Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, August 27, 2007

I'm Back in the Saddle Again

Yes, it's back to the regular grind as of today. Ye Olde Academy is back in full swing.

I'm not sure what I'm in bigger danger of doing: melting, spontaneously combusting, falling into a deep depression and refusing to move, mutating into a violent right-winger, going into a traumatic coma, shaving my hair off and running around screaming, or, worst of all, being stupid enough to try to forgive and forget certain things.

But I'm not allowed to talk about any of it, so forget I said anything. is YOUR life these days?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

What Do You Do?

What do you do...

...when you finally get time to get things done, but you can't find the motivation to do anything?

...when you finally get something difficult done right, but then the equipment breaks?

...when you suddenly start being asked to do things you were told never to do again?

...when you suddenly start getting lots of strange and unwarranted attention, and you have no idea why?

...when you're told you should have been doing something you were once punished for doing?

...when you're threatened with punishment for doing something you were always praised for doing?

...when something which is valuable, but only to you, strangely (suspiciously, more like) turns up missing right when someone asks out of the blue to see it?

...when something you made is taken from you and given to someone else who then takes all the credit?

...when someone whose acquaintance you valued suddenly turns into a frosty, ass-kissing, rule-quoting rodent?

...when someone working closely with you on an important project (that you started) suddenly disappears without warning or explanation?

...when people working closely with you on an important project (that you started) first close you out of the loop and then stab you in the back?

...when people you have always trusted show in no uncertain terms that they have never trusted you?

...when your world is suddenly turned sideways because of something you apparently did but don't know how or why?

...when your world is suddenly turned upside down because of things that have nothing whatever to do with you?

...when the bad guy wins?

...when the hopeless, blithering idiot keeps taking all the bows?

...when your support becomes part of the problem?

...when your problems seem to be your chief means of support?

...when you have nothing better to do than write whiny blog posts?

...when you run out of beer?

Durian, anyone?

Monday, August 20, 2007

What I Did This Summer

(Was that a cliché post title, or what?)

Swinebread says that my summer vacation (which just ended) was WAY too short. I agree. It was particularly bad this year. Thanks to a combination of my job, my wife's job, PTA-related activities, my mother-in-law's recurring poor health, suddenly scorching weather in mid August, and an uncanny lack of motivation, summer vacation almost didn't happen at all. What little free time we had was spent either working around the house...or shopping. There was no time whatsoever for any kind of trip, except to go shopping. Weekdays were pretty much shot, and our weekends tended to consist of my wife working most of the day on Saturday (or so she said) while the kids studied and/or did chores (read "played with their DS's, watched TV, and fought") and I worked on various things, if I was home (though I did take the kids out to nearby parks in the afternoon from time to time so we could get a bit of exercise), our whole family cleaning house Sunday morning, and then our going shopping in either Kashima, Katori, or Narita Sunday afternoon.

The one day trip to Chiba Zoo I managed with my kids one Saturday in late July seemed like a monumental coup, although the long-overdue visit to Costco (blazing fanfare!) I squeezed in during the same outing still made the whole thing qualify as more shopping even though my wife wasn't there. By mid-August I was starting to get pretty fed up with every trip outside the house winding up being spent in a shopping center, but it didn't seem like there was much to do about it. There's not much else to do around here, and if my wife is with us we WILL end up shopping one way or the other.

Finally, just before the three-day Bon Festival period (see below), we found ourselves in possession of one full day together with nothing planned. I had hoped to take the family up to an amusement park and nearby attractions (read "museums and/or hiking") in the northern part of Ibaraki. Unfortunately, the temperature had jumped up to around 38 degrees Centigrade (right around 100 degrees Fahrenheit), and I got soundly outvoted. Instead, we drove down to Yokohama Landmark Tower, the tallest habitable building in Japan, guessed it...we went shopping.

Picture of Yokohama Landmark Tower from Yokohama's tourist guide website.

Yes, I bought a number of things at the sprawl of shopping malls under and around the building, but don't let that fool you. I was pretty irritated that our last chance of a family summer outing wound up being just another overblown shopping trip. Therefore, I insisted on a little indulgence and took a little detour on the way back...along the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line. It's kind of a fun drive, going under the bay half the time and above it the other half. I especially like stopping in at the Umi-Hotaru ("Sea Firefly") rest area on a man-made island in the middle where the bridge joins the tunnel. I programmed my BLUE RAV4's navi-system, and off we went.

2007 uminohotaru3
Just for a little bit of "awwww" factor, here's a pic of the kids on the top deck of Umi-Hotaru. The structure itself is made to look kind of like a great, big sailing ship (albeit with a squarish hull). You can see ships in the surrounding bay and the Tokyo-Yokohama skyline in the background.

