Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Drumming in my Ears

Ah...finally! A Saturday with nothing planned! For the first time in weeks I actually get a day of rest!

Or so I thought. Wouldn't you know it, today just happened to be the day of my kids' elementary school's annual festival. They'd all figured I'd be busy today and hadn't banked on my coming. Then they found out I had nothing at all going on...

Nope, I wasn't going to disappoint the kids.

Even so, I wasn't about to make any real effort. I got up as late as safely possible, got ready to go at a leisurely pace, and wound up arriving at the school (which is only about a block from my house) after the boring opening speeches and just in time for the 4th and 5th graders' performance of the old jazz classic, "In The Mood".

Image hosted by
Aren't they cute! Jazz with melodicas and accordions? Oh, well. It was lots of fun. Can you find my daughter?

After the opening stuff was over, it was time for the exhibitions. Each individual grade set up its own display or performance in its own part of the gym. My son's grade 1 class had tables with handmade toys involving seasonal seeds, acorns, and pine cones. (That was actually kind of fun, especially the acorn spinning-top duels!)(Sometimes being a dad allows you to get away with things you normally couldn't. ;-) ) My daughter's grade 4 class took turns giving lectures on research they did on barrier-free society and universal design, i.e. making facilities equally accessible to the elderly and handicapped. The effort and visuals were impressive, but the kids all talked much too quietly to be heard over the reverberating din in that gym (mainly from the grade 1 toy tables). C'est la vie...

Next was Family Project Hour, or something like that. They divided us all up by neighborhood district, and then we separated into our individual families. Then we were given The Project (diminished 7th arpeggio on a koto): to make a traditional paper kite. We were given the necessary paper, bamboo, and string as called for as we went along step by step. The instruction paper we were given was about as clear as Tokyo Bay (i.e. NOT), so an expert gave us step-by-step explanations in his annoyingly shrill voice over an excessively loud and modulating PA system in that reverberating gym. By the time we'd gotten to the third step my head was pounding, and I kept wishing I'd have a heart attack or something so I'd have an excuse to leave. My bladder finally came to the rescue, but when I inevitably had to come back I found that I had missed at least four steps, my son (who was supposedly working with me) hadn't done anything in the meantime, and I was hopelessly lost. My wife and my daughter were too wrapped up in their own kite to give me much help, so I just had to examine their work and copy it as best I could. Soon after that the faculty of the school started distributing the string in my neighborhood group, so naturally all the kids from all the neighborhood groups immediately came a-running and dog-piled right in my vicinity, bumping into me, getting in my face, stepping on my papers, and kicking my tools. My attitude and language immediately turned very foul (though I restrained myself from body-slamming anybody) and remained that way until we somehow managed to finish the kite. Then it was time for lunch.

Lunch was good, and it was nice enjoying it under the blue sky sitting at my portable table. However, we couldn't help but notice that we were the only ones there with a portable table. Everyone else lounged on picnic blankets and laughed at us. Oh, well. My wife packs a mean picnic lunch, so it was more than worth it. After that the faculty and PTA got out a whole bunch of traditional toys and booths selling things like popcorn and broiled sweet potatoes (a favorite of mine). That was kind of nice, too.

After that came the "main event", and it was a bit of a surprise. We were treated to a performance by the Oarai High School BlueHawks Marching Band, not only the best here in Ibaraki Prefecture but one of the highest ranked in the entire country. Naturally, they are something of a legend here in their home turf (along with Ye Olde Academy's orchestra), but I had only seen them in videos before, never live. At first I wasn't sure I wanted to watch their performance, but I gave in and did so.

Image hosted by Webshots.comImage hosted by Webshots.comImage hosted by Webshots.comImage hosted by

They were clearly a high-class outfit, but they were surprising in many ways. It was also fun comparing them with the Oregon State (Beaver) marching band, of which I was a proud member for four years. The Oarai band was surprisingly small. Being very traditionalist, it consisted only of brass, saxes, and piccolos plus a percussion section. All the wind instruments were the same silver color. They didn't use sousaphones; instead, they used shoulder-mounted tubas, and the euphoniums were packed on their players' shoulders, as well. They played with a nice, warm sound with good blend and balance (and good intonation MOST of the time), but they were also surprisingly quiet. All these things plus the fact that they were a glide-stepping line-drill band couldn't help but remind me of OSU's arch rivals, University of Oregon (Ducks).

The Beaver Band always took pride in being an old-fashioned, high-stepping band that performed graphic shows (i.e. we made animated pictures or spelled out words) and played very loudly. During the yearly Civil War Game against the Ducks we had a grand time marching against each other during half time. The press always had a good laugh about the fact that, even though the Ducks used amplification (yes, marching mike holders!) and synthesizers (yes, with marching amplifier pullers!), we always blasted them out of the stadium. On the other hand, they definitely had the edge on us in terms of precision. They were quieter than us, and they were also less raucous. They had less attitude. Their modern, glide-stepping marching form tended to be much closer to perfection than ours, and they moved with a bit more snap. However, surprisingly enough, we seemed to be more precise in terms of formation. Since we made words that were meant to be read and pictures that were meant to be watched, positioning and alignment were things we took more seriously than how we got there. The Ducks on the other hand actually cheated a lot of the time by forming up into lines only to break up again before actually achieving proper alignment. In other words, they considered movement more important than formation.

