Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, October 30, 2006

The 2006 School Trip, Final Day

And now we've arrived at the final day (whimper).

Once again our schedule allows us to sleep in a little bit. Naturally, my roommate (our grade chief, Mr. J) is up at the crack of dawn rattling plastic and thumping around with his luggage. (He really does seem to want me to throttle him, doesn’t he?) Perhaps it's a good thing we're leaving today, because I'll have a few hours of shinkansen time to use for napping.

I’m giving the rest of the staff something of a wide berth this morning because I’m still feeling a bit bitter about yesterday and last Friday. However, oddly enough, it appears they think they actually did me a favor by sending me off and then hijacking my taxi. Apparently they think I wanted to go off on my own, so they cut me loose from all responsibility and let me have the day to play with as I saw fit.

I suppose I can live with that. I only wish they’d made that clear in the first place instead of telling me one thing and then doing another. I guess that’s just good, old fashioned, Japanese honne (本音) and tatemae (建前) (i.e. lying is considered polite here)(i.e. harsh true intentions versus polite stated ones for the sake of maintaining harmony).

Our final breakfast here at the temple/hotel is bacon and eggs...? (I thought this was a Buddhist temple! I thought Buddhism frowned on eating meat! What's with this pork in almost every meal thing?? ) I wind up leaving quite a bit...and hoping I don't have chest pains on the way home.

Image hosted by Image hosted by Image hosted by Image hosted by Image hosted by Image hosted by

After that we gradually herd the kids out into the parking lot and, with a bit of effort, get them lined up and ready to go. They are reluctant to leave, but yet at the same time they're anxious to get moving. Go figure...

As always, before boarding the train we're scheduled to make one last tour visit. This year the itinerary is exactly the same as last year. First we go to the Kyoto Gosho (京都御所), i.e. the old Imperial Palace. One can only get in by reservation or invitation. This is my third visit here.
As always, we are warned that security is extra-strict (diminished 7th chord), so procedure has to be followed to the letter.
As always, we are separated by class, and each group is told to remain in a four-line formation at all times so they can keep careful track of our numbers at all times (cue militant drum cadence).
As always, the students take a few steps, and then the lines followed by the class groups quickly dissolve into one big, shapeless mass that spreads out all over the place. There is no control over anything.
As always, neither our guide nor the grim-faced security guards say or do anything about it, nor do our own faculty (except me, and they just look at me like I'm some nut) (cue Benny Hill music).

(Why do they even bother?)

Image hosted by

However, this time we do get a new treat. The last two times I was here they wouldn’t let us near the main ceremonial building (known as Shishinden - 紫宸殿); we could only look at it from beyond the outer gates. This year we walk right up to the front stairs and look up into its massive entrance (but we can’t go inside and see the throne room...a pity).

After leaving the old palace we proceed to the famous Sanjusangendo (三十三間堂) temple. (Hmm...photographs of the inside are forbidden. How did they make that websi...never mind.) I've already been here twice, but its impact is still enormous. You really have to see it to believe it. The large, main statue of Kannon in the center is flanked by 1000 man-sized ones, all of them gilded. There are also statues of 28 guardian deities (virtually all of which were adapted from the Hindu pantheon) that are of amazing workmanship. It is truly impressive.

And that, my friends, is the end of the trip. All that’s left is the bus ride to Kyoto Station (entertained by those amazing Kyoto bus guides), the shinkansen ride to Tokyo Station (zzzzzzz), and the final bus ride back to the school (ZZZZZZZ). At least the boxed lunch they give us on the shinkansen is porkless and quite good. (Listen to me…and I’m neither Jewish nor Muslim…)

Image hosted by

After arrival back at the Academy I wait around till all the students have gone, and then I accompany the teachers back to the office so that we can say goodbye. (Whatever…) Then I don’t waste any time hustling back to my BLUE RAV4, making like a shepherd, and getting the flock out of there.

Another year, another school trip. I hear we’re going to Okinawa next year…

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The 2006 School Trip, Day Three

It’s our first morning at the temple. We get to sleep in a bit (thank goodness), and breakfast contains no meat and only a tiny bit of eggs. We're getting off to a very good start.

Okay. It's time for everyone's favorite: open tour day in Kyoto! (Japanese court music fanfare) The kids separate into groups and go off to follow their own individual itineraries. As for the teachers, we have nothing in particular planned for this year. It is suggested that we stick with our official role and go patrol some of the places students are scheduled to visit to make sure they're actually following their itineraries instead of popping off to Universal Studios. I point out that a large number of the student groups are going to Ginkaku-Ji (銀閣寺 - the Silver Pavilion) first and suggest some of us head in that direction. The other teachers think it's a wonderful idea and promptly send me off by myself while they prepare to go somewhere else (purely for their own sightseeing pleasure, of course). I am assigned my own chartered taxi whose driver is authorized to be my guide, assistant, and expense account. So naturally, as soon as I arrive at Ginkaku-Ji I get a call from "home base" telling me to send the taxi back so the other teachers can use it. In short, I've been exiled, hijacked, and left entirely to my own devices (and expense) by my trusted coworkers! Oh, well. At least it's not raining.

Image hosted by Image hosted by

I head up the hill of gift shops to the Silver Pavilion and run into a whole bunch of our students. A few of them are not very pleased to see me (since I can see what they’re doing…or not doing), but some of the others get excited at my being there and happily chat me up, ask for English advice, and have me take their pictures. Then I run around in the temple compound.

Image hosted by Image hosted by

The Silver Pavilion isn't really silver at all. It was originally a country villa/private Zen study built in imitation of the larger and much fancier Kinkakuji (金閣寺 - the Golden Pavilion) by yet another retired shogun, but he ran out of money before he could have the planned silver leaf applied. Therefore, it's plain (old-looking) wood. However, the garden that surrounds it is fantastic! It's a veritable wonderland of moss including a few dozen different varieties (displayed and explained in detail). As with the Golden Pavilion, it was converted to a Zen temple after the retired shogun’s death and continues to serve as such to this day.

Image hosted by Image hosted by

Anyway, I happily hang out there chatting with students and taking their pictures till they leave...and head right for the gift and ice cream shops. I decide to be proper, do my stated job, and report back to "home base", but I get laughed at and told I don't really have to worry about what the students are doing. (For %#$& sake…am I the only one in this group who takes his responsibilities seriously?) So much for the "patrol". I say "fuggit" and take a walk down the nearby "Philosopher's Walk" (哲学の道 - Tetsugaku no Michi) to see two famous and very different temples, Zenrin-Ji and Nanzen-Ji.

