Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, December 30, 2006

2006: A Christmas Chronology, pt. I

December 24th
I thought I was going to have a heart attack when Mr. Ogawa suddenly told me out of the blue that he wanted me to do some work for the music club on December 24th. The fact that the announcement came only a week before the fact didn't help matters. As with most people, my Christmas preparations tend to start a lot later than they should. Also, unlike the Japanese, my Christmas preparations tend to be extensive. That means I need every day of the last week leading up to the 25th, and it's all I can do to juggle my various tasks while keeping both my Christmas spirit and my wits intact. The 24th in particular is vitally important, because that's when I put it all together. Having it suddenly taken from me seemed like a disaster waiting to happen.

So what did I have to do on the 24th? I had to take both a clarinet quartet and a saxophone quartet to the Ibaraki Prefectural Small Ensemble Championship, Senior High Division (rather thin and reedy fanfare). The championship venue moves around the prefecture every year, and this time it took place in the intriguing city of Yuki (結城).

I call Yuki "intriguing" for a number of reasons. Its name literally means "tied (or dressed) castle" (though the castle was trashed ages ago). Located in the breadbasket area of Western Ibaraki not far from Mt. Tsukuba, the city has virtually no topography. It is absolutely flat. It looks like an island of semi-urban development rising up from a vast sea of rice paddies. The linked Wikipedia entry says the city was founded in 1954, but the settlement of the Yuki area and its culture have a history going back at least 1400 years. It was long known as a center of textile production, particularly a unique type of hand-woven fabric called "Yuki tsumugi", a designated Japanese cultural asset. It is also known for both silk and handmade paper. To a lesser extent it is also known for leather. Therein lies the rub. Yuki's historical fame also makes it controversial.

One of Japan's best-kept and most-shameful secrets is so-called "dou-wa discrimination". Dou-wa (同和) literally means "fellow Japanese". You see, during the Edo Period (1603-1867), the famous shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu organized the Japanese population into a caste system with four levels: Samurai, Farmers, Craftsmen, and Merchants. In reality, however, there were two nameless underclasses. One was the hinin, or "non-people", i.e. slaves, criminals, vagabonds, and exiles. The other was the burakumin, or "hamlet people". The burakumin were people whose profession dealt with death and/or blood, i.e. executioners, undertakers, and leatherworkers. Though their work was valued, they were believed to be spiritually polluted, so they suffered brutal discrimination and were forced to live in isolated communities. Emperor Meiji ordered them reassimilated into society as part of his reforms in the late 19th century, but the old prejudices survived. In fact, they can still be found to some extent even today. Many companies and some private schools check applicants' family backgrounds and refuse to accept those with burakumin ancestry. Families with any amount of prestige quite often won't associate with them at all, and that's the problem. As I mentioned, Yuki has long included leatherwork among its local trades. It has a sizable burakumin community. If Ye Olde AcademyTM tried to send students there on an educational trip, there's a good chance some of the wealthier and prouder parents would go ballistic. Therefore, the city has always been kept strictly off limits.

So I wound up accompanying eight students there for an important music competition on December 24th. Did any of the parents complain? I don't know, and I don't care. It was just the nine of us and the driver on our chartered bus, and it was nice, relaxed ride. We got some nice views of Mt. Tsukuba (see Pandabonium's blog for a good tale about a trip up that mountain), and we talked a bit about Christmas in Japan vs. the U.S., but mainly the students just tried in vain to relax while I practiced my kanji (Chinese characters). Perhaps our most interesting sight along the way was this:

Colonel Pantless

The Japanese traditionally eat chicken on Christmas Eve, so all the KFC outlets are by-reservation-only on that day and have security officers on duty. In the picture is an officer pacing the parking lot of a KFC in the morning as he waits for the inevitable crunch. Even more interesting is the statue of Colonel Sanders. They always dress them up as Santa Claus for the Christmas season, but this one seems to have suffered a wardrobe malfunction. Was the guard feeling just a bit TOO antsy...?

There's probably not a whole lot to say about the contest itself. Frankly, we knew we were doomed from the start. Our best ensemble by far, a flute quartet, was strangely wiped out in our local competition, mainly as the result of one judge. That judge wrote only very favorable comments, but the point score he gave was insanely low. (Actually, each of the other three judges gave that same group almost twice as many points!) Moreover, also primarily as a result of that one judge's bizarre scoring, our weakest group, the clarinet quartet, came in first, and the sax quartet came in second. Only those two got sent to the prefecture championship, and they knew what they were facing. They made a valiant effort, and the sax quartet came in 16th out of 30 against brutal competition. (The clarinet quartet came in 28th.) Still, the top rankings were even more bizarre than those of our local contest had been. 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place were given to one school, 4th and 5th to another, and 6th and 7th to a third. I say "given" because, though I agreed with some of those rankings, a few of them didn't make any more sense than the weird score our flute quartet got in the home competition. It looks to me like politics came into play once again (not unusual in contests like this), and those three schools were given Christmas presents.