2007 uminohotaru4
And another for comedic relief. My son looks to be his usual happy-go-crazy self, but the fact is that, hopeless coward that he is, he whined all the way out of the tunnel and into the parking lot, cried as we left the car, clung to his mother for dear life going up the escalator, and kept saying, "Can we go now? Can we go now?" over and over again till we finally left. But then he decided he liked it and wanted to go back. *sigh*

We didn't stay very long before my wife started getting antsy about getting back, but it was still kind of a nice side-trip. Unfortunately, heading back from there my navi-system went all goofy, and it wound up getting us totally lost. One obvious problem was that the highway had been recently extended, and the navi-system didn't have that data. However, it turned out there was an even bigger problem; specifically, the navi-system had been trying to navigate me back to Yokohama Landmark Tower all along! (I found out later that, while trying out a new function, I had misunderstood the kanji and pressed the wrong button. I had told the navi-system to plot our return trip...TO the Yokohama Landmark Tower parking lot!!! Oops...) I managed to get us back using my own smarts instead of the technology, but we arrived much later than expected...and were greeted by a blast of bile from my FIL.

Oh, well. That was our summer vacation.


Summer did get one last crack, however. Today (August 20) was supposed to be a work day for me, this after the orchestra performance yesterday and school/music-related stuff over the three days before that. However, my scheduled activities got moved to tomorrow, so after the kids got their homework for the day done I loaded them in the car and headed off to the Oarai AquaWorld Aquarium for the afternoon. (Just what is it about these spontaneous day trips with the kids? They seem to have a habit of winding up at either a zoo or an aquarium! Oh, least it isn't a shopping mall!)

I had been to the long-famous Oarai Aquarium before (about nine years ago), but I had yet to see its far grander, new reincarnation as AquaWorld. The original aquarium was reasonably large and had a wide variety of exhibits, but I'd found it to be just so many fish in ordinary, bare, glass tanks in a facility that was crumbling and smelled awful. It was more like a collection of lab specimens than a modern aquarium. Its sea lion show had been held in a dark, rank room that looked and felt like an old movie theater with an old, recycled swimming pool stuck in it. The new facility is MUCH more impressive! Not only is it even bigger, but its exhibits are designed to be as environmentally accurate as possible, i.e. the massive tanks are built to resemble the natural habitats of their occupants as is the case in most modern aquariums such as Sea World. There are also a lot of interactive exhibits with plenty for both adults and children. It just seemed to go on and on without letting up or letting down. I was impressed.

And the facility for the dolphin/sea lion! A domed (and air-conditioned) arena offering a spectacular view of Oarai and its beach in addition to a pool that is easily comparable to Sea World's dolphin pool if not better.

2007 aquaworld1
Here's a quick flash-photo shot of the kids in front of one of the massive tanks that completely encompass the corridor...or should I say the corridors go through them? I took the pic before seeing the sign saying, "Flash photography are prohibiting." They are? I guess I learned something new.

2007 aquaworld3
A no-flash shot (which are always so bloody hard to get in focus) in one of the more regular exhibit sections, this one showing creatures that live in very specific environments. My son whined that he was scared when the corridors got darker, but then his curiosity took over.

2007 aquaworld4
One more quick shot outside the main entrance before heading home. It got dark quickly during the dolphin/sea lion show even though it was still only 5:00 p.m.. We later found it was because a fog bank had rolled in off the sea. Everything was GRAY! Everything was GRAAAAY!!!!! Time to go home...

I'd definitely say it was worth the trip, especially since my navi-system found a short cut that reduced travel time to 45 minutes. There was plenty of time to do a bit of shopping after that.

And thus endeth my summer vacation for 2007.

Monday, August 13, 2007

More Goodbyes

Today (August 13th) is the first of the three days of Obon, also known as the "Bon Festival".

If you've spent any time on either this site or Pandabonium's Pacific Islander blog, you've already heard quite a bit about Obon. It is a Japanese festival of Buddhist origin, but it probably has its roots in China. During this three-day period it is believed that the spirits of deceased ancestors return to visit their family homestead. Therefore, family members usually get together for a sort of ritual celebration. Depending on the size of the extended family, it can amount to quite a large gathering. The festival has both solemn and lively elements. It is solemn because the gathered family members visit the family graves, clean them, leave offerings, and perform a ritual to beckon the ancestral spirits to accompany them back home. It is lively because many locations hold fireworks displays and/or bon odori, aka Bon Dances. (Our local elementary school used to hold a Bon Dance every year, and it was fun even before my own kids entered the school, but they canceled it five years ago and haven't done it since. The PTA apparently thought it was "too much trouble". Hmmph...) In other words, it is a festival of both life and death.

However, there is one more feature of the Bon Festival that Pandabonium and I haven't mentioned yet. Actually, it's more of a duty, and it's not a very pleasant one. Basically, every family which has suffered a death during the past year sets up a special memorial for the deceased. Acquaintances of the family then come to pay their respects. Quite often the tradition is for each household to choose one representative to go around and visit every such mourning family, particularly in the local neighborhood. If you live in an area such as mine, where the average age is probably over 70, there is quite often a very long list of families to visit. Considering "paying respects at the memorial" also involves giving money to and drinking tea with the family of the deceased, it can make for a long, busy, and expensive afternoon.