Image hosted by Image hosted by Image hosted by Image hosted by

Zenrin-Ji (禅森寺), also known as Eikan-do (永観堂), is NOT a Zen temple. It was originally built in the 9th century as a temple of the Shingon (esoteric Buddhism) sect, but it switched to the Jodo Pure Land form of Buddhism in the 15th century and has remained so ever since. It has several buildings plus a garden, but they are packed in so close together and nestled so snugly among the trees that it's impossible to get a good view of any of the structures except the front gate without standing right next to them. Still, there are many surprises, such as the famous statue of Amida Buddha looking back over his shoulder and a curving (“dragon-shaped”) staircase of fragrant cypress wood climbing the nearby cliff face to a pagoda and the hall where the "Looking-Back Buddha" is usually kept. A steady chanting of the Nenbutsu can be heard from the main hall, making the already eerie atmosphere even more interesting.

Image hosted by Image hosted by Image hosted by Image hosted by

Nanzen-Ji (南禅寺) is quite different. It is a Zen temple, one of the biggest, and its buildings are bold, massive, and right there in plain sight. They are also spread out all over the place. There's not so much in terms of clear, obvious things to see, since Zen focuses more on meditation than praying to images, but, true to Zen form, the gardens are gorgeous...if a bit packed in (making them seem hardly worth the mandatory "donation" to get in. At least they let me into the main one free since I'm a teacher "on patrol"). Nanzen-Ji is also unique in that it has a large, brick, 19th-century aqueduct, which I follow up the hill and soon find myself hiking through forest, then circling a water pump and treatment station, and finally appearing in a park full of parents and children who all stare at me suspiciously until I leave.

Image hosted by Image hosted by Image hosted by Image hosted by Image hosted by

Circling back, I check out a few smaller temples I happen upon along the way and find some beautiful, hidden treasures that aren't crowded. (I also get ripped off once...attracted by a sign saying “special showing”, but after I pay and go inside I find another sign saying the “special showing” costs extra and is by reservation only.) It is past 1:30 when I get back on the Philosopher's Walk, but I don't really feel like eating, so I just have some dango (pounded rice dumplings) and maccha (extra-strong green tea...picture green espresso) before continuing on my way. By the time I arrive back at the Silver Pavilion I have been walking a total of five hours with only a few minor rest stops in between.

Image hosted by Image hosted by Image hosted by Image hosted by Image hosted by Image hosted by

Now I decide to hop a taxi (which winds up costing a lot) and head out to Myoshin-Ji (妙心寺). I tried to go there a couple of years ago, but we went there to find it closed to the public. This time I was a bit luckier. The Myoshin-Ji complex doesn't just include the massive (closed) buildings of Myoshin-Ji itself. It also encompasses dozens of smaller satellite temples established by various temple abbots over the centuries. (The reason is that the Myoshin-Ji branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism allows priests a lot of freedom to concoct their own methods.) Each little temple has its own treasures, and each is open during a different period of the year. Today I am able to visit four of them before I'm forced to give up, hustle out, and catch a taxi back to the hotel just in the nick of time. Each has its own artwork, architectural features, and Buddhist images, but since it's a Zen complex the main focus is on the various gardens. They are all beautiful in different ways, but, again, sometimes they seem a bit small for the "donation" I'm forced to pay to get in. (I could have joined a guided tour of the main buildings of Myoshin-Ji itself, but, again, time didn't allow it.) I end up leaving the sprawling complex just as a whole army of monks in full regalia comes in. The driver of my taxi, which is an interesting hybrid subcompact, is a very entertaining character, and if I had any doubts about my temple visits being worth the effort and cost, he dispelled them all.

Moody is completely worn out.

Dinner is sukiyaki. Naturally, that means lots of beef, and everything is dipped in raw eggs.
My diet is a disaster, but at least I'm eating well...

…but tonight I drink alone. It’s probably better that way. I’m not so sure I want to associate with the other teachers right now.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The 2006 School Trip, Day Two's a nice, beautiful, clear morning. If only it weren't f*****g 5:00 a.m.!!!!! Our schedule calls for an early enough waking time, but the kids are already banging and thumping all around us like there's a judo competition in progress or something. All last night they used an elaborate series of signals including coded taps on the balcony rail, slippers placed in front of doors, and scouts to let each other know which room was the party room and evade our all-seeing teacher eyes. That meant we kept ourselves busy until late breaking the codes and thwarting them.

I guess this ridiculously early wake-up alarm thumping is their revenge.

Breakfast is broiled clams, breaded pork cutlets, and fried eggs. Once again they are trying to torment me out of my diet...or make me have a stroke and die young, one of the two. (Honestly. I’ll never figure out why a nation like Japan, whose culture has had a strong Buddhist influence since antiquity, has become so carnivorous. It used to be that meat was a rare treat. Now it is almost impossible to avoid. Then again, I guess the ancient, pre-Buddhism Yamato people ate lots of wild boar, so perhaps the culture has come full circle.)

Image hosted by Image hosted by Image hosted by Image hosted by

The boat ride back to the mainland is pleasant. The bus ride to the Peace Park is pretty much the same way it is every time.

Image hosted by

This is my seventh visit to the Hiroshima Peace Park and my third time with a hibakusha (A-bomb survivor) guide giving us an informative tour. Even after six visits, the impact hasn't lessened a bit. I won't bother commenting on it yet again. I'll just say that it never ceases to amaze me just how cruel human beings can be to each other if they think they have enough of a cause to justify it. It's even more frightening how people can be so cruelly indifferent.

My group's hibakusha guide this year is a rather funny, old man who (unlike last year's) is actually able to speak and make himself heard. He has a tendency to stammer a bit, making him a bit tedious to listen to, but it's amazing how he can tell us something positively shocking and then smile and say very casually, "Say, why don't we all squeeze into the shade of that tree over there? We can still see what I'm talking about AND we won't have to get sunburned, either!"

I don't know, though...perhaps his carefree manner (and stammering) has a negative effect on the listeners. Either that or it's just the group I'm with. They divided each class into odd and even student numbers. I got stuck with the odd numbers, and I definitely seem to have gotten the oddballs. Even so, it never ceases to amaze me how the students' reaction to Hiroshima seems so out of sync with their personalities. Two years ago I was here with the most spoiled, childish, and self-centered group of punks I'd ever had the misfortune of suffering, but (with the exception of one hopeless basket case) they listened to the hibakusha tale so intently and were so deeply moved that most of them were in tears and one fainted. Last year the kids were good as gold...and they showed no reaction to it at all...if they even tried to listen (which is doubtful). This year? Well, they're very friendly and good-natured kids, even affectionate, but they're a bit on the spoiled side (to put it mildly). They listen to the hibakusha lecture well enough, but as soon as the old man stops talking they launch into a mass of giggles. Sparkly, spunky, but rather spoiled Ms. MM listens as the man tells casually of losing his father to the war and being raised by his mother only to have the A-bomb completely wipe out his home, family, and all his possessions, and then she starts bubbling over how pretty the roses in a nearby memorial garden are...and then sweetly tries to talk me into letting her pick a couple. (No, I don't smack her one, but I admit I'm sorely tempted.) After a while our token human mountain, huge Mr. MO (Yes, he's a rugby player.) starts making annoyed faces and very theatrically leaning on another boy's shoulder and pretending to sleep. Others seem to share the same sentiment.