Just like the Oarai band, or so it would seem. Still, the band put on one heck of a good show, and I enjoyed it thoroughly even though it both made me homesick and awakened my old anti-Duck instincts. I should also say, however, that I was especially impressed with Oarai's percussion section. They used the same types of instruments as the Beaver and Duck bands, but they employed them in different ways. Their cadences had a distinctly Japanese flavor that was clearly influenced by traditional taiko drumming, and I appreciated it immensely. It also goes without saying that they were a very tight ship. It was extremely ironic that the performance ended with one of the tonal bass drummers (a little guy...probably a rookie) crashing into a row of suspended cymbals and music stands parked at the sideline...right in front of me. my college days I was told by various occultists, New Agers, and Wiccans that I had some kind of power I didn't know about. Maybe my anti-Duck instincts made me subconsciously employ some unknown suggestive or telekinetic talent, and...naaaaaah.

Anyway, it was an interesting day, but I was ready for a long nap afterward...

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Skill of Song and Dance

Once every year Ye Olde AcademyTM holds a "cultural appreciation event" of some kind. For the past several years we have been alternating between music and drama. Last year the focus was on orchestral music and opera, so that meant that this year was the theater's turn. The last time we had a "drama appreciation event", which was two years ago, we saw a (surprisingly off-color) musical that was a modern work but set in a classic setting. This time they took it a step further.

We saw a kabuki demonstration. Kabuki as it is known today is perhaps the most recent of the three officially recognized types of classic Japanese theater, the other two being noh and bunraku.

Noh is clearly the oldest of the three. It became established as an aristocratic tradition sometime during the Muromachi period (1336-1573), but some experts believe it may have derived from folk customs that were much older, and others claim it may even have its roots in China. Noh dramas are actually spiritual events; they are traditionally performed at Shinto shrines, and the fundamental motif is that the participants summon the ghosts of legendary figures, who then possess the actors and act out their story, which is most likely either a fallen hero or someone who suffered a wrongful death. The actors wear special masks, but otherwise the costumes and sets are simple. The pace of the performance is slow and graceful, and the dialogue is chanted or sung rather than spoken. The whole presentation is accompanied by drum, (amelodic) flute, and a chorus. Noh dramas tend to be eerie, even haunting. In that regard, they can be pretty intense, even overwhelming, so they aren't for everyone.

Bunraku is a form of puppet drama which came about in the late 17th century in Osaka. The puppets, which are often of exquisite construction, are actually held and manipulated by puppeteers onstage, usually with three individuals handling each puppet. The master puppeteer usually dresses in traditional Japanese clothing while the others are obscured by fully-encompassing, hooded black clothes (i.e. they are "invisible"). A narrator chants both the story and the dialogue to the accompaniment of a special form of shamisen. There are many bunraku stories, but the majority are about star-crossed lovers that wind up killing themselves.

Which finally brings me to what I was talking about in the first place, which was kabuki. The modern word comes from ka (歌-song) bu (舞-dance) ki (伎-skill), but when it first appeared in the early 17th century the last character, though also read "ki" (妓), meant "prostitute". The reason was that it was a very obnoxious and off-color form of vaudeville-style dance-drama performed by groups of prostitutes in dry riverbeds near Kyoto. These dramas became immensely popular among the common folk, but they also attracted the wrath of the fiercely Confucian Tokugawa shogunate, which promptly banned women from performing theater. Public demand led to male performers replacing the women, which led to the creation of kabuki as it is known today. It is obvious that kabuki draws heavily from noh drama, but it is more like an exaggerated parody of it. The costumes are flamboyant, the sets are often complex, the action is fast, and the dialog ranges from profound to comically raucous. In short, whereas noh is meant to be highly sophisticated, kabuki is pure shock-stimulus entertainment at its colorful best. There are a great many kabuki dramas in existence, modern and ancient, many of which were actually adapted from bunraku or even noh.

So anyway...we had a kabuki presentation yesterday. As usual, they divided it up so the junior high kids saw it in the morning and the senior high kids saw it in the afternoon. Since I'm attached to the junior high, I got to help herd the chimpanzees students from the Academy to the Kashima Labor Culture Hall. Thankfully, it was a lovely day...even a bit warm for the season. A very good day for a walk even if embarrassed by the colorful display of stupidity put on by some of our number.

The presentation was divided into three parts:

In the first part the ranking kabuki master and a couple of other actors performed a choreographed dance/swordfight scene from a famous play. Then they took one part of it, explained each specific move (each of which had its own title!), and then invited some of the students up to try it. Wouldn't you know of them was our #1 grade 9 class clown. As it turned out, the scene called for him to take a (mimed) sword pommel to the face, and he portrayed it quite dramatically, to be sure.

The second part was a demonstration of all the preparation required to outfit an onnagata (女形-actor portraying a female role). With the help of a webcam, a projector, and an ongoing explanation by the master, we got to watch an actor put on all the different layers of makeup, get outfitted in several layers of costume (with help from experts plus the master himself--something the latter had a good laugh about), and finally have the complicated wig/headpieces put on. Then, at the master's urging, (s)he walked across the stage to demonstrate the techniques of feminine movement. The illusion was truly amazing. A man truly had become a beautiful princess!

For the third part we actually got to watch a scene from a short comic drama (possibly an adapted rakugo comic drama, but since I could understand the dialog it was either modern or translated from the archaic language). Now the master himself was dressed up in full costume and makeup, and the stage was set with props. In the play, he was a daimyo (warlord) who was searching for a wife together with his chief samurai retainer. First he tried to command the mountain and forest to send him a wife, but all that came was a dog and a crow (that cried "aho[idiot]!"). Then he found a fishing pole, and when he cast it he wound up reeling in a beautiful princess (the onnagata we saw dress up during the second part), who he promptly married (in the traditional style of sharing a large cup of sake). The samurai (who was busily drinking the last of the sake) decided to try it, too, but the woman he wound up reeling in was neither beautiful nor particularly feminine. (Actually, one student said she looked kind of like Ronald McDonald in a kimono.) She wound up chasing him around the stage despite his best efforts to shake her off. The daimyo urged him to accept his fate and marry her anyway, but since he'd already drunk all the sake he had an excuse not to. Finally, the daimyo left with his princess, and the samurai siezed the opportunity to sneak out by hiding under the princess's robes. The curtain fell with the poor, unattractive woman left all alone and forsaken, falling to her knees with sadness.

