Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, July 29, 2005

Going Down Under

Sometimes rank has its privileges, even if that rank is largely ceremonial (or even imagined). Sometimes those privileges actually mean something, too. I suppose it's only fair. I realize that I'm not really the person in charge of Seishin's new sister-school project. Heck, I'm not even second in charge (anymore...for reasons that are still largely unclear). However, the fact that we even have a sister-school now is largely owing to my efforts, and I think they realize that. Besides, I'm still the principal go-between...not to mention the school's official "internationalization" representative (i.e. token gaijin), and that puts me in a special position with regard to this whole thing.

Step one of the project was to establish a pen-pal exchange between the students of our respective schools. That is already well underway. Step three is profit for students and staff from our sister-school to come to Seishin. That is scheduled to take place in mid September.

So, what, you might ask, is step two? Well, unlike the underwear-stealing gnomes in The Simpsons, we do know the answer. Step two was to involve a visit to our sister-school by a delegation from Seishin. There were several reasons for this, but perhaps the biggest one was simple fairness. After all, the chief Japanese teacher at our sister-school used to live and work in Kashima, so she knows our area well. We, on the other hand, knew little or nothing about them and their locale, so I figured first-hand exposure was in order.

Well, we just got back from that exposure down under (No, not that kind!), and it was definitely an adventure.

Our plane left Narita Airport at 10:00 at night (beating the typhoon by only a few hours) and arrived at Brisbane Intl. Airport bright and early the next morning. From there, we caught a shuttle bus to the pleasant, little (but rapidly growing) beach town of Caloundra in the Australian Sunshine Coast region, about an hour away.

My first impression was that it was amazing how much Brisbane reminded me of Portland. The two cities are of similar size and also have a very similar look and feel. (I felt even more so when we actually stayed at a hotel in Brisbane later, but I won't jump the gun.) The highway signs there were more or less the same size, color, and font style as those in Oregon. I also saw several of the same chain businesses. However, there was no getting around the fact that we were driving on the left side of the road, as in Japan. The topography of the land, and especially the vegetation, was also very obviously different.

And then there were those roundabouts...a good idea, really, but strange to this Yank.

Anyway, we got into Caloundra and soon found out just how much you can't trust guidebooks. It's currently winter in Australia. The guide said that the average July temperature in the Sunshine Coast was 19 degrees celsius (about 66 degrees Fahrenheit) during the day and 10 degress celsius (about 50 degrees F) during the night. Considering we had come from the sauna that is summertime Japan, we had decided to wear long-sleeve shirts and jackets. When we walked the "ten minute" (in Caloundra time, apparently) distance from the bus terminal to our hotel, lugging our suitcases, we found out the hard way that wintertime temperatures of 25 degrees celsius (77 degrees F) are not only possible there, but quite common. The humidity was low, thank goodness, but our shirts and jackets were pretty much sogged through by the time we arrived.

I won't go to a whole lot of detail about the school visit that followed. Suffice to say that our new sister-school, Pacific Lutheran College, is a very interesting school with a warm atmosphere. Half the campus is still more or less under construction, and both the student body and faculty are still growing, but it's an interesting program with a great group of kids and an even better faculty. They really rolled out the red carpet for us.

We had duplicate signing ceremonies for the junior/senior high and the prep/elementary sections, each with its own distinct flavor. A large group of the junior and senior high kids were away at study camps, wiping out their planned choir/concert band performance, so the school's rock band played instead (and they were actually pretty good). The grade schoolers, on the other hand, did put on a choir performance for us, singing a Japanese song (much to the delight of our principal). Later, after the ceremony, as we were taking a grand tour of the school, the kindergarteners eagerly came running out of their classrooms to offer us their own performance. To say they were adorable would be an understatement.

Although very traditional in many ways, Pacific Lutheran has both a very modern look and a very modern curriculum. In fact, our principal was impressed with their science and technology programs, which fit in well with his hopes for Seishin to participate in the "Super Science High School" project the government is trying to promote in Japan. Even so, I was mostly impressed with the friendliness and eagerness of the students, who often came running out to try out a bit of their Japanese.

I was also impressed yet again by just how obvious it was that we were on a completely different continent. There were birds everywhere, all of which were totally unfamiliar. (Even the crows were unique!) The trees of the deep woods that bordered the school included eucalyptus, gum, and some types I'd never seen before, all totally different from Oregon or Ibaraki. And then of course there is the group of wild kangaroos that comes hopping onto the school grounds almost every afternoon to enjoy the grass and weeds. (Yes, I am absolutely serious.)