Image hosted by Image hosted by Image hosted by

At the end if the tour/lecture Ms. MM moves up beside me and asks quietly, "Sensei, have you really been here seven times?" I answer in the affirmative, whereupon her lip curls, and she asks, "And you've had to go through listening to this every time?"

I reply that I've only had the hibakusha tour three times, and I add that it has been different every time. That sets her off into another one of her cute, theatrical, and kind of baffling displays of total silliness.

At least I'm not really getting The Look this year...though I almost wish I were...

After that we go through That Museum, something I dread but go through as a moral duty every time. As always, it is packed full and hard to get around in. Interestingly, there appears to be a whole group of Indians (as in India) there. One of the multi-lingual displays urging the discontinuation and elimination of nuclear weapons is set in Arabic. The various displays are as shocking as ever. Now the kids can't even pretend not to be affected. I'm finally starting to get The Look, but surprisingly, some of the girls in my homeroom actually come up to me and ask me with genuine concern if I'm alright. That's a surprise. Nothing like that has ever happened before.

One of them asks me if, after having seen it all so many times, it gets any easier. No f*****g way.

We're given a much-needed break after that. I go and sit on a park bench (bum ba-bum) eyeing little girls with bad (Sorry, Ian…) It is then that I get yet another new experience. A couple of boys approach me and start speaking to me in English that they're reading off a prompt sheet. I think they're students doing one of those "interview a gaijin" things I’ve faced so many times. Actually, they are Jehovah's Witnesses, and I get Watchtowered. Oh, well. It's something to read and think about while I'm waiting. (It starts out, "Look at the happy people on the cover. Wouldn't you like to be one of them?" After that most of it is along the lines of what I already hear from evangelicals that I know. However, I have to wonder why they changed the cross into a "torture stake"...)

After that we go to lunch. Of course, it's the local specialty: Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki (kind of like a cross between a pancake and pizza). The difference is that, whereas Osaka-style is all mixed together in a bowl, poured onto a griddle, and fried, Hiroshima-style is cooked in layers. It's absolutely delicious, but since the main ingredients include fried eggs, pork, and squid, I'm not exactly helping my diet...

After that we're back on the shinkansen (bullet train) for the trip up to Kyoto, where we have only to check into our hotel and have dinner. Before we leave, however, there's time for a little shopping at Hiroshima Station. I buy all kinds of local specialties? No, no, nooo, no! I stumble on a nice, little import shop and walk out of there with Lay's potato chips, cake mix, cookies, M&Ms, and a nice, cold can of A&W root beer to enjoy while I’m waiting.

(Not my picture...sorry...)

In Kyoto we're staying at the converted Zen temple Shogoin-Gotenso (聖護院御殿荘) again. Dinner, naturally, is in a very traditional style and is fantastic!!!!

After dinner is something new and interesting. As I said, this "hotel" is actually a temple. We're going to have our first experience trying out zazen (Zen meditation). When I first heard they were planning to do this I thought it had to be a joke. Try to get 150+ spastic teenagers to assume a meditative position and sit quietly for any length of time? It ain't gonna happen!

Well, it happens. The kids are surprisingly eager. Not only do they listen to the priest's talk very intently, but they do the zazen thing (Actually, in this temple's sect they call it "shikan" (止観), which literally means to stop looking) complete with priests walking around whacking people on the back with sticks if their posture is wrong or if they move. I do it myself, and it's amazingly refreshing. I become aware of everything that is going on around me at once, every vibration, every sound, every back getting smacked. I keep expecting one of the priests to give me the tap so that I can invite him to whack my back (and then thank him), but I come through safe. We go through it twice. The first time it feels like we've been meditating for three minutes, and we're all shocked to hear that it was actually seven. The second time feels like four minutes but is actually fifteen! The kids are so amazed they want to do it some more, and when we don't several of the students (mainly girls) line up so they can have a turn at getting their own backs whacked!

I'm tempted to try it, too, but I don't. It's bath time (by myself in that wonderful-smelling cypress-wood bath), followed by lights-out patrol time, followed by another staff meeting, followed by beer, followed by bed.

I'm beat...

Friday, October 27, 2006

The 2006 School Trip, Day One

Here it is, my sixth school trip to Hiroshima/Kyoto, and it is already getting off to a phenomenally crappy start. This year I was told, "Staff will assemble at 7:00." Naturally, I followed the usual procedure and showed up at the teachers' entrance at Ye Olde AcademyTM promptly at 7:00 to find no one there. That was odd. Five minutes later one other teacher showed up, and he was equally confused. We got on the cell phone, and it turned out that everyone else had shown up ten minutes early and had gone ahead to the station instead of waiting for those of us that were on time. (The grade chief said something like, "Well, we just figured we might as well go...ha ha...") We were told that we could be picked up and driven to the station at 7:40...much too embarrassingly late for my I decided to make use of these things I have called “legs”. Lugging my pack from the school to the station, I definitely got my exercise for the day...and we're just starting out.

It's a gray, dreary-looking day, but the charter train they put us on to get to Tokyo is really bright and colorful (unlike my mood). I've never seen this machine before. They must only break it out for special occasions. Funny...I wonder why they never used it any of the other times I've been on these trips... It's expected to rain in Kashima. I don't know the forecast for Hiroshima. I hope it doesn't rain there, too. As it is, it's actually rather warm and humid. It's bound to be a lot warmer down south. I'm sure I'll be about ready to evaporate before the day's done. Either that or I'll be in desperate need of burning my coat so that it doesn't wind up being classified as a WOD (Weapon of Olfactory Destruction).

8:15 a.m. and the kids are LOUD. You'd think they'd all be half asleep, but NOOOOO... Actually, this year's 9th graders are better behaved and easier to work with than usual, but for some reason they're being a helluva lot noisier. We're not even as far as Narita yet, and my head already hurts...

The trip on the bullet train is pretty much as usual. Once again we don't get a perfect view of Mt. Fuji (obscured, as usual, by haze). Once again lunch is pork and fried eggs (i.e. most of it is in violation of doctor's orders). However, the students, at least those in my home room, seem friendlier than usual. I get chatted up a lot more than I usually do on these trips. Even more surprising is their enthusiasm for chatting with me in English. That quickly saps up my cranky mood.

Image hosted by Image hosted by Image hosted by Image hosted by

(I'm sorry to say my bag got hauled off to the hotel...with my camera in it. We'll have to settle for DoCoMo cell phone pics today. Sorry!)

Ah...Miyajima. It looks just like it did the other five times I’ve been here. But then again, I guess maybe it doesn't. This is the first time I've ever been here when Itsukushima Shrine wasn't under repair due to typhoon-related damage. The shrine is in good shape. In fact, they've actually added a new section for an upcoming special event. It's also the first time I've been here when the tide is in, meaning that famous, big torii gate is actually standing in water for a change. That coupled with the now-beautiful weather makes for some really beautiful scenery.