Actually, my in-laws live for that sort of thing. Going around visiting grieving neighbors and acquaintances allows them to reinforce their position in the community. Unfortunately, their age and state of health are making them less mobile, meaning more and more of the responsibility is falling into our hands. Thus far my wife has eagerly shouldered the burden as she feels far more qualified to do so (and I shan't argue). However, there was one such visit that I felt obligated to perform myself, or, as it turned out, with my father-in-law.

I have spoken quite a bit about Mr. Abe, that wonderful, old man who, together with his son, did the walls and roofing when my house was remodeled last spring. I talked about what great people they were, not only skilled (and very reasonable) with their work but also helpful in so many different ways. I described how the son in particular befriended my two children, spending much of his break times playing soccer with them or happily looking at my son's prized card collections. I mentioned that they started bring their dog, Astro, for the kids to play with. I told how Mr. Abe always made a point of giving everyone there, family or workers, cans of Max Coffee to drink.

I also mentioned that the son committed suicide only about a week after the work was finished.

Needless to say, visiting the Abe household to pay our respects was a matter of course. It would have been a crime not to do so. Therefore, my son and I both got in my father-in-law's car, and the three of us made the journey. It really was a journey, too, especially on such a hot and muggy day; the Abes live out in the town of Tohnosho, across the river in Chiba Prefecture almost an hour away even on my father-in-law's famous shortcuts. The homestead was both home and work; there was garage and shop space on the ground level and living space upstairs. The building was much bigger than I'd expected, though it had definitely seen many (probably much better) days. It was also in a very isolated location, surrounded by a circle of rice paddies enclosed in turn by steep hills. It was actually a beautiful area, though I wish the reasons for visiting had been happier.

There were quite a few well-wishers there, and they were being herded into a small guest memorial on the ground floor. On seeing us, however, Mr. Abe immediately insisted on bringing us upstairs to pay our respects at the much more elaborate family memorial set up in their living room. Despite the dark reasons for our being there, we had a good visit with the family. We met Mr. Abe's wife, his two daughters, and his grandchildren. While my son bashfully spent his time watching cartoons on the nearby TV, the rest of us chatted mainly about the deceased son over tea. Mr. Abe also made it very clear that, despite his age and the tolls it had exacted on his health (i.e. he's lacking in both teeth and hearing), he's not about to let his loss slow him down. Apparently he has some occasional help from hired hands, but for the most part he is still doing his work alone.

Last month he reroofed a temple, using traditional (heavy) ceramic roof tiles, almost entirely by himself. That man is amazing.

Most obon mourning visits last less than ten minutes, but we stayed for more than half an hour. After that we excused ourselves. Of course, Mr. Abe insisted on sending us off with a bag full of cans of Max Coffee. (Definitely no changing him!) After one, last, solemn look at the house/company and the scenic surroundings, we climbed back in the car, toweled off the sweat, and made the trip home, which didn't seem quite so long.

The first day of Obon was over. The goodbyes had been spoken. Now it was time for the memories to begin.

Aug. 15th update: I guess it's really not unusual for weird things to happen during the Bon season or any of the other events in which the deceased are remembered, but this time we had a doozy. Tonight, the last night of obon, not long after going to bed, both kids came running out of their bedrooms in fright because they'd heard what sounded like someone banging on their window. My daughter had also heard banging on an upstairs window above hers. You have to understand that my children's bedrooms are on opposite sides of the living room and quite isolated from each other. My son's room was also given a degree of soundproofing. Therefore, unless they had schemed the whole thing in advance, each had to have heard the sound individually. Another point to keep in mind is that my daughter's window is surrounded by shrubbery on the edge of a deep ditch that is totally unlit and in the shadow of the high, cement foundation of our neighbors' house. It's hard enough to get to in daylight; at night it's virtually inaccessible. So what was it that my children heard?

Sure, there are many rational possibilities. It could have been a disgruntled cicada or a bat flying into those three windows in succession. Someone might have been lobbing rocks at them from the neighbors' yard or otherwise playing a tasteless prank. Since my wife and I didn't hear the banging, there is also the chance that my kids concocted the whole thing as an excuse to get out of bed on a hot night.

Even so, the fact remains...those three windows, or at least the wall surrounding them, had been the last thing Mr. Abe's son had worked on before he died.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Music in the Mountains, Part 2007 ch. IV

(There wasn't much to report on the 6th, so I've jumped ahead.)

This is it, the final day of this year's music club summer training camp. As luck would have it, it's also the day of the Prefectural Concert Band Championship (tight, brassy fanfare in close harmony...oops, the alto saxes are FLAT!!!). That's why this year's camp was so hectic. That's why they robbed me of all my jazz band rehearsal time. That's why they suddenly canceled yesterday's free afternoon (i.e. no golf this year).

That's why we're faced with one heck of a logistics nightmare today. We have to get roughly half our 100-strong music club to the contest in Mito and the other half back to Ye Olde Academy. We also have to divide up the equipment, meaning two trucks.

