeating every inch of available space, because this, as we know, is a country whose smoking culture makes Donald Draper look a Mormon. Even the girls, who usually restrain themselves in public, are lighting up with abandon. In no time my hair smells like gutter and my clothes like Death itself.

The presence of American pop is as total as it is anticipated. There are a few things I'd hoped to escape here, and auditory abomination abortion Call Me Maybe was one of them. Sadly, it's as omnipresent now as ever. Know what? Giving your number to someone you've just met is not remotely crazy; thousands of people are doing it right now. I've even managed it. And then I text the girl, not call her, because nobody has said “call me” without irony since 1998. But the selections are mostly good and hard, and best of all, they aren't as screechingly loud as I'm used to. I mean I'm not doing my 90-year-old self any favours by being here, but outside I won't feel like I'm underwater, either.

But the really interesting thing is an entire wall designated “ladies' seating.” I think it should be pretty clear what the real purpose here is, and it has nothing to do with being courteous to the fairer sex. Yes, sitting in that spot announces that you're on the market. It's refreshingly honest, not to mention convenient!

Roughly two-thirds of patrons are wearing something that could, charitably or otherwise, be called a costume. Most so clad are of the female persuasion, the general goal being to dress as slutty as possible. One is wearing nothing but rabbit ears, a vest, and panties. “Now there's a girl who's had a lot of dicks inside her,” I think admiringly, unable to tear my eyes from her gyrations, and for the first time in my life I understand the appeal of a strip club.

On the bus home after seeingRurouni Kenshin (and it says a lot that Hyeong didn't give a shit about his girlfriend seeing a movie with another man), Seven and I had a fairly in-depth conversation about my relationship history and prospects for this year. Problem is, starting something now and going for the next ten months would tempt me to rollover to a long-distance relationship, and that's just out of the question. We concluded that maybe I should wait until my last four or so months here (unless I find a way to stay longer), and just have a string of one-night stands until then. Perfect, right?!

So it's with the best intentions that she tells me, “Rude Boy. You realise you're going hunting tonight, right? You're not allowed not to.”

At first the idea is laughable. Not that I haven't before, but it's so dependent on luck that it's really not even worth trying, because I have about as much game as a graphing calculator. But then, looking around at all the foreplay I'm drowning in, I start getting depressed. I've always kind of taken it as a truism that girls don't like me, full stop, and it's no big mystery why: Too lewd for the quiet ones, too boring for the loud ones, too ugly for both and too weird for goddamn everybody. My tension sinks, I lose the will to dance. I go to the wall and sulk. I contemplate leaving.

Then I snap out of it; my depression comes and goes of its own volition. I'm back!

I end up enjoying myself so much that I finally realise Seven and her group have long since departed the premises, so I join Anarchy in the UK and his dudes. Then I do a single circuit of the bar...and while I've been gone they've left as well. Ok, not really a problem; they're bicycle people and I have to take the train anyway, so I knew this would happen at some point. I continue to swashbuckle solo.

A group of white guys way too old to be in a nightclub sidle up and I instantly take a powder; not just because I fear that I am eventually going to become them, but because when in public I actively avoid other foreigners on principle. I can be a real dick about it sometimes, too, but I can't stand being lumped in with all those loud, ignorant, monophonic morons. I even play keep-away on the dance floor, lest a third party think that I sometimes associate with people from my own country and culture.

But tonight, I learn the value of teamwork. A pair of girls are being simultaneously assailed by two white hunters and I unintentionally enter the fray. They look around them – foreigner, foreigner, foreigner – uwaaaa! The Cheerleader Effect is in full bloom. And then they notice my dancing. I can't spiral a football or perform parkour, but you know what, I can dance. They like it. White Guy #1 gets grabby with one of the girls. She likes it.

You know what, fuck it.

I take the other one around the waist.

Kyaaaaaa!

She goes for it.

It doesn't last...a third friend materialises with a matter-of-fact reminder. The one I've acquired glances at me. Discussion is had and further regretful looks are sent my way. I get it. They have to go.

「行って来る」
Translation: We will never see each other again.
「ありがとう」
Translation: Sorry.

Frustrating.

Butterfly closes at 2, so I still have four hours. I find another group of girls and we go to Te Amo (again, not a gay bar), a smaller, less interesting venue just around the corner and three floors above street level. They try to disarm the doorman with girliness, but he's unmoved. “Frankly, the girls in there right now are much better-looking than you.” What the hell, doorman? But they don't blink, and manage to talk him down to half-price. Eh, not bad. Reminder: Bar staff are people too.

I almost immediately half-abandon the girls I'm with to look for hotter ones. One likes my dancing – see, I told you there's something to it. But somehow I lose her interest. What am I doing wrong? Later yet another girl pulls me away from my spot and we start dancing, eh, pretty intimately. Then she tries on my hat, gives it back, and finally spins me away. I try to go back and she turns me around again.