I had actually seen a (high-class) performance at Tokyo's main kabuki theater before (with that same master appearing!) but it was really quite fascinating. Those dramas can be both impressive and a lot of fun to watch. Besides, they only managed to put half the boys in my class to sleep. That's better than some of these cultural appreciation events have been in the past!

As we were herding the monkeys back to the school, I noticed that my coat pocket seemed lighter than usual and found to my shock that my cell phone wasn't in it. I couldn't remember for sure if I'd even brought the thing, but I figured I'd better be safe. I went back into the hall, where a whole crew was assembled onstage, and the apparent leader was loudly dressing them down about something. (I didn't catch what it was, and I didn't really try to listen.) Someone pointed out my presence, the ranting came to an abrupt halt, and the whole troupe (minus the actors who were no doubt still removing all that makeup and gear) glared at me silently while I searched about the seat I'd occupied, found nothing, and quietly left again.

(It turned out that I hadn't brought my cell phone. It was safe and sound on my desk.)

It wasn't a bad way to spend a Wednesday morning, especially since I had the afternoon off and today was a national holiday. :-)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Tenth Gate

I just discovered that I was supposed to list TEN weird things about myself, not nine. (There's that math block again...) Okay, I'll drop in number ten, which I think is pretty obvious:

10. I believe in ghosts and spirits. Objective realist as I try to be, I haven't always felt this way. By any stretch of logic, there shouldn't be any such thing as ghosts or spirits. However, experience has taught me to be a bit more open minded. If you've read my "Moody's Believe It or Not" posts from last October, you'll probably understand. If not, get on the archive link and do so! I won't say anything more about it here.

Okay, Tooners, are you happy now?

Home, Home on the Strange...

Sometime earlier this year I got caught up in one of these tag things and put up a lengthy post describing several unique qualities about myself. Well, now I've been more or less tagged to do a similar post describing nine strange things about myself. At first I thought, "Only NINE? " Then I figured, oh well. I might as well do this. I realize some of these strange facts about myself may very well be repeats from that earlier post, but at least I won't have to worry about being cursed by the people that tagged me...

Anyway...Nine Strange Things About Myself:


1. I was born breech, i.e. feet first. I was also a very large baby. Needless to say, my birth was not exactly an easy process. My mother was in labor for a long, long time. I've often wondered if that has anything to do with some of my more unique qualities...

2. You'd be hard pressed to find a bodily system or function in me that isn't flawed or deformed somehow. The bones in my arms, legs, and part of my skull are crooked. Because of that, some of my joints are deformed, and the muscles aren't connected properly. I have a recurring, mild carpal tunnel syndrome in my left wrist which the doctor says is related to the deformity. My nervous system works way too fast, meaning I am not only naturally nervous and tense (and no treatment has worked thus far), but my powers of concentration are extremely limited. My stomach is sensitive and acidic, and my colon is irritable. I have two pairs of kidneys, which means I tend to dehydrate quicker than most people. My respiratory system is plagued by mild (but apparently worsening) allergies which doctors have yet to identify. My circulatory system is increasingly suffering from ever-increasing cholesterol which a no-meat, no-egg, lots-of-fish diet hasn't really helped. I'm sure there are probably other things, but I'll leave it at that.

3. My brain seems to have a built-in math blocker. I was always interested in (obsessed with?) science while I was growing up, I majored in science in senior high and my first few years of college, and I even have an associate's degree in chemistry, but the fact is that I've always been weak in math (and ONLY math!). In every single area of math (algebra, trigonometry, geometry, calculus) I started out really well, finding it all ridiculously simple and getting straight A's with no effort, but for some reason I'd always wind up hitting a point where I simply couldn't progress any further, and I never understood why. No matter how much I studied, practiced, asked for help from others, and got insulted by my teachers, I'd be virtually paralyzed. It's like my brain would literally lock up and refuse to work, leaving me staring blankly into space unable to answer the problem.

In fact, when I finally gave up and dropped out of my last attempted college math class, I went to the Department of Math to take care of the humiliating procedure, and when they asked me the name of my teacher and the time my class was held my brain locked up again and I was unable to say anything at all for a number of minutes. First the secretary laughed at me, and then she looked frightened. Finally she just named off all the calculus classes and professors, and I nodded at the correct one.

It has to be a psychological thing, but I can't imagine what it would be.

4. On the other hand, I've always had a knack for language and music. It's hard to say when I really learned either, but I do know that when I was four I was already reading books and picking out TV show theme music on the piano. When I was five I argued with my kindergarten teachers when they misread the instructions on our worksheets and made classmates who were taking piano lessons mad because I'd listen to them struggling with their practice etudes, say, "Is this what you're trying to play," sit down next to them, and crank it off in one go. In the 4th grade I scored second place in Oregon (4th place on the West Coast) on an English proficiency test, and when I took up the clarinet later that same year I was put directly into the advanced band after only two weeks of instruction (which is probably what finally cost me my best friend at the time). In college I took beginning and second-year German at the same time (which my professors thought was totally insane), got straight A's, and decided to make it my major.

I guess it makes sense that I work as an English and music teacher and moonlight as a musician/composer/arranger...

5. I sometimes have prophetic dreams. They tend to happen in waves. I'll often have several within a period of anywhere from a few days to a few weeks and then nothing for months after that. Usually when a "prophetic wave" happens it manifests together with other strange symptoms, such as me seeming to become temporarily left handed, being perpetually dizzy and unable to concentrate, or having occasional, sudden, intense flashes of waking dreams that have proven clairvoyant. These dreams may involve me or people I know. They are usually rather metaphorical in nature...or the prophetic bit will be embedded in a metaphorical environment...but they have proven chillingly accurate.