Whatever. The ensemble competition for this year came to an end for our kids, and we arrived back at Ye Olde Academy tired but relieved. I got home at about 9:30 p.m., ate a quick dinner (what was left of the others' chicken feast), took a quick bath, and then tore into the final preparations.

And that was how I spent Christmas Eve.

December 25th
Let's all sing:

We wish you were Hari Krishnas
We wish you were Hari Krishnas
We wish you were Hari Krishnas
And Hari Vishnu, dear...

(Well...if everyone here were Hari Krishnas or Hindu things would be a lot cheaper and simpler, right? But NOOOOO.....)

Christmas morning was exactly what it was supposed to be. The kids were up at the crack of dawn, but my wife and I tortured them by sleeping in till 9:00. After that, as my Christmas CD collection went through the stereo one after the other in my traditional order (sometimes over the protests of others), we eagerly tore through our pile of presents, emptied the stockings of their contents (Yes, Santa was generous as usual...ouch...), ate a quick brunch, and then breathed a heavy sigh of relief before trying to figure out where to put everything.

Interestingly, my wife's main present to me was a bolt of pure Cashmere wool together with a gift certificate to have it tailor-made into a jacket. (Wow!) However, the certificate said it was only good till December 31. Because of that, she suggested we head out to the tailor's shop immediately. Well, "immediately" wound up meaning "after a few hours of cleaning followed by an hour nap". The tailor's shop was in the city of Funabashi, which would normally be a drive of about an hour and a half on the expressway. However, Christmas Day was not only a festive occasion, it was also Monday, and we wound up smack in the middle of rush hour traffic. It took us more than two hours just to get to Funabashi. Once we got off the expressway we proceeded at baby-crawl speed while the kids squabbled and our nerves began to fray. As the minutes ticked by, we became a bit concerned as to how late the shop was open, so my wife got on her cell phone...and was told the tailor was out for the holidays. (I guess some people do observe Christmas here...)

Amazingly, it turned out the tailor knew my wife (or at least her parents), and he said he'd come to our house to pick up the wool in person just after New Year.

That still left us in heavy traffic in downtown Funabashi, 5:00 p.m., getting dark and rainy, and nothing at all to do. I wasn't about to give up, so I immediately reset my BLUE RAV 4's navigation system for the Lalaport Shopping Mall complex, which was only a couple of kilometers away. We hadn't been there for quite a while, and we found the place both expanded (again) and full of all kinds of new shops. We had a good dinner at a restaurant/bakery there, poked around, spent lots of money, and had fun watching all those young couples traipsing around on their "Christmas date". The trip home after that was quick and easy, the kids slept all the way back, and we all went to bed happy.

And that was how I spent Christmas Day.

(To be continued....)

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Let There Be Li...Oh, No...

This evening my family and I went out (hopefully) to finish our Christmas shopping. We split up for the return home, going in separate cars. I passed Kashima Jingu Station on the way back. This is what I saw:


There were quite a lot of cars and pedestrians passing by, taking in the sensory overload view.

Jingulights2 Jingulights3 Jingulights4 Jingulights5 Jingu tree-no flash

Our tax yen at work. Cripes. This is far worse than the Festival of Luminous Overindulgence at the Aso Civic Center. I mean, I love Christmas lights as much as if not more than the next man, but come on!

Jingu way1 Jingu way2 Jingu way3

The brick-paved lane leading from the station up to the shrine entrance was also decorated with lights, but it was (thankfully) far more beautiful than tacky. In classic European style, it was mostly white lights and kept to a tasteful minimum except for the little park in the middle, which was a blue blur surrounded by a white curtain. I had trouble getting stable pictures from my car, but I didn't want to annoy the people behind me be stopping on that narrom lane. Oh, well. I think the pics I got helped reflect the mood.

Merry Christmas, everyone!!!!

Friday, December 15, 2006

All the Classroom's a Stage...

A uniformed student walks along, minding his own business, when suddenly he is accosted by two boys of apparently similar age.

"Stop!" commands one of the boys. "Where do you think you are going?"

"I'm going to school," replies the student warily.

"I don't think so!" retorts the other boy. "Not like that!"

"Why not?" demands the student. "Did I do something wrong? Who are you?"

Suddenly the two boys throw open their jackets, strike a pose, and reply in sync, "We're the Fashion Police!"

No, it's not a scene from Monty Python's Flying Circus, though I admit Monty Python had more than a little influence. It's just Drama Week at Ye Olde AcademyTM.