Image hosted by

We get another new experience, too. They actually give us free time so we can run around in that wonderful collection of old-style shops. (We were never given enough time for that before.) I finally get to buy some of those famous "momiji" (lit. “Autumn leaf”) cakes that are a local specialty, but since they'll expire before I'm due to arrive home I guess I'll have to eat them myself.

Oh, darn.

Image hosted by

One of the other local specialties is wooden paddles emblazoned with messages, wishes, or pictures. On one street corner is a stall containing what is said to be the biggest one in existence: more than seven meters (23.1 ft.) in length.

We take a charter boat to our hotel, which is typical school trip fare (i.e. comfortable budget…just nice enough to be considered comfortable but still affordable). Dinner is breaded pork cutlets among other things. Thank Heaven for the other things, otherwise I’d have no dinner at all!

(Note: I've always used "BloggerBot" and my "Moody's Picture Page" blog for hosting my photos, but I've just been informed BloggerBot is going to be terminated before the year's out. I just remembered that I opened a Webshots! account years ago but never used it. It's still active, so I'll give it a shot. Sorry about the thumbnail link thing, but it seems to be the most convenient way to go.)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Off for the (Working) Weekend

Well, everybody, tomorrow morning I'm off for four fun-filled, action-packed days of running around Hiroshima and Kyoto with 170+ 9th graders. That's right; it's school excursion time again. It will be my sixth time to do this thing, but it'll be my seventh visit to Hiroshima and eighth visit to Kyoto. I definitely have more experience doing this than anyone else at Ye Olde AcademyTM simply because they attach me to the grade 9 staff almost every year.

Oh, well. It's usually enjoyable...and ironically relaxing.

I'm already finding myself filled with a strange longing for the beautiful autumn leaves, called momiji (紅葉) in Japanese, though the trip is earlier than usual this year, and I probably won't see much.

I'll tell you all about it after I get back!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Moody's Believe It or Not pt. IV

Things can only get stranger...!

The last time I was able to visit my family back in Oregon was during the winter holidays in 2004. Like most Americans (if not Westerners in general), Christmas has always had a very special meaning for me, so I'm always happy when I can be back in the old stomping grounds during the festive season. The 2004 holidays was also special as it was the first time I had ever brought both my kids to Oregon. My daughter, who is now ten, has been there a number of times, but it was the first-ever visit for my son. Yes, it was definitely a very special occasion.

Naturally, whenever I go back to Oregon I always take a number of pictures to show people after I come back to Japan. However, I gave the issue even more thought than usual during the 2004 visit because I had recently started using PowerPoint through a projector in my classes at Ye Olde AcademyTM. I thought it would be cool to take some pictures of the Christmas decorations in and around my parents' house and the nearby town. The little prefab house where my parents have lived since I grew up and left home isn't very big, but it's in a very beautiful location on a wooded chunk of land that used to be part of my grandfather's farm. Besides, my parents always go a little crazy at Christmastime, and it's always quite beautiful. I snapped a whole bunch of pictures of the tree and decorations inside the house and then, after it got dark, I went outside to get some pics of the lights on the house itself.

I remember feeling strangely uncomfortable when I went out to take the pics. It was a cold, clear night, damp as usual for that time of the year but not misty. There was a musty sort of smell in the air that struck me as unusual, but nothing to warrant any attention. Still, I felt really uneasy, and my heart was beating quickly. I kept pausing and looking around because I had a terrible feeling like I was being watched. In the end, though I originally intended to take a whole bunch of photos all around the house, I only took two quickies and then hurried back inside.

It turned out to be kind of a strange visit. One morning at dawn several of us were awakened by thumps like heavy footsteps outside the house, and then my son suddenly started shrieking. When I asked him what was wrong he said he saw something look in the window. More than once during the week or so we were there my sister was awakened in the middle of the night by what felt like something licking her face. (Actually, she says this phenomenon has occurred off and on whenever she has been at our parents' house during the past three years.) My daughter, who got her first-ever camera as a present that Christmas, used up three rolls of film in two days, and when we got them developed several shots taken inside the house showed strange blurs or orbs in the corners. (Of course, some of them were obviously her thumb, but anyway...)

Despite the strangeness, it was a very enjoyable visit, and as always it was much too short. We said our melancholy goodbyes once again and returned to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Winter vacation ended, and I immediately threw together a PowerPoint presentation of my trip to Oregon to show my students. I admit I didn't look all that closely at the pictures I included. As it turned out, the students noticed something I didn't at first. In fact, some of them were seriously scared, and it was easy to see why. You see, in the picture I took of my parents' house that oddly discomforting night you can see the beautiful Christmas lights.

You can also see something else.

This is the picture, and I promise you it hasn't been touched or tampered with in any way. Straight from the memory stick and into the computer. The time is strange because my camera was set according to Japanese time. Note the image, or object, on the right side of the picture, which looks more than a little skull-like. If you look closely, there is a faint image of a body extending from it, too.

I e-mailed copies of this pic to a number of people that I know. One of my friends then showed it to a paranormal investigator, who said it looked like an animal apparition rather than human (and I would agree). She also went on to suggest that it was a cow, and she recommended that I find out whether cows were ever kept in that place.

In fact, a cow was. That chunk of land used to be part of my grandfather's farm, as I've said before. In fact, when my mother was a child it was part of a small enclosure where the family kept its dairy cow, a jersey named June. My mother says June was a very friendly and lovable thing. So...did she come to miss human companionship a little too much that Christmas?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Rockin' the City...and Swingin' It, Too!

The invitation for the Seishin Flying Eggheads (funky-sounding fanfare) to appear at the annual Kashima Festival here in (wait for it...) Kashima City came as a bit of a surprise. We hadn't been asked to perform at that event for seven years.

Of course, the event itself had undergone a considerable change. If it hadn't, I probably would have refused immediately. In the past it was called the "mizunoue konsaato" (水の上コンサート), which literally means "Concert on the Water", and that's just what it was. They would build a stage out over a pond, and a whole bunch of school and community music groups would appear. It was a beautiful concept. It was clearly someone's dream given substance. It was always a bloody mess. With all those school bands coming and going, it was a logistical nightmare. You couldn't park anywhere near the venue, so equipment had to be lugged quite a distance, often through traffic. You had too many people trying to use too little space for storing and preparing their gear. To top it all off, the vacuum-skulled monkey masquerading as a professional sound man that they hired every year (at great cost, apparently) kept screwing everything up. {voice=sam kennison}The Eggheads took part in that event three times (in 1997, 1998, and 1999), which meant that we went through struggling to find a place to park the van, trying to haul all our stuff all that distance as quickly as possible, trying to find a place to put it, competing with sometimes very stubborn groups for even a tiny bit of prep space, being herded onto the stage for a rehearsal and sound check only to have the sound check wipe out all our time and still not be finished (because the sound monkey kept chatting with teenage girls instead of doing his job), killing time in between, trying to get all our members back together in time, competing for prep space again, being herded onto the stage for our performance, and sounding like total crap because the soundmoron had all the mike levels screwed up yet again THREE TIMES!!! AHH...AHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!.{/voice} They stopped doing the Concert on the Water after that, which was a good thing. I didn't care if I never did it again.

