Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Learning to Fly All Over Again


I'm in the music office at Ye Olde Academy pretending to conduct. Actually, miming is probably a more accurate term. The fingers of my right hand are pressed together as if I were holding an invisible baton, and I'm conducting a four-four allegro. My shoulder is starting to hurt. I can see the involuntary wince on my face clearly because I'm standing in front of a full-length mirror, watching myself, analyzing my moves, trying to replicate exactly the motions I've been taught.


The diminuitive, middle-aged woman standing next to me sighs and shakes her head.

"You're still doing it," she says patiently, though it's probably feigned. "On beats two and four your arm is still circling out! You don't need to move so much! Follow the path directly!" She shows me the move for the umpteenth time. "Just like when we did it in steps, just connected! Here, with me!"


"That's it!" she says, a smile spreading across her face. "Keep it up!"


The smile becomes a frown. Another sigh. "No, no! You're doing it again! Can't you see it?"

I stop, purse my lips, and shake my head. "I'm sorry, sensei," I say quietly. "I can't see it. What exactly am I doing wrong?"

"Two and four!" she says, and she jiggles her arm around. "It's not this bad, but this is basically what you're doing! Your arm keeps circling out on two and four! Don't! Stay on the path, straight from the ictus of two, then drop to three, straight from the ictus, then drop to four! Again! Together!"


She sighs again and calls our vocal music teacher over to work with me so she can teach someone else.

Yes, folks, I've started taking conducting lessons.

Actually, Mr. Ogawa and our vocal music teachers started training exactly a year ago with this woman, a well-known (and notoriously strict) university professor who has published at least one book and a DVD on conducting and has trained conductors for a number of orchestras throughout Japan. The lessons started exactly a year ago, actually, but due to a grievous misunderstanding on my part, I thought they'd been going to Tokyo for them, so I'd declined. I found out just a month ago that the teacher had actually been coming to Kashima from Tokyo. That's when I said, "If I'd known, I'd have signed up myself!" Next thing I knew, I was getting Lesson One, which could best be described as "the art of correctly dropping one's arm".

Don't laugh. It took me more than an hour to get it right, and I was hurting, too. (Mr. Ogawa reportedly took three hours to complete Lesson One, which I intend to remember for future reference...) This teacher approaches conducting as if it were a martial art. She is a perfectionist and anything but forgiving. The moves are very exacting and very demanding. Learning them hasn't been quite so hard as UNlearning what I learned before...and what I've been doing for the past decade or two. Thus far it has been fairly encouraging, though. Despite a few hard-to-cross hurdles, I've actually been doing pretty least up till now.


The vocal music teacher announces that I've finally got it right, so the teacher comes over at once, her gaze looking a bit more steely.


"Okay," she says, a hint of hope crossing her face. "You've gotten better. Good. Keep going..."


Suddenly a sigh and a shake of the head. "No, [Moody], you're still doing it! You're still circling out on two and four! Can't you see it? Look in the mirror!"


"You see?" she cries. "You see?"

I don't. I look very deflated in the mirror as I shake my head. My pride is getting trampled into a fine goo between the floor tiles.

"Keep trying," she says. "You are getting better. Keep trying!" Then she goes off to work with someone else.

And so it goes until the end of the hour, when I unfortunately have to excuse myself to start marking final exams. Yes, final exam week has just ended, and grading hell has just begun. At least my conducting lesson, and the resulting ache in my shoulder, have almost helped me forget about it till now. Now I give my final demonstration to the teacher.


She smiles, but it is not a smile of encouragement. She laughs, but it is not a laugh of warmth.

"Here is your homework," she says, shaking her head. "Go home, draw the paths on a big piece of paper, hang it on a wall, and follow them, follow them, follow them!"

"Yes, sensei," I reply quietly. I get my things together and shuffle out the door.