That evening the principal of PLC took us out for dinner (seafood, the local specialty, not steak) and drinks. Then, after a good night's sleep, we were given the grand tour of the Sunshine Coast area by Joanne, the chief of the Japanese department. The famous craft-fair villages of Melany and Montville were a lot of fun (though the recent corporate invasion of Melany and the ongoing dispute that it spawned put rather a dent on the fun.) The little hike we went on at Kondalilla Falls awarded us some spectacular views, some close-up looks at wholly alien plant and animal life, and a good day's exercise. Lunch at the English pub at the river-straddling shopping mall in Maloochy was great, too, and it allowed me to do some comparative tasting of Ozzie beers. We were impressed by the hospitality shown by Joanne and the PLC faculty, but I think I was particularly moved just by the neighborliness of the Ozzies in general all around us everywhere we went. Both Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast are a place where people still say please and thank you. Complete strangers on the street or in stores greet you like neighbors and don't freak out when you do the same. Help is offered when it seems to be needed, and potentially troublesome situations are often dismissed with a pleasant, "No worries."

I can really come to appreciate that.

And then there are those taxi drivers. During the one-hour drive from Caloundra to Brisbane there was the somewhat weatherbeaten-looking and husky-voiced chap who talked slowly with a really heavy drawl (which sounded unbelievably like Eric Idle's "mosquito hunter" in Monty Python's Flying Circus) who liked talking about airplanes and his family home in Ipswich. From the hotel to Mt. Coot-tha there was the soft-spoken Lebanese driver who was very curious about my life in Japan but suddenly became strangely shifty-eyed and evasive when I asked him to elaborate on the time he'd spent living in Germany. From Mt. Coot-tha to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary there was the humorous, old man who started off with, "It's a good thing you called me when you did. I was just grabbin' a kip (nap), as I always do't this time, and I just woke out of it." From Lone Pine to the Southbank Parkland there was the quiet-voiced former navy man who had lots of stories to tell. And then, the next morning, going from the hotel to the airport for our flight home, there was the massive Aborigine who informed me that he was a chief engineer on a cargo ship during most of the year and spent his winter holidays working for his relatives' taxi company there in Brisbane "to stay away from the in-laws". All of them were very different, but all of them were very social, talkative, and interesting, which really added a lot to the trip.

My three traveling companions said they were thankful I was there to sit in the front seat and enjoy the chat every time. Even the English teacher in the group, Ms. Y., despite her year or more spent studying in the U.S., could barely understand a word that any of them said.

Actually, to be tactlessly blunt, my traveling companions really made me wonder. Each of them had many times more international travel experience than me, but I'm lost on how they were able to survive. They would often suddenly bolt off without a word, on at least one occasion leaving the taxi they'd just hailed waiting (and then being at a total loss as to why the driver gave up and drove off). They would go into shops and then carefully examine and fuss over whole racks of items, often including ripping off labels and tearing open packages, before deciding on one or two items twenty minutes later (and not understanding why the clerks seemed annoyed). They would carry or leave valuable items in places that just begged to have them swiped (fortunately none were). And then there was the time that Ms. Y and the principal, in their eagerness to get back to the hotel, suddenly bolted off the main drag and into a dark alley (populated by a colony of scary-looking, cursing homeless) before coming up short at a busy, high-speed thoroughfare, which they would have tried to cross anyway if I hadn't managed to convince them to walk the extra half a block to the next signal. I wasn't sure whether they were unbelievably naive or just too self-obsessed to pay any attention to their surroundings.

In other words, they were acting like typical Japanese tourists.
Before you take that remark the wrong way, in my experience American tourists can be just as bad if not worse, but in different ways.

We never did make it to the Gold Coast, but we saw and did a lot of cool things in Brisbane. The lookout on Mt. Coot-tha offers both a spectacular view and a pretty good lunch in an open-air restaurant. The Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is a treat for animal lovers, as it includes a broad spectrum of Australia's unique wildlife (in addition to a koala overload). The Southbank Parklands and Queens Street Mall both have wide varieties of multinational shops and restaurants and are within easy walking distance of each other. Plus, it just seems like a pleasant and attractive city with lots of green and lots of friendly and interesting people. It makes for a good visit and an even better walk...though I could've done without the shouting homeless in that one alley.