Needless to say, I was a bit suspicious about this sudden invitation, but it sounded like things had changed quite a bit. It was still part of the same Kashima Festival, but this time it was a high school music exhibition focusing on rock and jazz. It was to take place on the main stage, i.e. the same venue as the professional acts. If nothing else, it sounded interesting, so I decided to give it a try.

My decision to do so wasn't greeted very warmly by the Eggheads themselves. The timing, right between a Saturday Afternoon Concert and the epitomal Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival, seemed a bit harsh. I reminded them, however, that it wouldn't be such a serious event, so we could simply repeat the program of the Saturday Afternoon Concert while spending our rehearsal time preparing for the Seaside Jazz Festival. That made the kids relax a bit. However, the people in charge of the event didn't do much to inspire confidence. Weeks went by with no word. Then I was given a message asking me to call the included phone number and discuss the facts of the performance with the guy in charge, but when I called him all he did was confirm whether we were going to perform or not, telling me he would be in touch later. "Later" turned out to be an uncomfortably long time.

The Saturday Afternoon Concert came, and the Flying Eggheads delivered what was possibly their worst performance of the year. The home audience always seems to be the toughest, but since our program mainly consisted of tunes we had played at La Bohême in the Foundation Festival back in September, it should have been duck soup. Well, it started out as egg soup. The first tune started off with a bad note, and it was unmotivated, uninspiring, and loaded with errors. Things started to pick up after that, and the last couple of tunes came off pretty well, but overall the kids sounded like they were half asleep and wishing they were home in bed. It wasn't a very good prelude to a public event, and the student leaders started hinting around that they wanted to pull out.

Right after that lackluster Saturday Afternoon Concert appearance I finally lost my patience and called the guy in charge of the Kashima Festival high school music exhibition only to have him tell me that the planning session wouldn't be held until less than a week before the event took place. I wasn't very happy to hear that, and I made sure he understood it. However, it seemed they had a shortage of acts (gee...I wonder why...) and were really excited to have us in the program. I couldn't bring myself to pull out on them, so we went ahead with it...gritting our teeth all the way.

This time I made sure that the kids had all our gear packed up and waiting by the back entrance long before it was time to go. Since both school vans were unavailable, we divided the equipment up between my car, Mr. Ogawa's and a van belonging to one of the festival staff. Loading, as usual, took a bit longer than it should have, but not as bad as it has in the past. We arrived at the Festival site, which was the grounds of Kashima Soccer Stadium, only to be told we couldn't unload near the stage. Therefore, we had to pull off on the shoulder and have the kids haul our stuff a distance of more than a hundred meters (which is still closer than those Concerts on the Water ever were!). At least this time we had some help; the members of the other bands surprised us by volunteering, which sped things up a lot once they got moving in the first place. We had a designated space where we could store and prep our stuff without having to worry about butting heads with anyone else. They also had a sound man who not only knew his stuff but clearly took great pride in his work. No chatting up teenie boppers for him - he was constantly on the move, usually with furrowed brows, attacking anything in the system that seemed even a little off specs.

Then there were the performers themselves. It turned out that every act on the stage before us was a rock band whose members went to local senior high schools (and at least one of whom, by rule, had to live in Kashima). I shouldn't speak harshly of them, especially considering they were kind enough to help us with all our gear, but...*ahem*

The first band, sporting spiky hair and torn clothes, played Led Zeppelin songs (badly) while the vocalist "sang" (more like growled) Robert Plant's vocals in a low octave...totally off key (while the people backstage shook their heads and rolled their eyes), but they looked like they were having fun.

I didn't pay any attention to the second band at all. I just stayed backstage and concentrated on getting everything ready. From what I could hear, they played pretty typical punk...complete with a singer who screamed his vocals with no sense of pitch or rhythm. (I don't know why these high school bands always have these really obnoxious, screaming "singers". I mean, there have been and still are a lot of punk vocalists that shout their vocals, but there's a way to do it that sounds classy. These kids just sound stupid.) Still, they sounded like they were having fun.

The third band looked like a bizarre combination of glam and goth (including a rhythm guitarist/backing vocalist who looked like a black-eyed, black-lipped, purple-frocked, frightening hybrid of Prince and Ozzie Osbourne). They called themselves "punk", but they played death metal. The lead guitarist had some ability, and the two vocalists used some interesting vocal techniques to good effect (mainly to get "voices of hell", or "masses crying out in agony", or something like that), but they weren't together, they weren't in tune, and a lot of the time they just sounded obnoxious...but they looked like they were having fun.

After all that, the fourth band was a pleasant surprise. They were called "Sweet Jacks", or something like that (the only band whose name I caught). They had some trouble tuning their guitars, but they were tight, they were practiced, they knew their instruments well enough to convince, they knew the songs well, and they clearly had a sense of playing together rather than just going off into their own little worlds. Even better was the fact that their vocalist not only sang but sang very well! I mean...he actually had a good voice! Even more impressive was the fact that all the songs they played were originals...and very good ones, I might add! It was a very enjoyable and respectable performance. I could easily imagine them getting airplay, which was a heartwarming thought considering their drummer is not only a 12th grade student at my school but a former member of the Flying Eggheads! What can I say? She has been a bit of a problem student, and she was plagued with extremely low self-esteem when she was an Egghead, but she gave a good accounting of herself. Actually, today she made me proud. (I'm not sure why she was in tears after the performance since she sounded flawless; maybe she was happy. I sure hope so.) They actually looked like they were trying to put on a good performance rather than just having fun, but they still looked like they were having fun.

We were up after that. We were all worried about the time it would take replacing a four-piece rock band setup with a twenty-piece big band, but the stage crew was on their toes, the sound crew were prepared, our kids were ready, and it went quickly and smoothly. The kids were already looking intimidated by the large (and growing) crowd, but they were pumped up, and they put on an excellent show. We had only minimal miking (as I usually insist), but the sound man used it very smartly, and our balance through the monitors sounded excellent. That plus some quality solo work really rounded it all out. We pulled by far the largest audience of the day, which is always a good thing, but I was far more concerned about how the kids felt about it. One of the strengths of this year's Eggheads is that they actually look like they're having fun when they perform (except that last Saturday Afternoon Concert, which was probably why it sucked). This time they were really into it, and when we were done they looked pretty pleased with themselves.

We were followed by the headline act, which was a special guest. It was a pro acoustic guitar duo who I guess is at least moderately well known. I don't remember what they were called, but they were quite good and very enjoyable to listen to. They were also a couple of really cool guys...not turned into assholes by their success. They were almost as much fun backstage as onstage...and they definitely looked like they were having fun onstage.