For the past five years, instead of having my 9th grade students take a midterm exam for my English Oral Communication class I've had them give English speeches instead. However, my working partner this year, Ms. Y, suggested we try having them perform skits instead. I thought it sounded like an intriguing idea, so we went for it.

As it turned out, my idea was quite different from what Ms. Y had imagined. She wanted to have the kids learn three skits, and then we would choose one of them at random for them to perform on presentation day. My thought was to divide the students into groups, have each choose one skit from a list, and then let them throw everything into preparing their performance. In the end, we wound up going with my plan.

First we had to come up with the skits themselves. We had a whole supply of English conversation books that had all sorts of dialogues, but these suffered in that they:

  1. tended to have only two characters instead of three or four, and

  2. were generally dull as a wooden sword.

Boredom is something I tend not to deal with very well, so I decided to put my muse to work and make the dramas myself. I used the topics in the textbook dialogues as a guide, but I also drew a lot from Monty Python, Benny Hill, and other famously silly (but not too obscene) comedians for inspiration. I came up with twelve skits in all, and I had a ball doing it. Then, during the next week of classes, we had the students divide into groups (and give their groups names, of course!). Next we had them choose the skit they wanted perform from the title only (i.e. no reading it beforehand). Finally they were told that they had one week to get their skits ready for performance, with points awarded for such things as preparation, memorization, interaction, and body language as well as their English delivery.

The kids generally looked like they were ready to panic, as they had never done anything like it before. Indeed, there was some worry between Ms. Y and I (and other members of the faculty) that we were heading for disaster.

Our worries were strangely reinforced as we rearranged the English classroom into a makeshift theater, setting up a makeshift stage and moving the desks and chairs to allow both a good view and an optimum camera angle. It was a lot of work, and it would have been a shame for all of it to be for nothing!

Actually, we were pleasantly surprised. One of the two advanced classes was a terrible disappointment, as nearly all the groups just stood like statues on the stage and read their scripts in a dull monotone (and got deathly low scores as a result). However, the other advanced class and the three regular classes were a lot of fun. Some of the groups clearly put a lot of effort into preparing and rehearsing. Most of them at least made an effort to do it all from memory. There were props, there was artistic license, there were improvs, there was some really funny dramatic characterization, and there were a few colossal blunders...which often led to more improvs! All in all, the kids in all but that one class had a tremendous blast with it! I have to say it was a lot of fun watching (and scoring) all those performances, and I can't wait to sit back and watch the video!

Hmm...maybe I should try to figure out a way to post a couple of the more memorable performances...

"Today's specials are hamburg steak with natto, pork fillet with natto, natto pizza, natto salad with natto dressing, natto sandwich with extra natto, natto, and French-fried natto, and natto-covered natto with natto on natto, tomatoes with natto, natto, and natto."

"Do you have anything without natto?"

"Well, the natto salad with natto dressing hasn't got much natto in it."

"I don't want any natto!"

(At this point I had to restrain myself to keep from holding my fingers to my head like Viking horns and singing, "Natto, natto, natto, natto...nattoey natto...wonderful natto!" With many apologies to the Pythons...)

Sure beats the hell out of an exam, I tell you! ;-)

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Mote's Art in God's Eye

The sixth Kashima Philharmonic regular (classics) concert was held last Saturday.

I've already talked quite a bit about it as far as content and preparation, so I won't go too much into that here. It was our first pure classical concert in that the regular repertoire consisted solely of Beethoven and Mozart. Specifically, we opened with Beethoven's "Egmont overture", followed with Mozart's piano concerto #23, and then wound it all up with Beethoven's 5th symphony. Even a professional orchestra would consider that a challenging selection. For a relatively new amateur orchestra like the Kashima Philharmonic it was an extremely ambitious undertaking. In fact, some might even call it crazy.

L. v. Beethoven liked to stroll while composing.

Our director, Mr. Ogawa, was beginning to worry we had bitten off more than we could chew.

It was clear from the beginning that we needed practice and lots of it. Our trombone section, which wound up with a bit of egg on its faces during last June's pops concert, wasn't so much of a worry as it would only be used during the fourth movement of Beethoven's 5th (but that part is brutal ). A far bigger worry was the trumpet section, which completely vanished during the summer and wound up being replaced by two new members, one of whom was rusty and the other of whom was just plain inexperienced. Even that seemed like your proverbial drop in the bucket. Mr. Ogawa made it painfully clear from day one that the strings, horns, and especially the woodwinds would have to tighten up like never before.