As for me, as always, I've been asked to come along to the contest and be a back-up teacher/director. That's not a problem. I'm quite used to the gig. However, my transportation duties this time are quite different from what they were last Friday (the 3rd). Mrs. Ogawa has already gone home, Chuck is riding the bus with the kids headed back home, and the cellos and things have been loaded in one of the trucks. Instead, I've been told I have to carry myself plus two alumni, Mr. HB (grad. class of 1997) and Mr. OZ (grad. class of 2007). Of course, I also have to transport our luggage, which still amounts to a fair amount of gear. Wouldn't you know it, I've also been stuck carrying some "support equipment" (no, I'm serious this time) for the concert band. It's not a problem. There's plenty of room in my BLUE RAV4. It should be a smooth and interesting drive over to Mito.

Shortly before departure time HB and OZ come running to me and inform me that they've decided to ride the bus with the students instead (insisting they "promised"), but they still want me to transport their luggage. I suppose I don't have any trouble with that, though I do feel some hackles raising a bit. As it turns out, however, the bus winds up taking off while HB and OZ are still trying to stuff their gear into my car. They seem rather annoyed, but they're with me whether they like it or not.

It turns out to be an interesting ride. Despite one minor navigation system hiccup (i.e. it tried to get me onto the freeway despite my wishes. The back roads are actually faster!) we make excellent time. Meanwhile, HB and I have an entertaining chat. He has a master's degree in music, specializing on recorder (especially medieval, renaissance, and baroque music), and is currently studying in Switzerland. He speaks fluent English (and Spanish) and is trying to learn German at the moment. He seems to have a bit of an issue with my music selection (though I try to keep it in the pseudo-classical category), but we still keep a lively banter going all the way to Mito. OZ, who was quite good at English in his school days, follows our conversation for a while, but then his brain starts to overload, and he quickly slaps on his iPod (but nods off anyway). In the end, we wind up arriving in Mito more than two hours ahead of schedule.

The three of us have a bite of lunch at a pretty good noodle shop just outside the downtown district of Mito, and then I call Mr. Karatsu on the bus. He tells me that they have stopped at a roadside rest stop just outside Mito city limits and will be there soon, so we proceed to the Prefectural Citizens' Culture Center, where the contest is held, and find the parking lot full. As if the signs aren't enough, both traffic cops at the entrance give me very emphatic "x" signs. I wind up parking at the temporary parking area set up over at the Lake Senba park...almost a kilometer from the Culture Center. The hike from my car is not fun; it's hot, it's muggy, and even the small percentage of our gear that we lug along is a serious pain in the neck. We're thankful to arrive in the welcome embrace of the air-conditioned lobby.

No sign of the bus, and another school band is still occupying our designated area.

We wait a while, and I phone Mr. Karatsu again. He tells me that they are "about ten minutes away", so I go ahead and sign us in at the registration counter. Then we wait...for about an hour. It turns out that "about ten minutes away" referred to the distance, not the time, as they were still having lunch at the roadside rest stop. Now the kids are there. However, the band occupying our area is in the process of clearing out as we come in, and it's all wonderfully chaotic.

It's even worse when it comes time for us to set up for the performance. Our kids immediately open up their cases and start readying their instruments...right in the middle of the passageway. In other words, they're blocking the way and causing trouble for other bands. Mr. Karatsu says nothing, so I have to be the jackbooted fascist and get our group out of the way. Then our guide arrives and tells us to get ready to go...and several of our kids are off screwing around instead of getting into position. Once again Mr. Karatsu says nothing, so I have to be the evil overlord and get their butts into line. I think you can guess how the kids are looking at me now. (Somewhere along the lines of, "What the **** is his problem?")

I, for one, do not welcome being a gaijin overlord.

And so our erstwhile band is marched off to the rehearsal and tuning rooms before backstage standby, and I'm left guarding the bags. It's okay, since I do this every time. As it turns out, there are also a couple of 7th grade students that have been drafted to do the same thing, so I really don't have to be there. I decide to be fair and stay there until it's time for our band to go on stage. Then I ask the 7th graders to hold the fort while I go into the hall, watch our performance, and write my own judge's critique.

Our performance is pretty good, but probably should have been a lot better. The opening note, which sucked at the block preliminary, sucks even more today. The opening line, a unison phrase played by the tuba, contralto clarinet, and string bass, is sloppy. Once the band gets going after that they sound tight and together...but there are a couple of very noticeable splats in the trumpet and trombone sections, and the horns are out of tune. The blend and balance are much better than at the block preliminary, the musical expression is there, but the band somehow lacks energy (maybe tired from all that hard practicing over the past four days? Naaaaah...). The woodwinds are definitely in the groove, but the solos sound a bit tentative. Overall, it's an improvement over the block preliminary, but because it's an improvement the weak spots are an even bigger disappointment. Considering the level of competition, it's really hard to say whether we'll cut it or not. Frankly speaking, we weren't sure we'd even make it this far.