It was a very short trip, but I think it was very eventful. And when it was all done, we flew the eight-hour flight back to Narita...straight back into the sauna.

Still, it's good to be back.

P.S. Victoria Bitter goes down smooth and easy. XXXX (4-X) Bitter has a bit more of a hoppy punch, making it a better beer to drink with chips or pretzels while watching a game on the telly. Hahn Premium Lager is actually more like a Pilsner, with a light, crisp taste and slightly hoppy finish. Crown Lager, which is Foster's premium brew, has a dark amber color and an excellent, balanced taste that goes well with a meal. Foster's Lager? I never even saw it, let alone drank it. The principal and Mr. K tried the Cascade Premium Light, but didn't seem impressed (and I never tried it). None of us got a chance to try any of the Toolaney's brews. Besides, Ozzie pinot noir and riesling is pretty good, too.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Universal Language, pt. II

It's truly amazing just how international Seishin's music club has become...and is still becoming.

It's just shy of three weeks since that truly unforgettable visit of the Garfield High School A Orchestra to our school, and now we're scrambling to try to get the information and logistics needed to allow our own orchestra to go to Australia next March in honor of our new sister-school there.

Yesterday I got a surprise visit from a girl who graduated from Seishin in 2000 and is a talented pianist (and actress, I might add). Now that she has completed her B.A. in music at a fairly prestigious music college in Japan, she is getting ready to enter graduate study at the University of Indiana. She came to visit me to thank me for translating letters of recommendation written by two different teachers (who naturally used brutally polite Japanese, i.e. AAAHHH!!!). This particular student has already had experience studying overseas, having done short-term study abroad programs in Spain, Finland, and the U.S.. Now she is entering the world elite.

Today I got a surprise visit from two girls who graduated from Seishin in 2003 and were both sax players. They were both very enthusiastic members of the Flying Eggheads. (Heck, they were the ones that painted the box music stands!) One was lead tenor (and student leader of the band) and the other was lead alto during the same period. Now the tenor player (who now plays mostly soprano) not only has her own jazz combo that plays regularly in Tokyo, but she has been doing jazz session work for a number of different artists. Having already studied in the U.S., she's now getting ready to go to Spain both to study and tour with her combo. As for the alto player (who now playes tenor), she just got back from Finland, and she's getting ready to go to the U.S.. Our visit was conducted entirely in English, we me speaking at normal, native speed using ordinary slang. We mostly talked music.

After the two girls had left, when I went out into the hallway, I bumped into a young man who graduated from Seishin in 1998. He graduated from Tsukuba University with a B.A. in music a couple of years ago and is currently pursuing graduate study in Barcelona, Spain. He is rapidly becoming an authority on Medieval, Rennaissance, and Baroque music, particularly on the recorder. He also speaks both English and Spanish fluently (and has picked up a fair amount of Catalan, the language of Barcelona, as well).

It was freaky enough to see three former students without warning in the same day (after having seen another the day before). It was even more bizarre not having spoken a single word of Japanese the whole time. Even more amazing that they are all becoming musicians of international stature.

And then, after leaving the Tsukuba graduate, I ducked into the music office, whereupon Mr. Ogawa started talking to me about his plans to send his son to high school in Seattle (preferably Garfield) so he can study music with even fewer restrictions than he'd get at Seishin.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised at all these former music club members going out into the world along with their music. After all, Maestro Ogawa himself studied clarinet at a music conservatory in Paris, and his daughter is in that fabled city now learning piano. If you have an internationally-minded music teacher, you're probably more apt to become an internationally-minded musician yourself.

Of course, having another music director who's a foreigner doesn't hurt, either. :-)

I won't complain. Internationalization is supposed to be my job. It doesn't bother me at all that the music route had been more successful than the English route. I'd rather do music, anyway...

Thursday, July 14, 2005

In the Same Boat

(Cue sad cello)

I am Hiroshi the Moody Minstrel.

Why do I keep getting suckered into these things?

Today is the day of the Aso Kindergarten Summer Festival (cue kazoo fanfare). It will be a day packed full of action and adventure. Oh, and also cuteness. Lots and lots of cuteness. In fact, it is going to be cute overload…enough to separate the men from the boys in terms of cuteness tolerance.