Club girls are weird.

I like them.

I have no desire to wrap up, but around six the place is dead, so I formally reconnect with the ones that brought me. They're going to nabe. They ask if I'm coming. I say I will if it's ok with them. They laugh and decide it's a joshikai, and once again I'm alone.

Some nights things don't work out.

I feel bad the whole way home.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Kuramayama photoglut

This set isn't nearly as spectacular as the last one, partly because the subject is less inspiring, and partly because of the conditions under which it was taken. There's still some stuff worth browsing, though. Unfortunately I can't provide much information on most of the things in these photos, so if any of you can shed some light on any of this stuff, by all means let it be known in the comments.


Kurama.



Looks quite similar to one found on Hieisan, doesn't it?




There are a bunch of smaller shrines like this one all the way up the trail. That bridge runs over the drainage ditch that follows the path all the way to the summit.



Pretty trees.



That building to the right apparently houses some kind of tomb-like thing beneath it.





Where Yoshitsune trained with the bird-men.


This building is obviously quite modern; it's a museum of some description.


Natural Soiense Park on Mt Kurama


I would really love to know who shaped this pile of sand, and why, and how.


I almost cut this out because I'm pretty desensitized to this stuff by now, but then I realised that this is something people newer to Japan might be interested in seeing a picture of. Is it?


A kami.



There's a koi pond near the foot of the mountain. They're huge.


90% of my Hi Matsuri photos ended up like this one. The thronging crowds, the constant jostling, the moving targets, the low lighting, the fact that the police were hurrying us along, and the tendency for other viewers to jump in and occupy most of your frame in an equally futile attempt at their own shot...all of this made it quite challenging to take a passable picture.



I like the look of this guy, for some reason.


Kind of unintentionally artistic, isn't it?



Check out that red armour in the background.


Kurama Station has a number of ukiyo-e's depicting scenes from Yoshitsune's life. Here are the most interesting ones. To be perfectly honest, I can't be assed to translate the text; anybody want to give it a try, or draw from your existing knowledge?



Yoshitsune and Benkei battle side by side.



And again.


He's old, but he's ready to go.


I don't know who this is, but she looks pretty sultry. Probably not Yoshitsune's wife, then.



Yoshitsune and Benkei duel.


Yoshitsune and Benkei battle side by side.


Yoshitsune and Benkei duel.


You can clearly see these guys' buttocks, which I never even noticed until Anarchy in the UK pointed it out to me.




Shinto priest.


Night of Fire!

Friday, 26 October 2012

Katsudou


To a greater or lesser degree, the current era seems to be have a slight fixation on the English language. I don't completely understand this mindset and I secretly hope this changes under Chinese rule, but for now English speech contests are a fixture of school life at all levels of education, and I suspect most of you will be familiar with them. For the battle held at my university, which is aimed at English Club members and has been conducted annually since the 1960's, competitors are free to choose any topic on which to pontificate, though it is tacitly agreed that the winner will speak on something profound like disaster relief rather than, say, their favourite flavour of condoms. They speak for seven to nine minutes, after which they must respond to teachers' questions for three.

Starting last week I was quite happy to sit down with some members of the English Club's Conversation Section, with whom I am primarily affiliated, and spend some time correcting their speeches and working on their delivery. I can't help but observe that I've been involved in this club for less than a month and have already become one of its more powerful and respected members without even intending to. That can't just be down to my English; I do have an Alpha personality, that's just fact. I must have been born under the sign of Ayn Rand with Richard J. Daley's blessing. I'll try not to brag, but I've accumulated some English scholastic achievements and won a number of extemporaneous speaking competitions, so I am decently qualified.

In the meantime, they conducted club activities as usual, though with a twist: To provide the 3kaisei (third-tier members), who are usually responsible for organizing each day's katsudou, with additional preparation time, the 2kaisei and 1kkaisei would each create and execute a slightly more involved activity of their own, with which they would strive to surprise and impress the rest of the section. They undertook the challenge with the desire to entertain and the fear of embarrassment weighing equally on their minds.

I made use of my usually unhelpful outsider status to observe both groups in their planning stages, at which point I realised that they had come up with strikingly similar ideas. Both reported in to the club Kaichou, so that we were the only two fully aware of these parallel plans. Kaichou is tiny, disorganized, a sort of nervous and awkward kind of cute, and possessed of an unnerving resemblance to one of my ex-girlfriends, except better-looking. She's also very much a tekitou na yatsu, so when I, drawing from myexperience, suggested it might be better to subtly steer the two groups in slightly different directions, she kind of shrugged and said “Well...maybe it'll be ok?”