Once it's all done the kids quickly put their instruments away and load the truck. Then they grab up their bags and take off. That just leaves my stuff, HB's, OZ's, and the little bit of support equipment that I was stuck with. Then the boy members of the band, who were the crew mainly responsible for loading the truck, come in together with Mr. Karatsu and HB. We chat for a while, and then HB suddenly decides he wants to go get something to drink. There's a problem, though; OZ is still nowhere in sight.

HB sighs irritably and says, "[Moody] sensei, look after OZ's bags, please. Come on you guys, let's go get something to drink!" And then, just like that, he heads off with the boys. Mr. Karatsu apologizes to me quietly three times before HB calls for him to follow. The Moody Baggage Handler no longer exists for HB or the boys, apparently, but then again, he's only a baggage handler, right?

About an hour later OZ finally decides to show up, and he looks annoyed. Without a single word of greeting to me, let alone thanks for my trouble, he tells one of our drummers to grab his bags for him, and off he goes. Yes, being everyone's baggage handler is a thankless job, but somebody's gotta do it, right?

Now, where the **** is my tip????

That's the last I see of anybody for the rest of the day. I sit in the lobby alone with my briefcase and the band equipment for about another two hours until the final ceremony, which I watch on a closed-circuit monitor. Our band did well; they got a gold medal (meaning they were in the top ten out of forty...every band in the Prefectural Championship got a gold, silver, or bronze medal). Unfortunately, they weren't picked to represent Ibaraki at the East Kanto Regional Championship. They were chosen to be the first runner-up. That's far better than we'd expected, but it's still kind of disappointing. After all, it's almost better to be at the bottom than right at the edge of victory.

Something tells me I'm not going to see HB or anyone else, so I gather up the stuff and hike the kilometer back to my car. Sure enough, no sooner do I start the engine than I get a call from Mr. Karatsu saying, "HB is with us on the bus. Don't worry about him." I tell him I'm not worried at all. I don't tell him that HB should be far more worried I might dump the two large suitcases he has left with me off on the side of the road and go get something to drink. I am seriously contemplating doing just that.

Yes, I am very angry...*pant pant pant*...
VERY angry, indeed.

Nevertheless, the Moody Baggage Handler does his job, without thanks or tips, and HB's bags get dropped off at Ye Olde Academy (and MBH immediately scrams) an hour before the bus arrives.

Summer vacation has finally begun.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Music in the Mountains, Part 2007 ch. III

"Okay, girls, come in."

The clinician then emerges from the foyer into the living room of the suite where the male teachers are all quartered. Seeing me there, he levels those famously (and very deceptively) gentle-looking eyes on me and says, "Ah! You don't mind, do you? I'm giving the girls in my section some extra training."

I grin. "That's okay."

He smiles in return and then calls back in the direction of the foyer. The girls emerge. There are three of them, grades 11, 9, and 7, and naturally their chosen instrument is the same as the clinician's. (I won't say which just in case one of the spies might make a stink about "privacy".) However, they don't have their instruments with them. All they have are shy smiles.

The clinician strikes an authoritarian pose. "Okay," he says, "first of all, we'll have some social training." He gestures around the room, which still bears the scars (read "garbage and dirty dishes") of last night's welcome party. "Clean it up! All of it!"

"Hai," say the girls, bowing in perfect unison, and they snap into action.

This clinician is one of our regulars. He not only comes to our summer training camp almost every year, but he often visits Ye Olde Academy. He's a well-established and very capable player of a very difficult instrument. He's also a very good teacher. Despite his gentle-looking face and the soft, sensitive way he plays his instrument, the man can be a serious hard-ass. Not one to suffer any loose ends, he can seem downright tyrannical at times. He's also eccentric as they come. But the man can teach. Yes, the man can be a damned good teacher.

Not that he rests on his laurels. When the girls set to work cleaning up, the clinician gets right in and works with them, giving them instruction all the way. At one point I even hear him in the kitchen telling one girl a better way to hold a wine glass while washing it so as to minimize the chance of dropping and breaking it. He's definitely one for detail.

The girls are efficient, and the "social education" doesn't last long. Next the clinician calls the girls into the living room and asks them to sit in a half circle in front of him.

"Now it's time for some cultural education," he says. Then, throwing a glance at me, he adds, "and I think you may be interested in this, too."

He reaches into his nearby pile of luggage and pulls out a long, thin object wrapped in cloth. When he arrived, he told us all that it was a Japanese sword. We assumed he was joking. He wasn't. Assuming a traditional, seiza-style sitting position (i.e. sitting on his heels), he removes the cloth cover. Then he calls the girls to attention, performs a sort of ritual, unlocks the sword, and removes it from its sheath.

The three girls' mouths drop open in perfect sync. Mine is half a beat late.

The sword is beautiful. Though it's in excellent condition, it definitely looks old. It is clear that, to the clinician, it is a great treasure.