The clarinet section had a bit of a dilemma in that it has too many members. That's not a problem in pops, but it doesn't work in classics. Finally we decided to perform the pieces in turns. It wound up not being a very balanced rotation, but I'd like to think it was fair. Mrs. Ogawa and I, the two experienced players, each played 1st in one piece and 2nd in another, and we both played 1st in the encore. The other two regular clarinetists got one outing each plus the encore, which made them perfectly happy. The fifth member, who plays bass clarinet, came out on the latter only for the encore. For a number of reasons, we decided that Mrs. Ogawa should play 1st in Beethoven's 5th (me on 2nd) and I in the Mozart piano concerto (one of the others on 2nd). The fact was that I had experience performing Mozart at solo contests in high school, and I'd had considerable personal training in the Mozart style of playing. Guess what? It was almost totally inadequate.

During the first few rehearsals of the Mozart piece Mr. Ogawa was on me like a Taliban on a pop star. The 1st clarinet is extremely dominant in that piece, almost like a second soloist behind the piano, and Mssr. Maestro Ogawa (himself a seasoned pro clarinetist) wasn't about to accept anything second rate. My sound wasn't carrying. My tone color was too harsh. My tonguing and attacks were too violent. My expression was too "safe". I listened to recordings of the piece over and over again, emulated them to the best of my ability, and still got ripped apart. It seemed like nothing I could do could satisfy Mssr. Maestro (who went so far as to say a 10th grader in Ye Olde Academy's orchestra played it better than me), and my pride was taking a serious beating.

I wasn't about to give up, though. I probably put far more practice time into Pictures at an Exhibition last year, mainly to get all those finger-twisting, high-speed runs down right. However, I put far, far more heart, soul, and energy into the Mozart piece. I also went in for some individual training from Mr. Ogawa, and I got a lot of it. I practically had to relearn everything, and when I finally got my basic breath and tone control down enough that I could open up and put some heart into the thing, it brought no end of satisfaction to me when at last I got a few, scattered smiles of approval from both Mr. Ogawa and our brutally strict, professional Konzertmeisterin, Ms. Ishikawa. I have to admit, though, that when we finally got to the final rounds of rehearsal I was still a little worried.

Actually, I was a lot worried, but not necessarily for myself. It was clear we still needed lots of practice, and for that reason I was sure we'd wind up falling into the usual trap of rehearsing to death just before the concert, wiping ourselves out, and then playing badly during the performance simply because we're exhausted. (That's precisely what happened to the trombones last June.) Friday night's rehearsal was three hours of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Saturday morning's rehearsal was (fortunately) canceled for some reason, but that just left a rather hectic, three-hour "dress" rehearsal Saturday afternoon...and it was full of hiccups. We knocked off only about two hours before curtain time, and Mr. Ogawa was seriously wigging out.

The Reed: a clarinetist's/saxophonist's best friend and worst enemy.

During the dress rehearsal the bad nerve in my left hand (due to a mild carpal tunnel syndrome) started acting up again, and my fingers became weak and shaky. Fortunately, that cleared up afterward, and I felt surprisingly good. However, I was faced with two ironic problems. Mr. Ogawa had personally selected and shaped two reeds for me to use (known affectionately as "#1" and "#2"), but both of them had given out during rehearsal and couldn't be trusted. That meant my only real option was to select the most usable reed from my own, aging stock. I noodled around a bit, grit my teeth, and settled on "#3". The other problem was the woman who was playing 2nd clarinet in Mozart, Ms. OB. About two weeks before the concert she developed a strange swelling and twitching in her lower lip, and she could barely play. Since she had put so much effort into the thing, we couldn't bear to take her off the part. Fortunately, the 2nd clarinet part is only really important in a few places...but then it's VITALLY important. That gave us plenty of cause to worry on top of everything else...and I really felt sorry for her.

Curtain time came, and the house was packed. (For the first time ever, my wife and kids were in the the front row...) The first number was "Egmont", which I didn't play, so I listened from backstage. One of the trumpets bricked the very first note (arrrrgh...), but that was followed by the string section pounding out that beautiful power chord that really kicks the tune off. (No matter what cool sounds I may succeed in getting from my guitars or synths, nothing, I repeat, NOTHING can beat the sound of a full string section belting out a power chord!) From there the tune went reasonably well, but there were some rough edges here and there. It was probably a mixture of nerves and the usual fatigue from overrehearsing, but it was still pretty good all things considered.

Next was Mozart, which called for a break while they downsized the orchestra. Our guest pianist was none other than Haruka Ogawa, Mr. Ogawa's daughter, back home from France. She trained with prestigious instructors in Japan from an early age, went to Paris (two years ago) to study piano at the age of 16, and is currently enrolled in the (oh so elite) Paris Conservatoire. Last August she placed 5th in a prestigious international piano competition in Ettlingen, Germany, and not a month ago she placed second in another contest in Belgium. Yes, that girl has a future. Still, her playing during the rehearsals seemed a bit tentative, and she hit more than a few clinkers. Now...make sure you emphasize the during the rehearsals bit.