The 2kaisei did their thing last Tuesday. Each member of a group of six was randomly assigned a role, either a travel agency employee or prospective customer thereof (mine was がめついOL – covetous female office worker). We then had five minutes to consider how we wanted to play it, and would then be basically made to do improve comedy in a foreign language. Since I was the only native speaker in the room and it fit my character, my group told me to just talk as much as possible, as fast as possible, for as long as possible, about as little as possible. I'm surprised Clubber Lang didn't materialise and knock me unconscious, that's how good of a job I did, and I kept the audience paralyzed with confused laughter.

At the end, the best sketch was determined by ballot. As it turned out, my group won! The comments came flooding in, many of them in praise of me and my performance. And then:

“Don't let Rude Boy do all the talking. Rude Boy, don't talk so fast. Besides me no one in my group could understand. Kaichou.”

I didn't let that stop me from helping her with her homework from the International Law class, one of those taught in English. I even provide this service free of charge, because it's a good chance to practise my technical Japanese, and becau...ok fine, I do it because she's adorable. You know what? Shut up.

The day after a sort of dress rehearsal before the rest of the section, all Club members from all three sections gathered on a Saturday to settle their differences with talk. In fact, I was the only non-official English Club member present and also the only attendee not wearing a suit, though it might not have made much of a difference even if I owned one, because it's not like I could just blend in anyway.

The one guy I got to see had clearly worked hard on the pronunciation points I'd provided him, and during Question Period he was quick on his feet and even managed to get creative, his wry smile betraying the fact that he knew he'd just done something clever. And you have to hand it to the little 1kkaisei girl who was so nervous she couldn't even look anyone in the eye, but swallowed her fear and did it anyway; next year she's gonna do great, I'm sure of it.

In fact, every competitor was impressive, though the judges less so. One was an earth mother-looking older lady from the UK, who seemed to desperately want every competitor to succeed and asked probing questions that seemed to reveal a genuine interest in every topic broached. The other was an older Asian man from the United States, likely of Japanese descent, a bit of a bullying dick who deliberately phrased his questions to make them difficult to answer or even understand. Neither was particularly effective at the task they had been assigned, as you can guess.

During halftime, every competitor who had not yet spoken, individually and without noticing any of the others, decided to get in some last-minute practise in front of the window:
                


Only one member from my section placed, and even then only third. Pity. I really wanted Kaichou to win...obviously.

The following Thursday brings us to today, when the 1kkaisei did their katsudou for the rest of the section. It was a little less developed and significantly less entertaining, but was still a lot of fun. I had agreed beforehand to judge this event, with my magical native-speaking powers. Minutes before go time, I rescued Anarchy in the UK from having to perform, promoting him to judge with my magical Kansai-ben powers. This was actually a calculated move on my part, as I'd realised the day before that I didn't want my decision causing social controversy, and by making it more of a “panel” arrangement I could deflect some of the responsibility for the verdict.

Teams were tasked with creating a sketch utilising a list of phrases. Criteria for judgment was supposed to be mainly humour and general flow, with more detailed considerations such as number of phrases utilised and pronunciation kept as nudge. Unfortunately, I neglected to ask for them to submit the phraselist prior to the event, and so while I had suggested more useful (if stilted) serifu such as “You can't be serious!” they had come up with keepers like “I love you more than anyone in the world,” “Hold me tightly,” and “I like these kind of things.” Though one sketch involved a car accident, most followed the vein of the winner, which depicted a love triangle, and the second place, in which a pronoun mishap gave birth to a lesbian relationship, depicted by two men.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Kuramayama



Monday was Jidai Matsuri, one of Kyouto's Big Three when it comes to festivals. A parade of about a thousand performers march down the streets of the former Heian-kyou, dressed in the finery and not-so-finery of all the various eras gone by. (This does raise the question of when this festival was instituted, and the answer is 1895, when city officials softened the blow of having the capital relocated with an official celebration of Kyouto through the ages.) To somebody as into history shit as I am, this sounds like just about the coolest thing ever. Unfortunately, some location misinformation meant I missed it, and I was pretty choked, but I'm told that May's Aoi Matsuri displays much of the same period dress, so at least I won't have to wait an entire year.

I was also able to take some consolation in a field trip to Kuramayama, a holy site similar to Hieisan, although much smaller and not nearly as significant or interesting. But it's still very much worth seeing and is obviously even more obscure, so if you're ever in town and desire to see the “real” Kyouto I thoroughly recommend it.

Whereas Hieisan was more like temple sprawl, Kuramayama is pretty much a single winding path to the top, and then down the other side. As we made our way up, I was strongly reminded of Yuna's pilgrimage in Final Fantasy X of all things, what with the defined startpoint and goal and all the little stopoffs along the way.