"This sword dates from the Muromachi Era (1336 to 1573)," he says with both pride and admiration. My eyes narrow; that seems a bit hard to believe. (I also have to wonder why he even has such a sword, though his surname is a famous samurai one. It may very well be a family heirloom.) Grinning shallowly, he holds up a piece of heavy paper and, with a casual motion, shreds it. The blade is razor sharp. The clinician then goes on to point out various features of the sword's construction. Whether the weapon is genuine or not, the craftsmanship is truly amazing. The clinician describes the process used to craft the blade and also explains exactly why it is shaped the way it is. It's not for decoration. It also makes me wonder about one very obvious nick, more like an irregular groove, on the parrying edge. Did that blade see action?

He definitely has the girls' attention.

"This is a serious weapon," he goes on, "and it can be quite dangerous. Never point the blade at someone unless you mean it, and always hand it to someone pommel first, blade flat." He then demonstrates by handing it to me. "Go on, [Moody], give it a try!"

Genuine or not, the sword is very well balanced. I step well away from the others and give it a couple of careful swings. It's much heavier than I expected, but it almost seems to move itself. The grip and the swing feel very natural.

Taking the sword back from me (pommel first, blade flat), the clinician says, "To a samurai, this isn't just a weapon, it's a way of life. It's a part of him, so he treats it even better than he would part of his own body." He opens a little kit and takes out a bottle of oil and some tools. "It also takes lots of special care." He puts some oil on an odd-looking, little brush and begins dabbing it on the blade. "Treat it well, and it will treat you well...for a long time. I mean, look at this! It was made hundreds of years ago, and it's still alive!" He finishes oiling the blade, puts the kit away, and goes on, "You see, there's more to swordsmanship than just slashing and thrusting. You have to get to know your sword. You have to make it part of you. It has to work through you, and you through it. You have to respect it, you have to love it, and you have to take care of it!"

The three girls are enthralled. So am I.

The clinician sheaths the blade, performs the ritual again, and restores the cloth cover.

"Do I make myself clear?" he asks, eyeing us intently.

"Hai," say the three girls, still entranced. I nod briskly.

"Now...," he says very deliberately, "what about your instrument? Do you know it and treat it the same way?"

The girls look at each other and flash Japanese smiles of embarrassment. Then they emit unison hums of uncertainty.

"Think about it," says the clinician. Then he changes the topic to some more obvious ones regarding samurai culture and how it compares to the modern day. It's an interesting discussion, and it's unfortunate when the girls have to leave to go to their next rehearsal session.

Once the girls have gone, the clinician shrugs, sighs, and asks, "So, do you think they got it?"

"I'm sure they'll at least be thinking and talking about it for some time," I reply. "Besides, I really enjoyed it!"

"Good enough, then," he retorts, and with a shallow bow he heads for the exit himself.

Never a dull moment at these summer camps, even when it tries really hard.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Music in the Mountains, Part 2007 ch. II

Day two of this year's summer training camp, and here I am behind the wheel once again.

I knew it would be this way when I decided to bring my BLUE RAV4 instead of riding the bus. They're keeping me busy this year. Sometimes I'm training the new 7th graders. Sometimes I'm helping with the money books and money issues. Sometimes I'm preparing music. Sometimes I'm helping keep order. And the rest of the time? I'm the official go-fer (gopher?).

The nearest shinkansen (bullet train) station is a forty-minute drive away, and I've already been there twice today. Moody's Blue Taxi Service aims to please, and at least it's a scenic drive there and back again. The BLUE isn't just my car, either; a long stretch of the road is lined with hydrangeas, and they're still in full bloom. There are whites, pinks, purples, and vivid blues there, standing out against the deep green leaves/needles and brown trunks of the surrounding forest. Our staff of guest clinicians will wax and wane over the next few days, so I know I'll be making that trip a lot more and enjoying every bit of it.

This afternoon Mr. Ogawa sent me out on a special mission. Going shopping for "maintenance equipment" (heh!) for the guest clinicians is one of my usual duties during summer training camps, but this was the first time for me to go solo. I was also given a most unusual shopping list. This time, for the first time ever, I had been sent out on a quest for vegetables.

Yes, you read that right.

You see, since a year or two ago, one of our regular guest clinicians has been pressing us to make our "maintenance equipment" (tee hee) healthier. I'm not complaining, since I'm all for it, but it certainly makes the shopping more complicated. Mr. Ogawa gave me some (rather confused) directions on how to get to a bargain produce stand he found last year, but I decided to be a real 21st-century man (low, Mesa/Boogie amp power chord) and do an area search with my navigation system. It located several produce stands, so I picked one that was relatively close and drove way out into the (beautiful) countryside to find it was out of business. I then followed Mr. Ogawa's directions, going many kilometers in the other direction, but that place turned out to be dark and shuttered, too. Not wanting to give up, I pressed on and came across two produce stands, the second much better than the first, and I wound up with quite an array of fruit and vegetables. In the process I also found a "real" supermarket, the first we'd come across in three years of training camps in the same place.