The actual performance was a different story altogether. Apparently she pulled out all the stops, and all I can say is WOW. I still remember her as a spunky, little grade school student (*sniff*). Now she is a full-fledged world-class performer who really puts herself into her playing. Mr. and Mrs. Ogawa have every reason to be proud of her, not to mention the whole f****** city of Kashima...

As for me, I just felt great. Virtually no nervousness at all, just eagerness to play, no pain, no fatigue, no lameness in the left hand, no slips, and I felt totally in control. Haruka opened herself up and put herself totally into her playing, so, as the second soloist of the tune, I did the same. My A clarinet with reed #3 did its job very well, and it just felt good. (Actually, I listened back to the professionally-quality recording of the concert afterward, and I was seriously amazed. My tone was rich and resonant, cutting through the orchestra just enough to dance around it without kicking it around, proudly serving as Haruka's squire in the field, the risk of sounding vain, arrogant, and/or stupid, I'm just not used to sounding like that! Especially not on that A clarinet! I couldn't believe it was me! Afterward Mr. Ogawa and Ms. Ishikawa both congratulated me, and Mrs. Ogawa commented that I had finally matured. That in itself should keep my ego inflated for a little while at least.) Unfortunately, poor Ms. OB on 2nd clarinet just couldn't keep her numb lip in place. She came through pretty well on the one passage when she was needed most, bless her heart, but the rest of the time she could barely play if at all. (Again, listening to the recording, it was probably fortunate she could only be heard during that one key passage. All those times she struggled and delivered only a thin warble if any tone at all was buried in the ensemble. She smiled stoically before and afterward, but she left immediately without saying goodbye...odd behavior for her. I really feel bad for her.)

Okay, in a nutshell, Mozart's piano concerto #23 sounded awesome!

Haruka got so much applause from her ecstatic home crowd that she came out for three curtain calls. Then she played an encore...

It was Mozart's "Turkish March", but it was a modern arrangement that was just bizarre...and unbe[expletive]LIEVABLE. She was all over that keyboard, often at breakneck speed, and at times it sounded like she had three separate hands playing totally different parts at the same time. My mouth was hanging open the whole time. I don't think I was alone, either. Number two in the world last month. Born and raised right here in quiet, little, dream-filled Kashima, home of several hidden, ancient temples, a famous shrine, a lot of rice fields, Ye Olde Academy, the Kashima Antlers pro soccer team...and the Kashima Philharmonic!

(Alright, down, boy...)

We took another break to rebuild the orchestra to symphony capacity, and then we did Beethoven's 5th. And we were in excellent form. I especially have to applaud the cello section. Five years ago many if not most of them seemed tone deaf, to put it kindly. Now they were cutting through that brutal section in the middle of the 3rd movement (yes, there are four movements, not just one) and making it sound easy. Yes, our intonation wasn't always perfect, and there were a few splats in the trumpet and horn sections, but we were playing at perhaps our highest level ever (a sentiment expressed many times over in the audience polls...the first EVAR without a single negative comment, I might add!).

We were feeling great, and we were ready for the encore. We brought in all those members that had had to sit out the Beethoven and Mozart pieces, and we played Leroy Anderson's "Christmas Festival". That was fun...especially since two of the doublebass players put on Santa & Rudolph costumes, and the clarinet and bassoon sections all had antlers on our heads! I might even forgive the trombone section for horribly butchering the very first note of the piece! ;-)

Then it was all over, leaving us with an enormous sense of satisfaction but also a sense of melancholy. We had all worked and trained especially hard for this concert, and we had pulled off a performance to be proud of. It was almost hard to believe that we'd be waking up the next morning not having to worry about it at all anymore. After-concert blues have always been a common affliction for me, and it hit me especially hard this time. It was probably a good thing my wife and kids were there. I also really appreciated the post-concert party...

Okay, that's it. The last major undertaking of the year is done. All that's left now is Christmas...

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Building a Better Future...or at Least Repaving It...

It's amazing how such trivial things can turn into an adventure...or at least an experience.

As I said in a (relatively) recent post, the U.S. embassy sent me my new passport in only about half the time they warned me it would take. That in itself was a relief. However, I still had to go through the bureaucratic hassle of having my visas transferred to the new passport and having my records updated. That meant a trip to both the immigration office in Mito and the recently-promoted city hall of Namegata. Anything involving either of those two, let alone both, invariably involves a lot of waiting, so I had to try to find a weekday whose morning I could open up for the task. I was also legally obliged to do it as soon as possible.