The trouble is that, while there are lots of little boys, there is a decided lack of men. It’s wall to wall mothers, which makes perfect sense (as long as one is a diehard traditionalist, chauvinist pig, and/or religious fundamentalist). This is definitely geared to be a mother-child sort of event.

So, why am I here?

Well, my wife was supposed to be here with our son. She was also supposed to help out with our neighborhood’s (cute) contribution to the (cute) festivities. Then, only a couple days ago, she suddenly announced that she had a (rather ugly) business trip. That left mom-in-law ready to go…till she found out that I had the morning off from work. And, of course, it’s only proper that a little boy should go to his kindergarten festival with his father, so here I am, one of only a handful of fathers among all those mothers and (cute) children.

Since I have to go to the school immediately afterward, I am also the only one present wearing dress shoes and a tie.

Moreover, as everyone is reminding me in all sorts of surreptitious ways, I am the only foreigner.

It’s not so bad when I go to events at my daughter’s elementary school. It’s much more local, so a lot of people there are from my own neighborhood. Regardless of what they might think of me and my foreignness, they still know me, and they’re more or less used to dealing with me by now. The kindergarten is a totally different story. It covers all of Aso, so people are here from all over the small but scattered population of this chronically rural town. I know very, very few, and vice versa. It’s easy to spot me in the crowd because there is always a big hole in it wherever I happen to be. It’s actually funny the way the people try very hard to pretend I don’t exist while at the same time carefully keeping their distance. In fact, it’s funny for at least five minutes.

Well, those five minutes are long since up, and right now I’m wishing I were doing something much more pleasant, such as getting a root canal.

The opening ceremony was, well, cute. (No surprises there.) The four classes of the kindergarten took turns reciting addresses. The kids seem a lot quieter and more subdued in general than they did when my daughter was in kindergarten. They also seem shyer…at least in the presence of their mothers. I guess that’s why their recitations were too soft to understand at times. At any rate, I decided to make it easier on the mothers by staying at the rear of the group. That way, all of them were able to stand near their children and indulge in their cuteness.

After that was what they refer to as a “folk dance”. Actually, it was two Jewish-style circle dances, and it was a parent-child-participation event. Those are actually kind of fun, and I wound up enjoying myself a lot more than I intended. My son, on the other hand, seemed totally lost. He couldn’t keep right and left straight, and his sense of rhythm was nowhere near as good as his big sister’s. It didn’t seem to dampen his enthusiasm, though. He stumbled and flopped around with a big smile on his little face.

Now the children are in their classrooms preparing (i.e. coloring) the tickets they’ll need to use in the game and concession stands. I’m stuck outside waiting with all the other parents, a lone, tie-clad gaijin father in an open space surrounded by all those chatting mothers, many of whom were no doubt my students once upon a time.

One of the teachers comes up to me and says, “Mr. Kevin, you’re in the Odaka-Minami district, right?”

“Yes, that’s right,” I reply.

The teacher gives that “ah” and sucking of air through teeth that I’ve learned to dread. Then, in an apologetic tone of voice, she says, “Um…your wife was supposed to be on the staff for your district’s event, but since she isn’t here…”

I indicate my understanding and smile pleasantly, but the fact of the matter is that I would probably rather clean the toilets with a toothbrush than help run an obnoxiously cute concessions or amusement booth together with a frightened clique of young mothers that would rather I weren’t even in the same prefecture, let alone the same event spot.

In and amongst all the bright pinks, yellows, and greens that surround me like a sea of happiness, my mood is definitely going into cumulonimbus mode. I’ll have to do my best to keep this rising storm hidden. My son is pretty excited to have me there, and I’d really rather not spoil his fun.

I notice in the corner of my eye that one mother is looking at me rather intently. That’s actually not so unusual. As long as my own gaze is safely averted, I tend to get stared at a lot. However, when I throw a quick glance in her direction she doesn’t casually look away like they always do. Instead, she actually meets my gaze for a second or two before lowering her eyes with embarrassment. Her name tag identifies her as the mother of a child in my son’s class, but I don’t remember having seen her before. There is definitely something kind of unusual about her. I’m not really sure what it is, and I don’t look at her long enough to judge.

The fact that she comes over and stands next to me most definitely marks her as unusual, as does her asking, “Do you understand what we’re doing?”