I once had a couple of such dreams whose warning was very clear. I didn't take them seriously, and it nearly cost me my life. Needless to say, I make a point of trying to remember what I see in my dreams just in case.

6. Speaking of dreams, from the time I was about 11 years old until the year 2002 I had occasional waves of dreams that not only shared a common theme but were amazingly interconnected. The main themes/events of those dreams were often repeated many times over the years with increasing detail as if my subconscious were gradually filling in the gaps. They took place in a sci-fi/fantasy setting, and they centered on me, but not really me. It was almost as if they were depicting me in an alternate universe, a past life, or even a future one. People I knew often appeared, but sometimes I'd see the same scene over and over again with different people playing the same roles as if the events were more important than the characters. Looking back, the way my real life has turned out has paralleled those dreams in many ways, so it's possible that the sci-fi/fantasy setting was just my subconscious adding artistic license to prophetic vision. Nothing like some of the more important events I've seen has happened yet, however, so the story is far from over. In any case, it has inspired all kinds of artwork, stories, cartoons, and even a role-playing game over the years, and it is still very precious to me.

7. My tastes have never meshed well with those of my peers. In my elementary school days I hated sports and loved music, reading, and learning. In my teens fashion and all that social bullshit really annoyed me. (I tried to be "normal" for a very brief period in senior high at the urging of some of my classmates, but I hated it, and they quickly gave up.) Even now I tend to shun parties, preferring the company of a few good friends. I'd much rather relax with beer and chat than go out for an "exciting" night on the town. Come to think of it, I'm not even really all that fond of towns in general, preferring the quiet of the country or wilderness. I don't mind traveling, but I don't do it very often, and when I do I try my best to avoid the really glitzy, touristy places (which annoy me...and tourists in general tend to annoy me even more!).

I was never even able to fit in with regard to religion. I had a conservative, Christian upbringing, went to church, read the Bible cover-to-cover, and mostly tried to live according to Christian morals when I was growing up (which earned more than a little ridicule from my peers, particularly with regard to my firm belief in God and dislike of casual sex), but traditional Christianity never really computed with me. My tendencies toward objective science, reality, and basic logic kept me constantly at odds with Bible literalists. I also had problems with religious intolerance, let alone dogma. After squabbling with priests and members of the congregation at more than one church I finally gave up going altogether. I also started studying and even incorporating elements of other religions into my "belief system". A "preferred religion" test I took online not so long ago said that I should be Buddhist. I am strongly interested in that religion as well as others, and recently I've been studying a bit of Islam.

Yes, I'm a geek, and I may be going to hell...but at least I'm not suffering from an identity crisis.

8. Objective realist or not, you'll still find a healthy dose of the supernatural in my life. I carry a lapis lazari luckstone in my pocket at all times except when I'm bathing or sleeping. I keep a crystal in my briefcase and various luckstones (garnet, tiger's eye, amethyst, jade, and rosy quartz among others) in my BLUE RAV4 and in my bedroom. I have an Irish luckstone (which I bought in Australia) on my desk at Ye Olde AcademyTM. I have a couple of tarot card decks, and I used to be pretty good with them in my college days, but now they just sit in the "altar" in my bedroom. Since Shinto believes that spiritual energy flows from the East, I tend to give that direction special significance. I once composed and recorded a tune because I was told to do so in a pacify a restless spirit that had been causing trouble in my household.

I look at it this way: if these things are real, then doing them might bring some benefit. If they're not real, then doing them won't bring any harm. That means that, logically, it makes more sense to do them.

9. If you ask me what kind of music I like, I will answer, "Yes!" I like and listen to a very wide variety of music. I also like to play a very wide variety of music. I performed Dvorak's "New World Symphony" with an orchestra, me playing all those clarinet solos, and it was a headrush. I performed "Sing, Sing, Sing" with a jazz big band, me playing that screaming clarinet ad-lib solo, and it was a headrush. I played my university's fight song with our marching band after we'd beaten our biggest rival in football for the first time in twelve years, me on clarinet standing in the rain, and it was a headrush. I performed the rock classic "Hush" with a (very good) rock band, me playing keyboards, and it was a headrush. I performed the Judas Priest song "Sinner" with a (very bad) heavy metal band, me on lead guitar/vocals, and it was a headrush. I performed the song "My Heart Will Go On" from Titanic, me on alto sax with only a piano accompaniment, and it was a headrush. I performed the song "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown", just me with an acoustic guitar and my singing voice in front of a large festival crowd, and it was a headrush. I sang The Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" at the top of my lungs at a karaoke party, and it was a headrush. I played a jig and a reel on an Irish tinwhistle for a group of students who had never heard such music before, and it was a headrush. I tried playing my first tune on a kokyu (Japanese version of the Chinese violin), sucked really badly, and it was a headrush.

Music is my life!

Okay, that's nine, so I guess I have to stop there. I won't bother tagging anyone, as I figure anyone I might tag either wouldn't do this or has already, but if anyone wants to go for it, please do! And let me know, too!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Meanwhile, Back at the Bank

Here it is Monday afternoon, and I am at the bank. It is currently lunch break at Ye Olde AcademyTM, and I am desperately trying to get my passport renewed. This is a nice, bureaucratic PITA (you figure it out) that I fortunately have to go through only once every ten years. However, the event horizon is less than two months away, and the winter holidays are looming over me like a shadow. You see, the U.S. Embassy (Sousa-ish fanfare) is nice enough to let me renew the thing by mail, meaning I don't have to make the perilous journey there (again) to do it in person. However, renewal by mail means that I have to send them:

  • My old passport (meaning I won't have it for about a month...and that can be pretty inconvenient...)
  • The application form (fortunately downloaded from the internet) carefully filled out in black ink
  • US$67.00 in the form of an international postal money order, something that involves a trip to the post office, hassling with staff who have no idea which direction is up, and filling out an annoying form that I invariably screw up and have to start over at least twice
  • A prepaid, self-addressed registered mail envelope
  • Two American-style (i.e. different from just about everywhere else in the world, let alone Japan) passport photos (which I had to have specially made since they are completely different from just about everywhere else in the world, let alone Japan).