After that they gathered all the participating bands and crew onstage for a commemorative photo shoot. That was kind of fun, too...especially since the photographer used a digital camera with no flash...and didn't always warn us when he was going to shoot.

Packing up and going back was a bit easier because we had even more help. Parents of members gave rides. We were able to park much closer to the stage. The festival staff provided one more car and loaded down the van that they had. Mr. Karatsu showed up in Mr. Ogawa's van but almost wasn't needed. We got it all back in one trip, and packing it into the school took only a few minutes. That was far better than any of those Concerts on the Water!

They said they plan to invite us again next year. I hope we can do it, but I hope they find a few more bands with a bit of class next time...or at least invite back "Sweet Jacks"(?) again!

(Moody, you're just a snobbish, old fart...)

Here's a promo video showing scenes from last year's Kashima Festival. Among other things, you can see a brief clip of the high school music festival and a glance at the pond where they used to hold the Concert on the Water.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Moody's Believe It or Not pt. III

I know quite a few people who have experienced kanashibari, or "sleep paralysis". I'm referring to the phenomenon of waking up and finding oneself totally unable to move, except for perhaps the eyes. I once did a survey in one of my classes here at Ye Olde AcademyTM, and it turned out that about 18 out of 40 students had not only experienced kanashibari but had all experienced it during the same week...within a week of a school camping trip they'd all participated in. That in itself is pretty strange, but it's nowhere near as bizarre as some of the things people I know have seen while trapped in such a state. That includes myself.

This time I will talk about two of my kanashibari experiences. One is actually more beautiful than scary. The other is not.

Chapter Five: Family Ties
My first-born child entered the world in April of 1996. At the time my wife and I were still living in our flat in the city of Itako, but as there was no hospital suitable for childbirth there, my wife gave birth at an obstetric hospital across the river in the historically-famous city of Sawara (recently renamed Katori for some dumb political reason). Standard procedure in Japan is for a newborn and its mother to remain in the hospital for at least five days for supervision and training. During that time, it is normal for one other member of the family to stay and help out. In our case, my mother-in-law and I took turns carrying out this duty so I could go to work (since the anally-retentive morons that ran the English school where I was employed at the time refused to give me any time off). Anyway, the five-day period went smoothly, and soon it was time for us to bring our new baby daughter home.

Naturally, the in-laws invited us to come and stay with them first, and that definitely sounded like a good idea. They had an extra house (where we now live), so there was plenty of room. It was a lot more peaceful and quiet in the farmlands of Aso than in rapidly-suburbanizing Itako. Besides, it was helpful to have not only the in-laws, but all those relatives right nearby. We decided to go there and stay for a few days before finally settling back in our flat in Itako.

There was only one bed in the extra house, the one my wife had used as a child. It was rather small, and it was located in the small bedroom on the ground floor. Therefore, we decided to use traditional Japanese futons in the main bedroom upstairs. We laid out three mats, two full-sized ones for my wife and I with a tiny one for our daughter stuck in between them right at our pillow level. It was an interesting arrangement, but it was kind of nice.

Anyone who has ever had a baby knows that, with a newborn, sleep is a rare luxury. Our daughter didn't cry so much during the day, but while she was still in the hospital she'd let out a loud squawk about every hour or two during the night. Oddly enough, on that first night there at the in-laws' house she actually slept rather soundly, crying only very quietly every three to four hours. That whole night had a strange sort of warmth and serenity to it, and it was clearly affecting all of us.

Not long after I'd gone back to sleep following the second feeding that night I had a strange dream. I dreamt that I was standing in the middle of the room looking down on our sleeping forms. A strange light filled the room. There was also one more person than there should have been.

He was clearly an old man, tired and withered. He was kneeling down on the floor at the head of my daughter's futon, his shaven head bent over her. He was dressed in a traditional Japanese yukata (cotton kimono) and hanten (a short robe worn over the yukata in cooler weather). The yukata had an indigo-on-white print pattern. The man didn't move at all; he just sat there quietly looking down at the baby.

I tried to say something to the old man and took a step or two toward him, taking care not to step on my own sleeping form. That's when I woke up to find myself lying on my back unable to move...and looking up at the old man. His eyes were closed, and he looked like he was praying, but something about him made me feel very uncomfortable. I also didn't like the fact that he was a total stranger. Afraid for my daughter, I struggled to move, fought hard to say something, and finally I let out an incoherent scream that woke up my wife.

"What's wrong?" she asked drowsily, adjusting the baby's covers.

"Did you see the old man?" I cried. "Did you see the old man?"

My wife looked around in puzzlement. "What old man?"

Indeed, there was no trace of him...and there would have been no way for him to leave without going past us.

My wife asked what the man had looked like, and when I described him she turned very pale. The description, right down to the pattern on the yukata, fit her grandfather the day he'd died. I actually have his yukata in my possession now, and it is definitely the one the man I saw was wearing. I didn't get a very clear look at his face, but the photos I've seen of the grandfather definitely have a similar look about them.

Both my wife and my mother-in-law are firmly convinced that it was indeed the grandfather come back to see his first great-grandchild. He didn't reappear when our son was born, so I guess he must be content.

Chapter Six: One Too Many
It was late summer in 2005, almost autumn, and the orchestra at Ye Olde AcademyTM was rehearsing. I don't usually direct the orchestra, since that's Mr. Ogawa's baby, but I often sit in the back of the auditorium when it rehearses partly so I can become familiar with the tunes (in case I'm asked to substitute) but mainly so I can just enjoy the music. I don't remember what pieces they were rehearsing that day, but, unfortunately, classical music often has a habit of making me feel very relaxed and comfortable. In other words, if I'm feeling a bit on the drowsy side, it quickly puts me to sleep.

I was most definitely a bit on the drowsy side that day. In fact, I was very drowsy. My mind was mush, and it was all I could do to keep my eyes open. I struggled to listen to the piece, watch how Mr. Ogawa was conducting it, and get a good idea of which parts were doing what when, but it was a lost cause. Halfway through the first run-through I finally lost the battle and nodded off.

I was awakened rather abruptly by what sounded like a teenage boy laughing nearby. It stopped as soon as I opened my eyes. I looked around with puzzlement, but I couldn't identify the source of the laughter. There were three boys in front of me in the back row of the orchestra, but none of them had a laugh that sounded anything like what I'd heard. The only other boys to be found were either up front in the violin section or over in the percussion section. There was also the fact that the laugh had sounded like it had been right next to me. I finally decided that it had probably been a dream, and I soon dozed off again.

The same laugh woke me up again. Then the same thing happened a third and a fourth time. Frankly, I was starting to get annoyed. I was beginning to wonder if someone was trying to play a trick on me.

When the laugh woke me up a fifth time, I realized that I was unable to move. I sat frozen in the chair as the orchestra played on, my eyes fixed on the percussion section. That's when I noticed there was one more boy than there should have been. It didn't take long to realize that he didn't belong there at all.