Which brings me to my current mission. It's after dark now, and I went back to that "real" supermarket together with two "O.B.s" (male alumni) to get the main stock of "maintenance equipment" (cough) for tonight. We got quite a selection, too: a few six-packs of "tall" beer cans, whiskey, and a great, big bottle of shochu (distilled potato or plum liquor) to supplement the case of wine we already have. Hopefully it will last through the night. These guest clinicians drink like fish. (Hey, they're musicians, after all!) We also got a whole bunch of snacks. Yes, there are many things the Japanese do very well, and one of them is otsumame (drinking snacks). Anyplace that sells liquor has quite a selection. We got a formidable array we were confident would suit any taste. I won't tell you how much it all cost. Such is one of the basic facts of summer training camp life. When the kids bed down for the night and are blissfully unaware (we hope), the clinician "maintenance" begins, and it often (read "invariably") lasts until the wee small hours.

Now we're heading back with the fruits of our efforts. It will be the main welcome party, as the largest group of clinicians arrived today. It should be interesting. As it turns out, the festivities begin early for us. As we load the BLUE RAV4 we suddenly hear booms and see flashes of color from further down the mountain, just out of sight.

"Wow," we think, "there are fireworks tonight!" Too bad we can't see them.

Then, after we get no more than half a kilometer down the road, a massive barrage of fireworks suddenly goes off in a nearby field, exploding directly ahead in full view! The entire display lasts less than a minute, and it's intense. The O.B.s and I are suitably impressed. Our party has started early. Now we can look forward to later in the night, when we'll have socializing, camaraderie, discussion, good spirits in the air, even better spirits in our glasses...oh, and LOTS of fresh vegetables!

Three more days to go.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Music in the Mountains, Part 2007

Well, I've been there and back again. The 2007 edition of our music club's summer training camp has come and gone.

This year I wasn't given any time for my jazz band to practice. The bulk of the schedule was monopolized by the concert band to prepare for the Prefectural Championship (fanfare with lots of dissonant harmony and complex rhythms), which would happen in the afternoon of the day the training camp ended. Even though I understood the reasons, I was still pretty upset about it. However, I was given a lot of other things to do, much more responsibility than usual, so I didn't really have any time to fret about it. The one afternoon of free time also gwugged and went to make time for more practice, so we were engaged almost the whole time. There was hardly any room to think...let alone take pictures. (Sorry, Agus!)

I'm not going to bother going into blow-by-blow details, partly to avoid another potential scandal (though the spies don't seem to be visiting lately), partly because I've been there before, and partly because there aren't all that many interesting things to talk about. Instead, I'll just stick to a few events and my impressions connected with them.


So here I am, on country roads.

Yes, the expressway would probably be faster.
I've chosen to take the country roads.

Yes, the expressway would probably be straighter,
A much easier path to follow.
I still prefer to take the country roads.

I could have ridden the bus;
I could have laughed with the students,
Stared out the window, taken a quiet nap.
I'm happy here, in my BLUE RAV4, on the country roads.

Next to me is Chuck, my friend and new coworker,
Behind me the wife of the Maestro,
Two cellos, two violins, four clarinets, a sax,
Assorted boxes and bags,
The cargo I'm hauling on the country roads.

How quickly the world changes,
From the sprawling fields of Kashima,
Through the urban sprawl of Mito,
And into the hills, trees, and architecture
Of a place we don't know,
Flashing past us along the country roads.

It's not exactly quiet here;
In two languages, the conversation rolls on by.
On my audio system, like a sort of war:
My Mannheim Steamroller often interrupted
By Chuck's Jonathan Coulton
And my navigator's soulless female voice
Guiding me down the country roads.

Just one stop for rest room, coffee,
And on our way we go,
Through Tochigi's famed rice fields
We soon leave far below.
High in mountains, deep in forest,
Sparkling water flows.
The pin on my navi-map edging nearer,
Our goal at the end of the country roads.

They call this a town, but I see only trees.
Those signs I do see are all brown,
For we are deep inside Nikko National Park,
And we're getting near this mountain's crown.
We arrive at our goal, park the car, go on in,
But the buses and truck are not there.
I'm guessing we've left them two hours behind,
And that gives us some time to prepare.
They're still somewhere out there on the country roads.

And so Mrs. Ogawa, Chuck, and I
Set to work moving tables and chairs.
When the kids get here they'll have an easier time
Hauling all that equipment upstairs.
Chuck is half Korean, maybe looks Japanese;
The clerk shows me his back, speaks to him,
I fear there will be many more scenes like these,
Not much point going out on a limb.
We'll see how this year's summer goes
Up here on the country roads.

Up here in the mountains, on country roads.


Off to Face the Music

The time has finally come.

Tomorrow I'm off to the mountains of Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture, for this year's Music Club Summer Training Camp (somewhat lip-worn fanfare). I'm going to forsake riding the bus in favor of driving up myself in my BLUE RAV4 through all that lovely scenery.