“We’re waiting for the kids to finish coloring their tickets,” I reply. I take a closer look at her and notice that her complexion seems a bit darker than the rest. Her facial features seem stronger, too.

“Do you know that we’re supposed to help with the events?” she asks.

“Yes and no,” I reply, smiling. “I know we’re supposed to help, but no one has told me what I’m supposed to do.”

She gestures at the nearest booth. “I think our class is doing this one,” she says. Then she smiles sheepishly and adds, “I don’t really know, either.”

I chuckle and say, “I guess it’s not just me, then.”

She looks at me intently. “I’m just like you,” she says. “I’m not Japanese. I have no connections here. No relatives.” She gestures at the crowd. “They all know each other, but no one wants to talk to me at all.”

My mouth starts to drop open, but I catch it in time and put it back in place. “It can be hard sometimes, can’t it? Where are you from, by the way?”

“I’m Thai,” she says with obvious reluctance, and a lot of things come clear. It’s sad, but Thai are very negatively stereotyped in this country, mainly because so many of them are brought here illegally by the yakuza to serve as barmaids (i.e. sex slaves), while many others are mail-order brides. To many Japanese, saying, “I’m Thai,” is akin to saying, “I’m uneducated, HIV positive, and I’m going to pick your pocket.” Truly sad.

However, her visage changes in a snap when I greet her in Thai. In fact, she jumps with surprise, bursts out laughing, and then quickly catches herself, putting her hand over her mouth modestly.

“How long have you been in Japan?” I ask.

“Five years,” she replies. In other words, since the birth of her child. “How about you?”

“Fifteen years as of this month.”

Again she jumps with surprise. “Your Japanese must be fantastic!”

I shake my head and smile. “My students still make fun of it.”

We share another laugh. Then she says, “Just a moment,” and hurries over to a much older woman, who then comes walking over to me with a copy of the schedule and an understanding smile.

“Kevin…,” says the old woman thoughtfully. “Right. Hatakeyama’s husband. You’re in the Odaka neighborhood, right?”

“That’s right,” I reply.

She points at a booth across the field. “Your group is over there.” Then, to the Thai woman, she says, “You’re here.”

The Thai woman looks puzzled. “We’re not in the same group?”

“No,” explains the older woman. “Everything is grouped by neighborhood, not by class. He’s over there.” She looks at me and gestures again. “You’re over there.”

The Thai woman smiles at me. “I guess you’re over there, and I’m here.”

“It seems that way,” I reply. “Thanks a lot.”

As I turn to leave, the Thai woman says cheerfully, “Do your best!”

I turn back and say, “Thanks. You, too.”

As I turn again and head away, I overhear the older woman saying, “See? He said, ‘Do your best,’ didn’t he? So do your best! Don’t worry! You’ll do fine!”

The Thai woman mainly just laughs in reply. She definitely sounds a lot happier than before.

I guess I am, too. No matter how bummed you get with your circumstances, it always helps a lot to find there’s someone else in the same boat.

I walk over to my neighborhood’s booth, and the cluster of mothers immediately moves a few steps away and pretends to ignore me. The lone father that is standing there promptly leaves (and stands staring at me from a distance).

“So,” I say as pleasantly as possible, but in a loud voice, “what would you like me to do?”

Two of the mothers look at me, smile, and move a few steps back while the others look on uncertainly.

“You’re on the first shift,” says the apparent leader. “Just do what you like.”

“You’re a teacher and a performer,” says the other brave mother. “You’ll know what to do. Just do your best!”

“Sounds fine to me,” I reply, a little bewildered. Then I start looking over our booth, which is a squirt gun target-shooting range.

I don’t know; this looks like it’s going to be fun!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Universal Language

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: there is never a dull moment with the Seishin Gakuen music club. However, there is an occasional moment of stark, screaming madness. Last July 3rd was a very good example.

Only about a month before that, Herr Maestro Ogawa gave me a surprising announcement (even more surprising in that he was clearly surprised himself as he gave it to me). We were going to be having visitors. Not just a few visitors, mind you, but a whole orchestra worth. Specifically, it was going to be a youth orchestra. To be even more specific, it was the A Orchestra (i.e. the top group) from Garfield High School in Seattle.

That in itself was cause enough for my heart to leap up into my throat, but it got worse.