Needless to say, I didn't recognize the newcomer. He was dressed in a typical summer school uniform as were the other boys, i.e. a white dress shirt and uniform trousers. However, whereas our boys wear navy blue slacks, his were black. I also couldn't help noticing that both his shirt and his face appeared bloodied. He didn't do anything at all; he just stood there in the middle of the percussion section staring at one of the music stands with his hands folded as if deep in thought. He was right in front of one of the girls, but neither she nor anyone else appeared to notice him.

He vanished at precisely the same moment that I became able to move again.

Less than a month before that incident a boy student from one of the local public senior high schools was killed in a traffic accident not far from the Academy. I don't know whether was in his school's band or not, but perhaps he was curious about ours...

(BTW: During a period of two weeks or so leading up to the incident I just described several students talked about hearing strange sounds from the percussion storage alcove like someone messing around in there. I heard it on several occasions myself, usually when going up to the auditorium late after school. This continued for a few days afterward, too, but now everthing seems quiet. I guess the newcomer has moved on.)

Incidentally, after that encounter mentioned in Chapter Five I discussed the issue with a friend of mine and former coworker here at the Academy who is apparently very interested in and well versed in the paranormal. She told me that some cultures believe spirits need the energy of the living in order to break through into "this" world. Perhaps kanashibari means one is unwittingly providing such energy. I guess I really don't mind..but I'd still prefer them to ask me first!

Ain't you a bit old to believe in ghosts? I am...but sometimes the benefit of the doubt can be a very good thing.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Moody's Believe It or Not pt. II

Chapter Three: Breaking Up Is Hard for a Witch to Do
During my second and third years at Oregon State I started hanging around more and more at the co-op house known as Heckart Lodge. Then I took the plunge, moved in, and absolutely loved it. I first started going there because I had a couple of high school buddies living there, but it didn't take me long to take a strong liking to the interesting group that called it home. Heckart had a bit of a bad reputation among the other co-op houses, who saw us as a sort of "granola house" (i.e. full of hippie types). Actually, during the time I was there, out of the forty plus members there were perhaps four or five individuals who fit that profile. The rest was a uniquely varied assortment...a veritable cross-section of society all wrapped up in one eccentric and chaotic yet generally civil package.

Of course, with a motley smorgasbord of humanity like we had at Heckart, weirdness was par for the course. There was certainly no shortage of the unexpected and the bizarre, and that's one of the reasons I liked it there. However, I was never really quite sure what to expect...

When I first met S, she was "married" to M, one of the guys at Heckart and thus more or less lived there. (No S & M jokes, please...) An art student, she was an eccentric and emotional (to put both terms mildly) woman who was fond of poetry, herbs, fantasy, and giving backrubs. Both she and her "husband" became very close friends of mine, and I spent a lot of time visiting with them, especially when I had to stay in town during part of the summer holidays so I could work. They seemed like a very intimate and stable couple, so it came as quite a shock when S suddenly went ballistic and kicked M out of the house they had only just moved into.

The fact was that S actually blamed me for that, claiming M was spending more time drinking and playing games with me than sharing quality time with her (which was pure bullshit, but she dealt a lot in that). Then, both tellingly and ironically, she immediately started pursuing me. She was quite persistent, but I made it about as painfully clear as I could (without resorting to violence) that I intended to remain her friend but had no desire whatsoever of getting romantic with her. She was pretty upset, to be sure, but we did remain friends and often confided with each other during our troubled remaining years at the university.

Not long after the breakup with her "husband" S became a Wiccan. She was quite devout about it, too, and seemed intent to involve me. (I might add that at least one if not other members of her Wiccan circle got on her case to bring me in...saying I had some kind of power I didn't know about. That was the third group in my college days to claim that. I kept my distance from them just like I did with the others.) Anyway, one October day she came to visit me in my room at Heckart saying she had something important and very private to discuss.

It turned out that she felt "haunted" by lingering feelings for M (i.e. his soul was still attached to hers) and thus wanted to cast a spell to "purge" him once and for all. To do that, she had to perform the spell over a likeness of him and then see to it that he touched it. She had already made a little yarn doll and attached a photo of him to it. She told me she had also already performed the necessary incantation. That only left delivering the doll to her ex. She wanted my advice on how to do that. I suggested that she simply go and talk to him, since he also still had feelings for her and might have actually appreciated the gesture. She disagreed. For one thing, she didn't want to face him. For another, he was out at the time, and she didn't want to wait. That left only breaking into his room and planting the doll somewhere where he was bound to find and touch it. I knew that would be a bad idea, and I tried to talk her out of it, but to no avail. She was insistent. Finally, over my protests, she simply climbed out my window, walked along the roof, and entered M's room via his window. Then she returned to my room saying she felt an enormous weight had been lifted from her soul.

I said I wanted no part of it and promptly left to go for a long walk...alone.

I remember that, when I came back a couple of hours later, I had a very bad feeling I couldn't quite pin down. I approached Heckart from my room's side, and when I glanced up at M's room I suddenly had a strange sensation in my mind as if someone were screaming at me from the window, but I heard nothing. The whole building seemed to be radiating bad vibes like a transmitter from hell. I slowed my pace, went around to the front door and, with some reluctance, went in.

All of Heckart's evangelical Christians (about a dozen or so out of our 40+ members) were gathered in the living room together with their fellows from Reed Lodge, our neighboring female counterpart. They were sitting in a circle praying like their lives depended on it. Many of them looked sorely afraid. Several were in tears. Meanwhile, the prayer leader was whining and warbling like a crazed exorcist: "...therefore we beg you now, almighty Father in Heaven! Come to us now in this time of darkness! Free this house of the demons that have come upon it..."

My heart went straight into my mouth, and I hurried upstairs to find half the (non-evangelical) members of the house shuffling around looking very jittery. Meanwhile, a couple of our resident New Agers were pacing along in the hallway saying, "'s getting weaker now. Back up...back up..." Unfortunately, they saw me before I could make my escape.

"[Moody]! Just the person we were waiting for! Come here and stand in front of this door!"

Not surprisingly, they beckoned toward the door leading to M's room. I went and stood in front of the door, noting that all eyes were on me, including some noted skeptics.

"Feel anything?" asked someone.

I shook my head. "It just feels like the rest of the house." Actually, that was true. The whole house felt wrong somehow. I didn't tell them that, though, and they seemed relieved at my words. After a little while the bad feeling passed, and life returned to (ab)normal. Then I heard the full story:

Apparently, when S had snuck into his room and left the doll, M had been out walking with one of the evangelical Christian girls from Reed Lodge (read "trying to hit on her"). The two of them had returned to his room later and found the doll. M had understood immediately that it was part of a Wiccan spell S was trying to cast on him, and he'd said so to his companion. Naturally, being a typical evangelical type (i.e. "all magic is Satan"), she had gone totally crazy. She'd immediately insisted that they take the doll outside and burn it, so they did just that.