In other words, it's a costly, time-consuming, and extremely bothersome affair.

It's even worse when you get everything ready to go, and then some nut steals the prepaid registered mail envelope and postal money order out of your car, which is apparently what happened to me. I remember setting the envelope on the car seat (with the money order...and ONLY the money order, thank God...inside) and going into a local shopping mall. (Yes, I locked my BLUE RAV4, and it was still locked afterward.) After that the envelope and its contents turned up missing. I turned my car, my workspaces, my home, and anything within a kilometer radius of any of those upside down trying to find the thing, but no dice. Realizing I didn't really have time to waste, I bit the bullet today and went out to do it all over again. And that's why I here at the bank now.

While I'm waiting in line at the ATM machines the security guard looks at me, smiles widely, and says, "The jazz last Saturday was great!"

I thank him enthusiastically. He's talking about the Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival last Saturday, the third time this event has been staged. Once again the Seishin Flying Eggheads participated, taking their turn at the stage among all those various amateur and professional artists. Between Saturday seminars at the Academy, competing turns for the school vans, and the timetable of the festival itself, we were under more than a little pressure, but somehow everything fell together smoothly. We got the kids and their gear all there and set up with plenty of time to spare. I might also add that the expertise and the professionalism of the stage crew helped a lot.

Not that we didn't have our share of comedy. As we were waiting backstage for our turn to go on, the (outstanding) professional artist who was on at the time decided to stretch his set out a bit. (Pros tend to do that.) I told the kids to blow some warm air through their horns to keep them from cooling off and going out of tune. Our (not too bright) lead tenor saxophonist obediently put her mouthpiece to her lips...and proceeded to pop out a loud *BLATT!* that undoubtedly carried out to the audience. When our turn finally arrived, we worked with the crew, got all set up and ready to go, and waited at readiness. This year's theme was "Jazz & Cinema", so every act was preceded by a movie clip. In our case, they played the opening titles and first scene of The Glenn Miller Story. Then, as the movie faded out, the curtain opened, the stage lights came on...

...and our entire trumpet section bricked the first note of "Pennsylvania 6-5000"...

...but after that our performance went extremely well. The house was packed, and the audience response was fantastic (always a plus), the kids were in the groove, and it just felt good. Even our notoriously weak lead trombonist, to whom the organizer of the Festival specifically asked me not to give a solo (poor guy!>, scored a solid hit with his solo work in "Bewitched". After it was over the trumpets were pretty upset about that opening note, but other than that the kids were really high on themselves, and they damned well should have been.

I only wish the Blue Notes Orchestra performance had gone half as well. As I mentioned before, I sat in as a substitute lead tenor saxophonist, so naturally they gave me lots of solos. I didn't mind that so much as the typically lackluster attitude of the participants in general. Attendance at rehearsals has always been a problem for the Blue Notes, but the fact that several key members almost NEVER came to practice, even during the final rehearsal, was really annoying. The performance showed it all too well, too. The lead trumpet player, who never showed up to rehearse even once, wound up playing two measures off for almost the entire length of one piece, totally off in his own world and unaware of his ridiculous error until the tune ended...whereupon he just stood there laughing. The bassist (came to ten minutes of one rehearsal...totally drunk and unable to play) was lost half the time. The band in general tended to sound shoddy, not together, and out of tune. To make matters worse, they informed the stage crew that our soloists would remain seated(!!?!), so the individual mikes (which is something I really hate) were set up with that in mind. (I just can NOT get into a solo sitting down...!) It probably wouldn't have been quite so irritating but for the fact that, as always, the Blue Notes were the FINAL HEADLINING ACT!!!!! (Then again, the place was half empty by then, so I guess it wasn't as bad as all that.)

Still, jazz is meant to be fun, and we did our best. At least I made the best of my sax solos in "Blues Machine" and "It Don't Mean a Thing" and my clarinet solos in "Moonlight Serenade" and "Sing, Sing, Sing". I felt a bit rusty, and my fingers didn't really seem to want to move, especially in "Sing, Sing, Sing", but I just FELT like playing, so I drew out my solo really long, threw in a few bursts of speed here and there when I hit it right, waltzed around when I didn't, and just enjoyed myself. When it was over I felt pleasantly exhausted and strangely longing for a cigarette...

And now this bank guard is giving me a nice compliment. I guess someone appreciated it.

After getting the cash, I head down another block to the main Kashima post office. There I get a new postal money order (no errors this time, and the staffer knows what he's doing, thank God) and a new prepaid return envelope. Then I pack the form, the photos, the money order, the envelope, and my passport into a big envelope, tape it shut, and ask the postmaster to send it to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo by the "safest and fastest" way. It isn't cheap, but he promises me it will be there first thing the next morning. That should allow enough time before the holiday season...I hope...

Speaking of comedies of error, yesterday (Sunday) was a lulu. I was supposed to swing by Ye Olde AcademyTM, pick up four junior-high clarinetists, and cart them off to a small ensemble contest that was taking place at a performance hall in the middle of nowhere. The only problem was that the paper containing all the information as to where the place was and how to get there had somehow wound up missing. (First the envelope and money order, and this a conspiracy?!?) Not to be done in, I quickly looked up the venue on the internet...and got an incredible runaround. Neither the prefectural music union, the local branch, nor the city where the performance hall was located could agree on anything, so I just grabbed what seemed to be the right address, punched it into my car navigation system, and followed the pink line to the Omitama City General Culture Center.