The Japan Youth Orchestra Federation told us quite a bit about the Garfield HS orchestra even before I Googled it. The fact that they’ve won the All-Northwest Youth Orchestra Contest six years in a row turned out to be only the beginning. They have kids coming from all over to join their orchestra program. Every year, graduating members enter prestigious colleges such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Julliard, and so on.

In other words, they are the crème de la crème as far as high school orchestras on the West Coast go.

And they were coming to Seishin. All seventy of them plus their director and chaperones.


As it happened, they had already had two sister music programs in Japan for some time, both of which were located down in the southwestern part of the country (Okayama and Osaka, to be specific). They had already come to Japan to visit them twice in the previous six years, and they were doing so again this year. However, while one of the two schools had a strong choir program and the other had a very good marching band, neither had an orchestra. Also, since Garfield was traveling from Seattle, they had to come through the Kanto area anyway. Therefore, the director of the Garfield orchestra, a third-generation Japanese-American named Marcus Tsutakawa, put in a request to the Japan Youth Orchestra Federation. They wanted to get together with a high school orchestra in the Kanto area, if only for a brief “mixer”.

Seishin, as it turned out, was immediately recommended.

We were honored, to be sure, but we were also on the verge of panic. We had only a month to prepare for what was looking to be an event beyond anything we’d ever attempted before…and the action-packed schedule in the meantime meant that preparation time was at an extreme premium.

As always, Mr. Ogawa approached the whole thing like a true showman. Even if our orchestra wound up sounding like a bunch of squawking beginners by comparison, he wanted to give Garfield an event that they’d truly remember. When he called together the Band Parents Association and presented his proposals, we all thought he was nuts (which tends to happen quite a bit, I’ve noticed), but we decided to go for it. Shaking our heads and huffing, we set the plans into motion.

I won’t go into a lot of detail concerning preparation. Suffice to say that we made the best possible use of what little time the calendar and the school gave us. In and around exams, meetings, a local music festival, an audition for a national chamber music festival, a Saturday-Afternoon Concert, and an open-campus event, we squeezed in what we could when we could. It seemed like sadly little. Meanwhile, the Band Parents and the 11th graders kept busy behind the scenes. I did my part, too, not only leading rehearsals, but also keeping in direct touch with the Garfield orchestra, first by e-mail and then by cell phone.

On July 2nd, we spent all afternoon getting everything ready. The sense of urgency was so thick in the air that you could probably have poked it with a conductor’s baton and left a hole. Again, I really have to hand it to the Band Parents and the 11th graders. They were showing incredible grace under pressure (A chill wind comes a-rising above the cities of the…sorry…), and their efforts were truly extraordinary.

I didn’t get much sleep that night. I don’t think any of us did.

And then, like Deep Impact, the 3rd came barreling inexorably in. (Cue ominous, pulsing soundtrack.)

In other words, it dropped with one heck of a thump. Or was that my feet hitting the floor when I jumped out of bed? Whatever…

Acting on Mr. Ogawa’s suggestion, we had set up the Flying Eggheads jazz ensemble in the lobby, which was decorated with a pair of Tanabata trees (bamboo boughs decorated with ornaments and pieces of paper on which personal wishes are written in honor of the Tanabata Festival on July 7th). The intention was for us to give the Garfield orchestra a welcome performance as they came through the front door.

A Tanabata tree.

I have to admit that I was leery of the idea. After all, the Garfield A Orchestra was a group with a fair amount of prestige whose members included a lot of dedicated, serious, young classical musicians coming from all over. (Can you say, “Snobs from hell?” I certainly was muttering it under my breath!) There was also the no small fact that, according to the Garfield website at least, their own jazz band had been invited to a very selective All-American jazz event every year for the previous five years. That meant that they were considered among the top twenty high school jazz bands in the country.

That’s right. And we were going to be playing for them in the lobby. Our group of mostly junior high kids with limited jazz exposure.

I figured that, at best, we would get some smirks and a few comments of, “I am so sure,” as they filed on past to their dressing rooms. The thought made it hard for me to feel very enthusiastic about it.

As for the Eggheads themselves, they were so tense with anticipation that a strong draft might have shattered the whole lot of them into a fine layer of dust. It was bad enough that our performance at the Saturday Afternoon Concert the week before, in that very same lobby, hadn’t gone so well. They’d been dying from the heat then. Now they were just too nervous to function. It didn’t help that the warm-up was a complete disaster.