Not long after that, one of our house's die-hard skeptics (and a Marine to boot) had walked by M's door and suddenly collapsed. His arm and his leg on the side of his body facing that door had both gone totally numb. He hadn't known about the doll at the time, and when M and the evangelical girl had found out what had happened they'd both panicked, sending a chain reaction through both Heckart and Reed Lodges. The evangelicals had immediately gathered to exorcise the "demon". The New Agers had immediately set to work trying to track down the "psychic wave". Everyone else in the house had just gone into a fit hoping it all would end soon. Fortunately, I'd come back just as it was all winding down.

So...ain't you a little old to believe in witches? I know I am...but I've met one, and at least one of her spells apparently backfired...with nasty results.

Chapter Four: Ouija Deathwish
Not long after the "cursed doll" incident, the New Agers at Heckart started playing with a Ouija board. I'd played with one myself in my elementary school days, and it had actually made a few accurate predictions, but I was satisfied with my tarot cards (and wasn't eager for anything like the tarot madness of a few years before). I joined in a few sessions, but I was mainly content to sit and watch, which also made them happy (since, again, they claimed I had that "unknown power"). It wasn't long before they were spending almost all their free time playing with that thing, so I started excusing myself to participate in real life from time to time.

One night I came back to Heckart to find the group playing with the board, as usual. When I came closer to watch, however, the slider suddenly came to an abrupt halt, cutting off the current "message" mid-sentence. Then it spelled out a seemingly meaningless combination of letters and numbers.

"What's going on?" asked the group's leader as they looked at each other with puzzlement. He looked at me and said, "Do you know what this is?"

I didn't tell the others, but I knew that pattern well. It wasn't meaningless to me at all. In my youth I had used that combination as a sort of code name for myself. I had never told it to any of them, and to this day I haven't revealed it. That in itself would have been strange enough, but then the Ouija board suddenly started spelling out "KILL HIM KILL HIM KILL HIM" over and over again with great speed. At one point, the participants even lifted their fingers up, and the slider continued to move, though much more slowly.

"Kill who ?" demanded the group leader.

The board then spelled out my name.

The group then set about trying to find the identity of my apparent enemy, but he only identified himself as "maelstrom". I finally decided I'd had enough, and I excused myself.

Over the course of a couple of weeks, the same thing happened every time I came into the room while they were doing the Ouija thing. On one occasion, when the New Agers were out, I invited a couple of the evangelicals at random to try the Ouija board, and after the slider circled around meaninglessly for a few minutes it suddenly started spelling out "KILL HIM KILL HIM" again. Finally, after consulting a "professional medium" about "maelstrom's" identity, the leader of the New Agers started telling "maelstrom" to go away. He seemed pretty stubborn at first, but finally he shut up and left us alone. Then, after a while, the Ouija thing wore thin, and the New Agers started doing something else.

I still have no idea who or what "maelstrom" was or why he had a deathwish against me. If I can believe the medium, he is "a great evil", so I'd rather not deal with him anyway.

Still more to come!

Between a Hard and a Rock Place

"How about the Hard Rock Cafe?"

It was last Sunday evening, and my family was at the AEON Shopping Mall in Narita. We had gone there mainly to look for new clothes for the kids, coffee, Halloween candy, and import food items. Now it was getting late, and we were debating what to do for dinner. Naturally, the kids wanted hamburgers, but my wife and I wanted a bit more substantial fare. This argument tends to pop up every time we go to Narita, and we usually wind up going to either McDonalds, Denny's, or Saizeriya (an Italian family restaurant chain). This time I wanted something different, especially after seeing that big, new, neon guitar out in front of the mall.

(I'm surprised I restrained myself from buying a new guitar, but I digress...)

There are apparently just over 120 Hard Rock Cafes worldwide, but until then I had only been to the one in San Francisco. The Hard Rock Cafe Narita actually opened in the AEON Shopping Mall last September 15th along with a whole new wing of shops, not to mention an impressive remodeling of the interior of the entire mall. Since my family visits AEON an average of once or twice a month we had already seen the new addition. There was also no missing the new cafe. However, as with any newly-opened attraction here in Japan, there was basically no hope of getting anywhere near it. We just looked at the signs and stuff from a distance, said, "Hey, NEAT," and went about our business.

Well, now a whole month had passed. In Japanese pop culture, that translates as "an eon" (in AEON)(hyuk hyuk). It was still likely that the Hard Rock Cafe would be busy, but it would be nothing like the novelty crunch back in September. That at least made it qualify as "possible", and that's why I suggested it. My wife, who had clearly been eyeballing the thing all along, made a show of giving in at the last minute, but I could tell she was excited about it.

Yes, the place was fairly crowded, but there was no wait to get in. It didn't look like the people inside were in any hurry to leave, and it was easy to see why. The rock memorabilia that covers the walls is like a museum of the genre. Right above our table was genuine cover art used in one of U2's albums, signed by all the members. There was a guitar used by Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, a saxophone used by Clarence Clemens of the E Street Band, and many other instruments, gold records, bits of costume, and signed concert posters that I never got a chance to check out up close. Even so, the biggest attraction by far was the large movie screen on which a steady stream of music videos played.

The selection was an unbelievable assortment of old and new. For example, Modern English came on followed by Stevie Nicks followed by Coldplay followed by Ozzie Osbourne ("Crazy Train"!) followed by some modern post-punk band I didn't know (and whose name I don't remember) followed by The Kinks followed by Collective Soul followed by New Order followed by... It was fun just waiting to see who would come up next. The sound, naturally, was of club loudness and sub-woofered to death, making it muddy and hard to follow, but it was still a blast. My wife and I were so glued to the screen (often singing along) that we hardly paid any attention to anything else.

The kids were both happy with their burger baskets. My grilled salmon and mashed potatoes was probably the most authentically American-style meal I'd ever had in Japan (not counting fast food), and it was plenty good, but my attention was still mainly riveted on the music videos. The cafe had some excellent beers available, including Samuel Adams and Anchor Steam, but since I had a long drive ahead I was a good boy and just had a Black Virgin (i.e. Coke)...with some remorse. My wife never said anything about her food. I think she was even more wrapped up in the videos than I was.

I should mention that the staff, all of whom were either decked out in Hard Rock Cafe memorabilia or tricked out in rock n' roll fashion, were a kick, too.

I think we were a bit reluctant to leave, but it was getting late, so we finally pried ourselves away. We even somehow avoided the gift shop. After that we went straight to the car, stuffed in all the bags, and headed for home, arriving an hour later than we should have (and trying very hard to keep the kids awake so they could get their school stuff together).

Okay, I've done the Hard Rock Cafe Narita thing. I can put that notch on my belt and get on with life. Hey, I might even go there again. The only trouble is that if I make it a habit, I'm definitely in danger of buying a new guitar...