We arrived a few minutes find no one there.

Sensing immediate doom, I tried to phone Mr. Ogawa and got no response. Then I phoned Mr. Karatsu, who informed me that the contest was in another performance hall elsewhere in the same city. He gave me the correct address, which I then entered into the navi-system. It turned out to be only a few kilometers away, but we were already within a few minutes of our check-in time. I don't know how many traffic laws I broke or how many people I pissed off with my wounded-animal driving, but I got the kids to the proper venue just a couple of minutes late for check-in. I then dumped them off at the door and looked for a parking place.

The story doesn't end there. You see, as it turned out, instead of going to the check-in counter, the girls promptly disappeared somewhere inside that massive building. The main headquarters desperately organized a search party, and we spread out and combed the whole complex before we found the girls already set up and practicing in one of the rehearsal rooms. Fortunately, things were more than ten minutes behind schedule anyway, so everything worked out fine. However, I was a bit too panicked to feel fine any time soon...

I might add just for effect that the girls came in first place!

Any wonder why my digestive system has been out of whack recently? I seriously need a vacation, but that won't be happening anytime soon. Even if I had the time to spare for it, I don't have the passport, so I'm high and dry for the time being.

On second thought, maybe not "dry"...

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Friday Free-Verse

Chilly, misty gray Autumn day...
Reality wishes it had time to sleep,
For there are times
When it is just too damn real,
Even for itself.

Outside the window
The dampness pretends to be smoke
Writhing down to the ground,

Dancing around the new potted flowers
And the new cypress lattice,
Turning their colors gray,
Kissing them all with cold, white lips

And leaving them wet with anticipation.
Inside the room
I eye the stack of papers
That has occupied and annexed my desk,
All of them screaming, "Do me now,"
But I won't.

They have no power over me.
Surrender to paper, and you
Surrender your life.

I know better
Than to encourage it!
Instead, I choose to bow
To MUSIC and

The almighty internet.
Mr. U comes in.
His face is saying, "Get off that damned computer,"
But his mouth is saying nothing,
Though his hand is holding something:
A gray envelope!
And now his mouth is saying,
"This is for you."

Last Saturday's double-talk and double-cross,
Tricked into working,
Working hard
And punished for it,

But now, to my surprise,

(Enough for a case of beer!)
Hey, can I maybe do it again
Next time?

Okay...time for coffee...

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Weekend Warrior (Not...)

Three-day weekends are such a wonderful thing. They come so rarely, and when they do they are like a boon from Heaven. An oasis in the desert of the usual work routine. An eye in the storm. Sugar in stale coffee. A green M&M. An actual music video played on MTV.

At least they’re supposed to be that way. It’s funny how events can often seem to conspire against you. Take this weekend, for instance. Saturday was Open School day at Ye Olde AcademyTM and also preparation for the STEP (Standardized Test of English Proficiency), which the academy was to host on Sunday. That meant no extracurricular activities Saturday afternoon or Sunday. After that, Monday was Kenmin no Hi (県民の日 – lit. Prefecture Citizens’ Day), a holiday only for the people here in Ibaraki Prefecture. That meant that, except for the lesson I was scheduled to give as part of the Open School, the weekend was wide open, at least on paper. I was looking forward to some welcome R&R starting with The Party on Friday night…

Part One – The Party
The Grade 9 staff decided to have a dinner/drinking party Friday night to celebrate our successful conclusion of the school trip. Still a little miffed over certain things that had happened during said trip, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go or not, but in the end I did. It took place at a nice, little traditional Japanese restaurant, still relatively new, that I had passed by every day on my way to and from work but had never really noticed. (Naturally, the directions they gave me were impossibly vague, the place wasn’t listed in my car’s navigation system, and its phone number put it in totally the wrong district. I finally decided to rely on good, old fashioned intuition, and I found the place almost by sheer luck.) As it was, my wife had come down with some sort of bug, so I planned to stay only for the first hour or so and then bug out. That would please the greatest number of people, particularly me.

Naturally, the party started with the traditional kampai (乾杯 – toast), so I decided to follow my usual habit of drinking just one celebratory glass of beer and then spending the rest of the time drinking tea and chowing down to help purge that insignificant amount of alcohol from my system. That’s the routine I have followed ever since getting my Japanese driver’s license, and thus far it has worked quite well.

As it turned out, bugging out of the party early wasn’t a good idea, because the restaurant was the sort that provides a full party course, i.e. instead of giving you all your food in one go they bring it to you little by little spread out over the entire two-and-a-half-hour period. If I had left after the first hour I would have missed more than half the meal including the “main course”. Therefore, I stuck it out till the end, knowing full well that I could expect either a blast of frost or a rabid flaming from the wife once I got home.

Actually, for what it’s worth, things were rather pleasant. We were all relaxed and happy, and we chatted enthusiastically about all kinds of things. At least we did until Mr. O decided to be The Yet-Unsung Hero of the Oppressed Masses (totally forgettable fanfare) once again.

“Excuse me, everyone,” he said in his “I love you all like a brother/father” tone of voice (that really makes me want to start lobbing crockery at him, but anyway), “but we are wasting a wonderful opportunity here! We are all breaking up into different conversations now, but since we’re all here together, we should share the experience! Let’s all discuss a common topic as a group!”

This grandiose overture, as expected, brought any and all conversation to a dead stop, and we all did nothing but sit and look at each other uncomfortably for several minutes.