My mornings at Ye Olde AcademyTM are generally busy and all but impossible to reschedule. Luckily, I have only one morning class on Thursdays, but that's the day that the homeroom teacher I assist takes her "training day" (read "training very hard to shop effectively"), so I have to look after our class. Today I went ahead and swapped out my one morning class, did the proverbial Japanese "shoganai" ("It can't be helped") thing with regard to the homeroom, took half the day off, and headed off to Mito timing it so I'd arrive at the immigration office when it opened at 9:00.

Ha ha ha. I can be so funny sometimes. Of course it wound up taking longer than that. Yes, traffic was a bit on the heavy side, but that wasn't the biggest problem. As it turned out, virtually every street I drove on from my house to the immigration office was under construction. I'm serious! Every single road had a lane blocked off or a shoulder walled in somewhere along the line, meaning plenty of flagmen and portable signals on the job. (How come they never use portable signals in the U.S.? Man, the Japanese just keep beating us at every turn!)

Even worse was all those damned speaker vans. As Pandabonium described in a recent post on his blog, there is an election taking place this Sunday, and all the campaign efforts are in full swing. As always, that means those damned vans driving around all day with loudspeakers on their roofs babbling away at high volume. I don't know how many of those things I passed today (quite often in slow motion because of the traffic, meaning that nerve-wracking babble rang in my ears for a looooonnnnnng time), but I do know that my finger kept searching for that elusive missile fire switch that I know has to be in my BLUE RAV4 somewhere!

I made it to the immigration office around 9:45, found a place to park (illegally) along with all the other customers there, went inside, and took a ticket to find to my astonishment that there were only three other people ahead of me in line. That meant a wait of less than half an hour. Processing my visa transfer and updating my records took about five minutes and didn't cost a thing. Happy to get that done with lots of time to spare, I stopped off to get a coffee and then aimed my car's BLUE nose back toward Namegata for the final bureaucratic hassle.

I'd only been to the "new" Namegata city hall (formerly Tamatsukuri town hall) once before, and only coming from my house. I'd never come at it from the other direction before, so I fired up the onboard navigation system to see if it could come up with a shortcut. Well, it did come up with a quicker way out of Mito(!), but then it tried to guide me along the same route as always...until I ran up against a road blocked by construction. The detour was narrow, curvy, steep, and kind of fun. It was also kind of scenic, and I was sorry I didn't have my camera (again...).

You know, it's interesting the way Japanese culture asserts itself even in spite of all the widespread Westernization. Looking at these road construction sites, the machines look like slightly more compact versions of those seen in the U.S.. The workers are dressed like those in the U.S.. Even the signs look pretty much the same (not counting the differing languages). But then again, if you actually look, you can see differences. I drove by one construction site to see the workers in formation going through their regular morning exercise routine. (Ever see anything like that in the U.S.?) In the States the end of a construction site is often marked by a sign saying, "End construction. Thank you for your patience." (I'd really like to know what percentage of drivers feel like stopping their car and peeing on that sign! Patience?? WHO'S PATIENT??!?!?!??) In Japan? The sign shows a graphic of a helmeted worker bowing full ninety degrees toward you, a formal apology. (Ever see anything like that in the U.S.? Somehow it actually does make me feel better, too.)

Anyway, I finally made it to the Namegata city hall, where I met the same "gaijin handler" who handled my business at the Aso town hall for eight years before the incorporation sent him over to former Tamatsukuri. The updating of my records took less time than it had to park my car. I rolled out of there with almost two hours left of my time off. I went home and actually doinked around a little on my Roland synth and one of my guitars, but then the in-laws started hassling me, so I went ahead and went to Ye Olde Academy early. That was probably a good thing. I managed to wipe out a pile of accumulated work. I'm now more or less caught up.

What a concept.

The Kashima Philharmonic concert is now two days away.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Do You Seeeeee The (Blue) Light?!?

The brutal, four-hour Kashima Philharmonic rehearsal had ended, and I was in my BLUE RAV4 heading for home. I was only about a couple hundred meters from the turn-off I take to cross the Kitaura Great Bridge (photos of which Pandabonium often posts on his site) when my cell phone rang. Talking on a cell phone while driving is illegal in Japan (though many people do it anyway), so as always I ignored it. Or tried to, anyway. The thing just kept ringing and ringing and ringing, so I gave up, pulled into the parking lot of the SeicoMart convenience store on the corner, and answered it.

It was my wife, and she said, "Quick! Come to the Aso Civic Center! The kids are going to be dancing soon!"

Then it hit me. It was the day of the Aso Illumination Festival.