It was at this juncture that Charles showed up as promised. Good, old Charles, Assistant Language Teacher for the Hasaki junior high schools and 2nd violinist for the Kashima Philharmonic. Ever helpful, ever cheerful, ever ready with his smile, his quick wit, and his chocolates to bribe the students. It was definitely nice to have another Japanese-speaking gaijin on the scene to help out. The fact that he is also from the Seattle area definitely didn’t seem like a drawback, either. As soon as he showed his face in the lobby, he wound up hustling around helping with the last-minute preparations.

H-hour arrived, and so did the trucks carrying Garfield’s instruments and the harp they’d rented, but there was no sign of the buses. I had a very bad feeling. I had made a point of calling them the night before and telling them to be sure to instruct their bus drivers to come to the school’s main gate, not the north parking lot. For some reason, tour buses always seem to want to go to the north parking lot even though it’s so far away from the main entrance (possibly because it’s easier to get to from the highway), and they have to be told otherwise.

Just in case, I sent Charles up to the north parking lot. Yep, they were there. That meant that they had to go out again and loop all the way out around Kashima Jingu Station to come in through the main gate. That at least gave me an idea of how much time we had. It took me all that time to get the excited Eggheads to sit back down and get ready to play.

When the first Garfield members came through the front door, we started the Glenn Miller version of “Little, Brown Jug”. We kept it going as they filed on past up the slow, curving stairway behind me. After having worked with Japanese students all these years, it was bizarre seeing kids of so many shapes, sizes, and colors, but since I was facing my band I couldn’t get a very good look. I did see some smiles, though.

When Uchiura finished her tenor sax solo, I was surprised by the cheer that erupted behind me. I glanced back over my shoulder and discovered to my shock that the entire Garfield mob had stopped in the upper lobby and gathered around to watch our show. After we finished “Little, Brown Jug”, they gave us a hearty cheer…something you rarely if ever hear in Japan. The Eggheads were blown away.
I hadn’t expected to play more than one tune, but I started Count Basie’s “Splanky” anyway. By now the Eggheads were pumped up on the energy the Americans were giving them, and they gave perhaps their best performance so far this year. Even more amazingly, the bluesy ad-lib solos played by Yamamoto on alto sax and Onizawa on trumpet were remarkably mature…by far the best they’d ever done…and even they looked surprised, especially when the Garfield kids howled their approval. (That had never happened before in any Flying Eggheads gig!) After “Splanky” ended, the audience called for another tune, so I took an enormous risk and started my recently-completed, Glenn Miller style arrangement of our school fight song. It went very well despite the lack of practice, and again, the audience reaction was great.

I probably could have kept going, but I glanced at my watch and noticed we were already dangerously behind schedule. I thanked the Garfield crowd and directed them to follow our kids to the dressing rooms. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any time left for any real rehearsing. The orchestra concert was going to be cold as sushi.

Setting up took less time than expected, mainly because our kids were prepared and Garfield’s knew the routine very well. Even so, guests were already starting to come into our little auditorium. Seishin couldn’t rehearse at all. Garfield could only warm up a little. Then they cleared off so that Seishin could start the concert.

As rehearsal time had been perilously short, Mr. Ogawa had trimmed down his planned program. Still, it was demanding. They opened with “The Blue Danube” (Johann Strauss) followed by a rather brutal suite from the movie “E.T.” (John “f***ing sadist” Williams). Then they finished the program with “West Side Story Selections” (Leonard Bernstein). Garfield had sounded damned impressive during their warm-up, and our kids were feeling quite intimidated, but they still put on a respectable show. As with the Flying Eggheads performance in the lobby, the enthusiastic response from the Garfield group really helped a lot.

I don’t know if it helped my translating, however. On one occasion Mr. Ogawa used a word I simply didn’t know…so he translated that one word himself. The crowd (which included band parents, members of the Seishin faculty, students from other schools, and members of the community as well as the Garfield entourage) got a kick out of that.

Then it was Garfield’s turn. It was the last concert of their two-week Japan tour. They opened with Holst’s “Jupiter”, which is definitely a barn-burner. Next they surprised us by playing a suite from the Miyazaki animated movie “My Neighbor Totoro”, which really delighted the Japanese audience. Then they finished with Gerschwinn’s “An American in Paris”. Once again, I played interpreter, giving the Japanese rendition of Mr. Tsutakawa’s explanations. It’s far easier translating Japanese to English than the reverse, but at least I figured not many people would catch my mistakes that time around.