“Well,” said Mr. O sweetly, rubbing his hands with glee, “I see we have nothing to talk about. Well, a minute ago the principal was saying something that I thought was brilliant, so I’d like to invite all of you to listen. Please, Mr. principal…”

The (somewhat red-nosed) principal perked right up and launched into a wonderful (and hard to follow) idealistic speech that just went on and on and on. And on. Meanwhile, members began dropping off to sleep one by one by one. By one. (Nice going, Mr. O…) My eyes stayed open (regrettably) only because I’d put away so much tea. That meant that, at the end, I had to help wake the others up to inform them that the party was over. That was embarrassing enough. When the principal informed me that I had to have a substitute driver drive me home because I had drunk one, little glass of beer three hours before, I felt positively humiliated.

That’s one of the many paradoxes that exist in modern Japanese society. It is very hard not to drink, particularly if you’re male. However, not only are the drunk driving laws among the strictest I’ve ever heard of (zero tolerance in terms of blood alcohol content, automatic loss of driver’s license and employment if caught), but every other year yet another glory-seeking bureaucrat tacks on another inconvenient and totally meaningless stipulation. The dumbest by far has to be the “eight-hour rule”.

In just about every industrialized country that allows alcohol, people are taught that, if they drink x amount of alcohol, they have to wait y amount of time for it to be cleared from their system. I had that rule hammered into me repeatedly in my own school days. Here in Japan, however, the universal rule is eight hours. You guzzled down a liter of shochu (grain liquor) in less than thirty minutes? You wait eight hours. You had one, little glass of red wine with your meal? You wait eight hours. In my case, only three hours had passed since I had drunk that measley, little glass of beer. Therefore, I had to wait another five before I could safely drive again. Never mind that my eyes were bugging out of my head and I was bouncing off the walls from all that tea I’d drunk. One glass of beer three hours ago? Five more hours.

Now, before any of you decide to get on a high horse and start getting all righteous on me, understand that my own elder sister was killed by a drunk driver twenty years ago. Yes, drunk driving laws should be strict, and they should be strictly enforced. However, there is a very big difference between 0.2% blood alcohol content (as in the driver that killed my sister) and less than 0.01%. There is also a difference between caution and meaningless idealism. I can understand being told to wait two hours and eat a significant amount of food after having that one glass of beer. Eight hours? That’s just preposterous, and everyone with a gram of sense knows it. However, with classic Japanese stoicism (which can be a VERY good thing, believe me!), they simply accept it as a fact of life. The trouble is that there are too many people like Mr. O in positions of power: people that live in an idealistic fantasy rather than reality, people that want everybody to see them as benign heroes of the masses and sing their praises, people that aren’t satisfied unless they are personally correcting everyone else so they can feel good about themselves.

Please…all that tea is already turning my stomach…

In the end I had to pay someone (a lot) to drive my BLUE RAV4 home for me. The principal said the academy would reimburse me, but I’ve been told that before…and they didn’t.

Image hosted by

Part Two – Open Sores
Ye Olde AcademyTM started holding Open School five years ago, and it is now a twice-annual tradition. One the first such occasion I was asked to give a lesson, so I hosted one that taught some simple English through singing and simple games. A lot of children entered my class, it got very good reviews, and (most importantly) it provided an excellent photo op. I was then asked to give that lesson every time. Things went well for the first few years, but after that there was a noticeable change. For one thing, minimal English education became a required part of the elementary school curriculum. For another, kids in general showed a declining interest in both singing and music in general. Not surprisingly, the number of children selecting my class as a first choice began dropping rapidly. During this year’s first Open School, which took place last June, the number of applicants was zero. After that I decided enough was enough and requested my lesson be dropped from the roster, but the administration was adamant that I remain. Not only was it still too great a photo op to miss, but a great many children had said in the exit poll that they wanted to take my class during the following Open School. Well, that was last Saturday, and the number of applicants was ZERO once again.

I still held the lesson, of course, as a “B-side” to a science game. That brought nine children into my class that clearly didn’t want to be there, but we still managed to have a good time. For what it’s worth, they gave my lesson good reviews in the exit poll. Also, not surprisingly, there was also another round of kids saying they wanted to take my class “next time”, which means I’ll probably be asked to do it again. The academy is never one to miss out on a good photo op.

I went to the English office immediately afterward to gather my stuff and bolt. However, I was intercepted by the chief of the English department, Mr. U, who promptly informed me that I was on the team responsible for preparing for Sunday’s STEP test. Now, as far as I knew, the department staff was divided into examiners and prep crew, and I was most definitely an examiner. Not only that, but my turn as such had ended during the previous STEP test, which had been the summer before. No such luck. Mr. U kindly informed me that examiners were supposed to help with prep, and since I hadn’t helped the time before, I had to help this time. I didn’t want to rock the boat, so I went along with it.

The funny thing was that the teacher in charge of STEP, Mr. K, was surprised and baffled by my presence, but he wasn’t about to let me go, either. I therefore became part of the STEP prep team for the day, which consisted mainly of teachers who, like me, had never done it before and weren’t really sure what to do. That didn’t stop Mr. K from suddenly disappearing, leaving the whole load in our hands. (The other teacher in charge, Mr. S, claimed he had to talk to someone and never showed up.)

The instructions we’d been given were hopelessly vague (as usual), so we mainly just set things up the way we remembered. We put up the room labels and guide signs on the walls. We set up chairs in designated places in the hallways to act as barricades and signboards. We then moved all the desks and chairs in the designated classrooms out of the way and set up the examination tables, by far the biggest chore of all.