If you were reading my blog last December (or if you take the time to check out the archive right now), you may recall that I posted about Aso's Christmas light extravaganza at the civic center. It's actually a tradition that started three years ago, when Aso was still a town, and I attended and thoroughly enjoyed the first one. However, though I missed the festival itself last year, (the first since incorporation into Namegata City,) I drove by the center later to check out the light display and was less than amused by the ridiculous and even tacky electrical overindulgence, even though it mainly featured the color blue. Well, they did it again this year, and the traditional Japanese festival dance troupe my kids belong to was performing. I figured the festival would be another exercise in glimmery excess, so I wasn't sure I really cared about it, but I didn't want to disappoint my kids. Instead of heading home, I turned off and headed down into what used to be downtown Aso.

And immediately found the crowds. Every parking lot, every vacant lot, every alley, and every open patch of sidewalk within half a kilometer of the civic center was full of cars. It was fortunate that I managed to park over at my kids' former kindergarten, which was only about a ten minute walk away. I arrived at the festival square just as my kids' dance troupe was starting its second number.

Actually, "festival square" is kind of an ironic term. It's actually the parking lot for the civic center, but they block it off and turn it into a de facto town square. It really was, too. It was also a nice exhibition of local pride for the people of (former) Aso. There were booths all over the place, all of them run by local merchants and co-op groups. Many of them featured locally-made products. You'd think something like that wouldn't attract many people on a chilly evening in early December, particularly since this is hicksville in every sense of the term. That square was packed. People of all ages were coming and going constantly, and there was quite a spectrum of our (former) town's humanity.

It wasn't my kids' best performance with their dance troupe, but it was still fun for them and entertaining for us. After they finished, it was time for the politicians to have their (unfortunate) turn at the spotlight, but they surprised and delighted us by keeping their speeches to a bare minimum. Then they proceeded to performances by school groups. First we were entertained by a junior high handbell choir. Then the choir linked up with a joint percussion section put together by Aso's two junior high schools. Then the two schools' bands got onstage (well, onsidewalk, anyway) for a joint concert. It was all very sentimental, very "down home", and it was wonderful.

Unfortunately, it was also a bit short, and after that they proceeded to the obligatory BINGO game. My family took that opportunity to go to the food booth corner and grab a quick dinner of crab stew and yakisoba (fried buckwheat noodles with meat and vegetables). There were way too few tables and chairs available for the massive crowd, but after we'd stood nearby for only a few minutes someone came running up to us and said, "Here, you can have our table!"

You can't help but love it Rampant commercialism, tacky spectacle, and "urbanization" haven't killed off our area's rural hospitality yet, gritty though it may be. :-)

Finally it was time to light the lights. (Hmm...can one dark the darks? Never mind.) The entire, bloated crowd formed up into a sort of half-circle and stood at attention. Many of the people had party crackers (as in the kind that goes }BANG{) in hand. The mayor of Namegata City counted down. Just as he hit "two", some very impatient individuals started firing off their crackers prematurely, leading everyone else to shoot theirs off, as well. Perhaps it was better that way. When the mayor proceeded to zero the lights simply popped on. No bangs, no fuss, just a sudden cascade of (mostly blue and white) lights followed by a great big "Oooh!" from the crowd. Yes, there was a lot of lights, and it was all so much electrical bling-bling, but yet it didn't seem quite so tacky as last year. Maybe they put more effort into appearance than simple quantity. At any rate, standing there in that crowd surrounded by all of that colored light, it was hard not to be moved. Then they started the fireworks display.

It was hard to describe the feeling. Despite the growing chill of the evening, there was a sensation of warmth in the air. The way the crowd reacted to the fireworks wasn't the same as during a typical display during the summer. It seemed more muted, more heartfelt and sentimental instead of just a cheap thrill. Maybe it was the effect of all those Christmas lights. Maybe it was all those people huddling for warmth as they enjoyed one of the very few traditions left over from the town they loved and saw sucked into the storm of urban incorporation that swept the land under Prime Minister Koizumi. Maybe it was the Christmas songs playing over the PA.

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I know that the effect was shattered as soon as that damned "Last Christmas" came on...

The fireworks ended, the crowd went back into motion, and the festival went into its second half (with some repeat performances including my kids' dance troupe). Still, the atmosphere was quite different from the first half. Having all those lights all around you would tend to do that. In the end, it was a lot of fun. The kids were really happy and didn't mind the (cold) hike over to my car at all. My wife probably would have enjoyed it more if she hadn't gotten hit by a sudden, nasty case of the runs that kept her in the restroom for a long time and sent her home early. And she was the one with the camera. *tsk* Maybe it was that crab stew. I guess local treats do tend to carry certain risks...

Let's do our best to enjoy the winter festive season, shall we?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Logic is a Little Bird Tweeting in the Wilderness

December at last! Does it matter?