In addition to its general theme, Kuramayama has another, much more tenuous connection to Hieisan, in that both are mentioned in Heike Mongatari. One of the story's pivotal events is the Heiji Rebellion, in which the rival Heike and Genji ran around murdering each other and trying to see who was a worthy second place to the all-powerful Fujiwara. The victorious Taira no Kiyomori was planning on executing the captured Yoshitsune (then known as Ushiwakamaru), youngest son of Minamoto no Yoshitomo, the main Genji guy, but was convinced not to, and the boy was sent into the custody of the Kurama Temple monks. Contrary to their belief that a small child posed no threat, he was raised to take vengeance upon the Heike.

It turns out that Yoshitsune was quite a guy himself, the story of his life being a mixture of legend and historical record spread out across several different sources. He was said to be not only a stabby swordsman but a sharp strategist and well-read to boot. Supposedly he was taught skill at arms by the King of Tengu, who imparted many unusual techniques, though it's unclear where he acquired this knowledge in reality. Early in his career he actually defeated Benkei, the souhei I mentioned earlier, and they became lifelong friends, right up until they were under attack and Benkei covered for Yoshitsune so he could take the time to properly gut himself.

During the Genpei War, the next Minamoto-Taira conflict (whose result was more favourable for the Minamoto), Yoshitsune teamed up with his two brothers whom he'd never met, and afterward joined forces with the Cloistered Emperor to defeat his rebellious and increasingly uppity brother Yoritomo. Eventually he was betrayed and defeated by the son of his patron Hidehira, an influential Fujiwara, where he was overwhelmed and forced to commit ritual suicide. He is now enshrined on Kuramayama.

Not surprisingly, Kuramayama focusses a lot of its tourist information on how various parts of it were relevant to Yoshitsune's time there.
You have to include this severed Tengu head in a Kuramayama blog post. It's basically an unwritten rule.
Yuki Shrine, built to protect the holy sites on the mountain from fire, which it seems they were prone to. The route was established in 770 and the oldest remaining building is from 1949 because they kept burning down. Kind of ironic, since the foot of the mountain plays host to a goddamn fire festival.
This sculpture, 「いのち」 (Life) celebrates 「愛と光と力」 (Love, Light and Strength) and is clearly quite new. Australzealand is of the opinion that it looks stupid.
Though far from the largest building on the mountain, Honden (main hall) is by far the most ostentatiously presented.
 Most people bitched out after the Honden, but Kurukuru and I forged on, making our way up a long, steep path to reach this spot, the summit. It's pretty neat-looking and, according to Australzealand, is the place where a young Yoshitsune "trained with the bird-men." If we'd gone down the other side we could have seen the rock where he measured his height when he was sixteen and the building where he was taught the Art of Fighting.

We arrived around two o'clock, and that ended up being plenty of time to thoroughly explore the mountain before heading back to the bottom to get a good spot for Hi no Matsuri, the real reason we'd come. One of a handful of fire festivals throughout the country and described by the Japan National Tourism Association as one of Kyouto's most “eccentric” festivals, it celebrates the instating of the local god. Large torches are lit, small torches are lit, cairn-looking things are lit, braziers are lit, children walk around carrying fire, adults walk around carrying fire, and people set up fires outside their personal homes.

It is quite cool, I have to say. Unfortunately, the experience was somewhat dampened by two factors: The place was swarming with foreigners, and it was one of the worst-organized events I have ever attended. Far more people attended than the procession route could actually accommodate, so police set up a winding path along which they constantly harangued people to progress, yelling through megaphones “Don't stand and stop, please continue to slowly walk onward,” which mainly fell on the deaf ears of an army of amateur photographers. The foreigners were particularly bad, which is not surprising since they probably didn't even understand (eh, I guess I'm not really allowed to complain about that...) It was actually comical at one point, when we were stopped for several minutes behind a crowd planted to the spot, the police urging them forward.

We at least tried to comply with their wishes, pausing for only a few seconds to snap a quick photograph before moving on. The low quality of this particular set of photos is not entirely my fault, as it's quite a trick trying to shoot moving fire at nighttime, with a long shutter speed, while walking, with dozens of people on all sides jostling you and frequently jumping right the hell in front of you. After a brief period of getting to enjoy the festival, we were routed behind some houses, where the path was far too narrow for the number of guests and there was nothing whatsoever worth seeing. When it finally returned to the main part of the village, we had the option of returning to the station area or taking another circuit. Unfortunately our group had quickly became fragmented and, with our limited means of communication, our various components ended up returning home helter-skelter. We did stop outside a konbini and I enjoyed a tall Asahi Super-Dry while some of the others fed some cats we met, so that was nice.




Anarchy in the UK reports getting to go inside people's houses and at one point see an all-black, 500-year-old suit of armour (!), so it seems pretty clear that I picked the wrong group. Cologne struck out on his own, fell in with a Korean high school girl, and got to see a kami get marched around. For those of you keeping score, it was also Cologne who located Ruridou for me, so I think I'm pretty much just going to stick with him for every field trip from now on.