We were just finishing up the last classroom when suddenly Mr. K came walking in and shouted, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WE DON’T TOUCH THE DESKS!” He then went on to explain (read "yell") that there was a hired team of STEP workers that was supposed to move the desks and set up the exam tables. We had only to clean them and double-check the number. One teacher in our team (not me, believe it or not) protested that we hadn’t been informed or given any explanation whatsoever. Mr. K retorted irritably that it had been that way for a number of years. (That was hardly relevant since none of us in the team had been doing the prep for a number of years, but I digress…)

“When Mr. O was department chief,” he growled, “he established the policy that, for the sake of fairness, we were only to do the minimum possible amount of prep and leave the rest to the STEP workers! That means we set up the signs, clean, verify the number of desks, and that’s it! Now go back and return all the desks to their original positions!”

As Mr. K said this, Mr. O walked in and leaned against the wall with that damned smug grin on his face. Yes, we were all fuming, but we managed to restrain ourselves as we went around and moved the desks back…a time-consuming chore that wound up turning a 45-minute work party into the better part of two hours.

That evening I had a rehearsal with the Blue Notes jazz big band. I’m a former member who is currently filling in as a substitute lead tenor saxophonist for the upcoming Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival. This was my second (and last) rehearsal with them. We had one rehearsal last month, and less than half the members showed up. This time there were only four absentees, but all of them were key members including the pianist, bassist, and guitarist (i.e. we had no rhythm section). That made the rehearsal of very little worth. Basically, all four of them have the attitude of, “Well, I can play it with no trouble, so I don’t need to practice,” which usually turns out to be mistaken…and is also a serious annoyance to the rest of us. Unfortunately, it’s standard procedure.

Now I remember why I left that band.

During the rehearsal, one member who is also in the Kashima Philharmonic mentioned that the latter was having a special rehearsal the following day. Usually they mail out notice postcards informing us of the monthly rehearsal schedule. This time no such notice had been forthcoming. I’d thought Sunday to be free and open, but it turned out the Kashima Philharmonic was going to take a five-hour bite out of it.

The wife and kids were definitely NOT happy to hear that.

Image hosted by

Part Three – Music to the Ears and Stomach
Actually, the Kashima Philharmonic rehearsal was useful, necessary, and enjoyable. It went well, and I’d say it was a good thing. I might also add that almost all the key members were present, and the one or two that weren’t had good excuses. Even better, it also knocked off way early.

After that I went home and started to do my share of the house cleaning, but my wife stopped me. She wanted to get out of the house, so we got the kids, loaded up in the car, and went to Wordsworth for dinner. (No, I didn’t have the natto spaghetti, but my wife did!) After that the wife and kids said they wanted to go out for karaoke. I protested, citing lack of time and interest, but I acquiesced to the will of the majority. As it turned out, it was a good thing. Our usual karaoke haunt’s English song roster had recently added four Jethro Tull songs…something I had never seen in any karaoke place in Japan for the past sixteen years. In between the kids’ impassioned singing(?) of Japanese pop tunes and the wife’s U2 and Bonnie Tyler I managed to squeeze in “Aqualung” (what else?) and “Teacher”. (They had “Locomotive Breath” and “Bungle in the Jungle”, too, but there wasn’t enough time.) In the end, we went home happy.

Image hosted by

Part Four – Kindly Volunteering To…
As I said, I didn’t know about the Sunday rehearsal. If I had, I wouldn’t have given in and volunteered to be a proctor for the voluntary achievement test held the following day. That’s right; Monday being a prefectural holiday, the academy still managed to find something to do to keep students and teachers busy. It was a volunteer effort, naturally, but since nearly all the Grade 9 staff had “important things” to do (e.g. washing their car, clearing out some aging beer in the fridge, etc.) and were unavailable, that left our grade chief, Mr. J, in a bind…and me feeling guilty. I volunteered to help out.

Being a proctor for achievement tests is easy. Unlike regular exams, these tests are meant to help students understand their own level of ability so they can plot their future course. In other words, it doesn’t really matter if they cheat, because they only wind up cheating themselves, and they know it. This is even truer if it’s a voluntary test. That means I don’t really have to pay much attention to the students at all. I don’t have to spend the excruciatingly long hours walking around watching the students with a baleful eye of suspicion. Instead, I can bring a laptop into the classroom, set it up, and spend the test period writing blog posts like this one, which is exactly what I’m doing right now (he he).

The Kashima Philharmonic is rehearsing again tonight, but I should have a few hours to play with in between. Maybe I’ll be really productive and take a nap…

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Haiku, Haiku, It's Off to Work I Go...

Okay, time for a bit of poetry.

Mr. N, the chief Japanese language/literature teacher for grade 9, gave our students an assignment to write at least one haiku talking about the recent school trip. The whole thing was to be treated like a contest, with Mr. N choosing what he thought were the best poems for display. Naturally, I couldn't pass up the opportunity, so I asked him if I could participate, too. In a one-hour fit of creative inspiration (read "trying to do anything but real work between classes") I rattled off several haiku plus one tanka. I then showed the lot to Mr. N.

He moaned with despair. But then (to my surprise) he said it was because I'd clearly won the contest, and he took it rather personally. He then went on to select three of the poems (actually two "definitely" and one "maybe") that he thought were particularly good in that they agreed most with traditional Japanese sensitivities. If you don't mind, I'd like to share them with you as a sort of finale to the 2006 School Trip series.

These are the two Mr. N ranked best:


Nembutsu o
Kikinagara, boku
Aki sagasu

(Translation: Listening to the Nembutsu (Buddhist chant), I search for Autumn.)


Senko, hinoki,
Kyoto no ka

(Translation: Sweet potatoes, incense, cypress, the smells of Kyoto.)

This is the one that got "Honorable Mention":


Kono niwa ni
Ippon no ki ga
Akaku naru

(Translation: In the garden, one tree turns red.)

Ah...that was satisfying...

And now, with that, we close the chapter on the 2006 school trip.