Sorry I haven't posted for so long. I've been trudging along knee-deep in a swamp known as Reality, which has been churned up into a froth by a combination of Universal Juncture (i.e. everything happening at once) and the laws of Simple Logic suddenly ceasing to apply. When things stop making sense, it causes a breakdown in the whole system of existence, or so it would seem. All I know is that I seem to be wandering lost in a mist.

(Why do I suddenly hear Talking Heads playing in the background?)

Not long ago I resubscribed to a members-only website I like to visit on occasion. (No, not THAT kind! Get your mind out of the gutter!) Naturally, my spam e-mails immediately increased exponentially. That's really not so surprising. After all, my friend Dewkid once created a new free e-mail account for the sole purpose of applying to some contest from the company that produces his beloved Mountain Dew, and suddenly that e-mail account (which he ONLY used for that contest) started getting flooded with spam, meaning Mountain Dew sold him out. I mean...if you can't trust Mountain Dew, who CAN you trust?

That's not what bugs me. What gets me is the type of spam mails I've been getting. I can almost understand the logic of messages with subject lines that actually advertise something, even if they stick in a random word to throw off the filters. However, I just don't get all those dozens of messages with subject lines reading, "It me [name]" that I got for a week or two. (I mean, the non-English-speaking spammer could figure out how to inundate my inbox with the stuff, but couldn't grasp the concept of the word is, let alone a comma?) Then those disappeared to be replaced with, "Me again [name]". (Probably the same idiot savant.) Then it was simply, "Hello [name]." ( this a bad grammar conspiracy?) As if that weren't bad enough, now I'm getting spam messages whose sender and subject lines are written in Russian. (Let's hear it for international text support!)

Gee...I can tell you I'm just SOOOOOOOO tempted to read these things and find out what wonderful products or services they offer, such as how to get cheap medications or have part of my anatomy lengthened, or whatever! Actually, no I'm not. Not even a little bit. I'm very thankful for Firefox's automatic spam filter, which dumps the whole stupid lot into a special bin...where I then have to carefully look through the list to make sure no messages from people I know have wound up getting marked as "junk". Yes, it does happen from time to time. Otherwise, I'd be even more thankful for it.

I prefer my Spam in a can, thank you...preferably turkey.

Spam spam spam spam...spammity spam, wonderful spam...

Speaking of meat in cans, ever since my 7th grade students blew chunks on my final exam last September I've been showing no mercy, giving them intensive drills and even more intensive review every week. So far I have put twice as much effort into this year's 7th grade class as any I've worked with in the past. I was determined to make sure that at least the overwhelming majority understood the very least basics of English grammar. Well, my quizzes showed that they were definitely making progress. Even some of the biggest dunderheads were finally starting to figure out which way was up. It was looking like my efforts were finally paying off.

Then I looked at the results of the midterm exam they took yesterday. I'd say about two-thirds of the students showed progress, and they did very well on what was actually kind of a high-pressure test. Then there was that other third...who apparently forgot everything and went back to square zero. There were a lot of errors that defied belief, things that shouldn't have happened for any reason. It didn't make a bit of sense. More students than ever before will be getting A's on one of my exams, but the ones that crashed crashed really hard, meaning a low overall average and the most unbelievably broad curve I've ever seen since [edited for PC sensitivities]. Naturally, since people tend only to see the bad things, I'll probably have some explaining to do. I had enough to do after that last final exam, and this is much worse.

Speaking of PC, my newspaper the other day sported a picture of Japanese Prime Minister Abe standing next to Bono of U2 wearing matching shades. One of the world's best-known emissaries of beautifulworldism, and he's standing next to the PM that wants to make "patriotism" (i.e. whitewashing of history) a cornerstone of Japanese education, rearm Japan with a proper military, and pursue a more aggressive foreign policy, and whose cabinet recently announced that Japan has the materials and know-how to make a nuclear bomb anytime it wants to...if it wanted to...

Does any of this make sense?

About the only thing that does make sense around here seems to be the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, who told me that my passport renewal would probably take four weeks but got my new passport into my hands in less than two. Now that's service. Maybe I should ask to have my income tax rerouted to them... would probably only wind up being rerouted again to something that made even less sense.

The Kashima Philharmonic (slightly off-key fanfare) has its annual classics concert a week from tomorrow. We are playing Mozart's Piano Concert #23 and Beethoven's "Egmont Overture" and 5th Symphony. None of those pieces is technically challenging at all. Musically, however, all of them are extremely difficult. Maybe even over our heads. (Does that make sense?) All I can say is that we need every bit of rehearsing we can get between now and then...and the officers squeezed in as much rehearsal time as they could get away with. It's going to be a busy week...

Time to stop thinking and start soon as I figure out what I should do. Meanwhile, winter vacation is three weeks away...