The fact that an approaching typhoon will probably make it all wet and misty shouldn't be too much of a problem.

I won't have much to do this year. I was asked to surrender all my jazz band rehearsal time in favor of the concert band since they made it to the Prefectural Championship, and it's only six days away. I'm not happy about that, since I need that rehearsal time, but I'd rather not cause a fuss. Better to enjoy five days of mostly R&R and not take anything too seriously.

I'll be back the evening of the 7th. I'll "see" you all then.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Back in the Groove

WARNING: this post is for musicians/guitar freaks.

You know, the last time I touched my home studio setup was last winter, when I finished the A Taste of the Truth album. After that it went under a blanket. It stayed there all through the home improvement project of late winter and early spring since I was too busy and too tired to do anything with it. Then the starting of the new school year and everything that went with it sort of kept my mind filled up. Even when things started to mellow out again I found myself sadly lacking in time, motivation, and...saddest of all...inspiration. My muse had apparently flown off to Risa for a much-needed holiday and had yet to return

The saddest thing about it was that the Fender Telecaster my wife had given me for my birthday last January wasn't getting used. Sure, I'd pick it up from time to time and noodle around on it, but for the most part it was just collecting dust.

Well, that finally changed this week. Last Sunday I finally yanked off the blankets, dusted everything off, tested switches and connections, and then fired up the setup. The very first thing I did was start work on a song I'd actually thought up months earlier but had never gotten around to making. My chops were extremely rusty, as I'd feared, and it took a bit of work to get things moving. It was good for me, though. It also provided me with an excellent chance to put the Telecaster through its paces.

Actually, after first getting the Telecaster last January and playing around with it a bit, my biggest worry was that it wasn't different enough from my SG. The two guitars have a very different look and feel, but they still seemed to have a very similar personality. In other words, I kept wanting to play them the same way, which was precisely what I didn't want. As it turns out, when I plugged the Telecaster into my POD and used it on that first, new song, it proved itself to be a very different animal from the SG, which I also used. The Telecaster is a lot like the "Yamacaster" it was meant to replace, which is only natural, but it has a lot more "oomph". Its bridge pickup is punchier, and its neck pickup is grittier, which was exactly what I'd wanted. I can now say that it has officially entered the "club", and I'm happy to have it.

2006 altar2
Once again, for reference, here is my "altar". The Telecaster is the ash-colored guitar in the center back. The SG is the white one on the right. Ever since the home renewal I haven't left all my guitars out like this, keeping the ones not in use stowed away.

I did have one persistent problem with the Telecaster, though. It seemed perfectly fine when I tried it out at the shop, but when I brought it home I found it had a bit of string buzz. Raising the action a bit helped a little, but it didn't solve the problem. I tried not to worry about it too much, but when I used the Telecaster to record that first, new song last Sunday the string buzz did become an issue. Actually, it was a problem; I wound up having to use the SG to cover for it in one place. That was not good. I thought about taking it back to the shop to see if they could do something about it. Before that, though, I decided to try something. The Telecaster still had the (old) strings that had been on it when my wife had bought it. They were "009"s, as any modern lead guitar would have. However, since I wanted to use the Telecaster as a "workhorse" rather than a "lead" guitar (which is the job of the SG and the Strat), I decided to swap them for "010"s. As it turned out, I couldn't find the set of "010" strings I was sure I had in my supply, but I found a set of custom lights that were basically "009"s in the three high-pitched strings and "010"s in the three low ones, so I put those on. Strangely, that apparently cured the buzzing problem. The harmonic tuning seemed to be better, too. Overall, it improved the guitar's performance a LOT.

I have a feeling that that Telecaster had originally had "010"s, as a lot of older models did. The previous owner had probably replaced them with "009"s to make it easier to play, but hadn't bothered readjusting the bridge or the neck. In short, he had screwed it up, and that's probably why he (or she) had gotten rid of it. Well, I seem to have fixed it...or at least I hope I have.

After that song was finished, I immediately set to work on a new one (which I'd only thought up the night before while washing dishes). My chops were starting to come back up to speed little by little, so I got a bit more ambitious with my playing. I used the Telecaster/SG combination again, with the SG (on a Marshall JCM-800 model) playing a heavy riff unison with the bass, and the Telecaster (on a Vox AC-30 model) playing a separate, light-and-easy riff of its own. The two guitars blended very well with each other. Just for fun, I played the guitar solo in the middle on the Telecaster instead of the SG, sticking with the Vox amp model but throwing in a Voodoo fuzz box (model) for effect and switching to the neck pickup for a nice, gritty sound. I had to do a lot of retakes and punch-ins before I was satisfied, and there was a lot of snarling and gnashing of teeth, but it was still fun. I also got a lot of very valuable practice out of it.

I have a few more song ideas percolating in my head right now, and my Strat as well as all those acoustic instruments are whimpering at me. Time to go to work. I'll post some tracks when they're ready.