The whole program closed with both orchestras getting onstage together and playing “Farandole” from L’Arlesienne. Mr. Ogawa directed. There were some worries beforehand. It was bad enough that Seishin had to retune. (American orchestras tune A=440Hz, whereas Japanese musicians always use A=442Hz.) The fact that Seishin had only practiced the tune twice alone and not at all with Garfield made for some serious anxiety. It turned out to be unfounded. That tune might have been the most impressive of the whole concert. The joint orchestras sure put out a heck of a big sound in that little auditorium! It was amazing to listen to.

Now that the concert was done, it was time for the reception. The huge, throbbing mass oozed its way down to the cafeteria, where we got to see just how busy the Band Parents Association had been. It was quite a spread of food…including a live sushi chef (apparently a friend of Mr. Ogawa). Some of the parents had been rather leery of offering sushi to Americans, convinced that there was no way gaijin could ever stomach raw fish, but the huge, never-ending line that immediately formed at the chef’s booth quickly dispelled those notions. Mr. Ogawa wanted me to provide entertainment throughout by interviewing various people and keeping up a running dialogue, but I carefully avoided doing so. I knew the kids would much rather I just shut up and let them socialize. In the end, I think they were all happier for it.

Mr. Tsutakawa also had an interesting surprise. His cousin and his grandmother, whom he had rarely seen on account of their living in Japan, were there to join in the festivities. For the well-known director of more than one quality youth orchestra, he was a remarkably mellow, easy-going, everyday sort of guy who was totally likable (even if he had gone to University of Oregon for two years...). It was nice to let him have a bit of a family reunion as part of the event.

When we finally did wrap it up, we brought them all back up to the lobby, where the 11th grade girls, all dressed in traditional summer yukata (summer kimonos, also a Tanabata Festival standard) performed a dance number with big, wide smiles on their faces. The dance they performed was one whose tune was a big hit last year, “Matsuken Samba.” In the original, “Matsuken” himself (normally an actor in samurai flicks – picture a Japanese John Wayne, as Charles explained to the crowd) danced the lead part dressed in a gold, sequin-studded samurai costume.

So, in our music club’s rendition, Mr. Ogawa’s son Sanshiro came out dressed in a gold, sequin-studded yukata and danced the lead. That brought down the house.

As a finale, we had the Garfield students load all their stuff on the buses, and then I lead them on a very short hike to Kashima’s #1 attraction which is just a few blocks from the campus (okay, besides the soccer stadium!), Kashima Shrine. I rounded up the whole mass of them at the rear entrance and gave them a brief summary of its history, legendary as well as factual. I expected them to be bored. On the contrary; they actually thanked me, saying, “If it weren’t for your explanation, it would’ve been just another shrine.”

The chaperones went so far as to say they wished I’d been along when they’d visited other historical spots over the previous two weeks. English explanations had been sadly lacking, it would seem, so they’d been through a lot of “just another shrine”.

I don’t know; if I ever run away screaming from Seishin, I might have a glorious future as a tour guide…

I hadn’t been in the shrine for a while, even despite its closeness to my workplace. When I lived in Kashima back in 1992 I used to walk there all the time. As always, it felt like an old friend. Eerie, but still an old friend.

That fact that we were accompanied by our kimono-clad 11th grade girls made it all the more interesting. It was as if we had suddenly gone back in time. Even the girls seemed somehow affected, as if they felt that spirit, too.

While we walked down the broad, forest-lined central avenue, one of the Garfield students said, “It’s spooky in here. These trees are cool. It’s like they’re watching me or something.” I can’t help but smile. People have been saying that for thousands of years, and that’s why there is a Kashima Shrine.

It took a while for all the Garfield crew to find their way to their buses. Several of them had wandered off among all those little paths and buildings. They were heading back to Seattle the very next day (the 4th of July, which, thanks to the International Date Line, they’d be experiencing twice), so Kashima was their last taste of Japan. From all appearances, I think it was a good one.

I, Charles, and the kimono-clad 11th grade girls from Seishin watched the buses go. Then the kids immediately started discussing what they were going to put in the e-mails they planned to send their new friends in Seattle.

I guess we struck a blow for internationalization, after all. How fitting that it should be through music, the one language spoken everywhere.

The Garfield High School A Orchestra