Music is my life...and I feel like I've woken up to find myself back in a crib wearing diapers.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


There has been a lot to mourn these days. In the past few weeks we have seen:

At least in the last case there is a tiny glimmer of hope. For many, Abe was the epitome of the sadly-misnamed "Liberal Democratic Party" in Japan (which is neither liberal, democratic, nor a party). The ironically right-wing LDP, which has controlled the Japanese government during the overwhelming majority of the years since WWII, would be more correctly called the "Corporate Party", since it has always represented big business interests far more than those of the general public. Not surprisingly, its history has long been tainted with scandals, and Abe has wound up being something of a poster boy in this regard. The public is obviously fed up, which is why the LDP just suffered one of its worst election defeats in the Diet...ironically only a year after it enjoyed one of its biggest election victories. Many said Abe should have taken responsibility and resigned immediately, but noooo...he had to complicate things. He made a bold policy statement...and then ducked and ran a few days later.

The fight for Abe's successor as president of the LDP (i.e. the Prime Minister by default) was complicated at first, but it came down to a surprising duel between two men, former foreign minister Taro Aso and former cabinet spokesman Yasuo Fukuda. Aso was notorious as a very (obnoxiously) vocal jingoist with a horrible case of foot-in-mouth disease. Among his gems were a claim that Taiwan should be "grateful" to Japan for colonizing and "uplifting" them and a statement that Japan could succeed where the U.S. would fail in geopolitics because Japan is "one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture and one race". The man has a penchant for the irrational, but his loudmouthed patriotism nevertheless led to his forming the largest faction within the fragmented LDP. Fukuda, on the other hand, was famous for being what the other big-name LDP politicians weren't, i.e. he was prudent, rational, measured, resourceful, and always spoke and acted from a position of common sense. In other words, he was seen as a wise advisor, but not as a charismatic hero.

Needless to say, the media favored Aso to win. Guess what: he didn't. Yasuo Fukuda is now president of the LDP and, therefore, PM for the time being. It will be VERY INTERESTING to see how things proceed from here. I, for one, hope that he is able to bring some small amount of sense to the government before the "real politicians" bury him.

Incidentally, and not surprisingly, the Western world is already making jokes about Fukuda's surname and the way English-speakers who don't know better would read it (e.g. "Farkuda" on For your information, it's "FOO-KOO-DA". Now fuk u and get a life!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Oops....I Forgot...

I completely forgot to mention the reason why the last post was entitled "A Matter of Time". Something really freaky happened that I wanted to talk about, and somehow it slipped my mind. Okay, I'll mention it now. A couple of weeks ago my wife and I noticed something weird (besides each other).

We have always kept our watches set according to the time shown on the TV screen during the morning news. Not surprisingly, that always turns out to be the time set at our respective schools. Meanwhile, I have always kept the clock in my BLUE RAV4 set exactly five minutes faster than my watch for reasons of psychology (i.e. it tends to encourage me to leave earlier and not waste time even if I'm consciously aware of the intentional setting). That means, naturally, the car clock is also five minutes faster than TV news time and school time, right? Normally, yes. However...

For some reason, two weeks ago we noticed that my wife's watch and my watch were both three minutes faster than TV news/school time. Even more bizarre was the fact that my car clock was eight minutes faster, i.e. three minutes faster relative to its plus-five setting. That meant that, somehow, I, my wife, and my car had gained an identical three minutes.

It was even stranger when we discovered that all the various clocks in our house as well as our cell phones were in agreement with the TV news time, i.e. three minutes behind our watches.

What happened?!?

Did we pass through a time wrinkle on one of our Narita shopping trips???!?

(cue X-Files theme)


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Matter of Time

Man...what a weekend THAT was!

You'd think that a three-day weekend would allow me some much-needed quiet time. But then you'd be forgetting that it's ME you're talking about! [nervous]Ha ha ha ha ha![/nervous]

So...what happened this time? I'm glad you asked! Allow me to elucidate!

Saturday, September 15
Today was the undokai (Athletics Meet) at my children's elementary school. Those are always loads of fun. It's basically what we called a "field day" back in my own school daze days, but in a much larger scale. There's also much more parental participation...not to mention a stronger sense of neighborhood rivalry.

It all starts out simple enough. The student body is divided into two teams, red and white. Then the events kick off with a 100-meter dash involving all the students, competing in four-person heats decided by grade.

2007 osg undokai-2

Here's my daughter (red cap) awaiting her turn to run in her 5th-grade heat.

2007 osg undokai-3

And there she is, in the distance, crossing the finish line almost half a lap ahead of the competition. She may be having trouble with her motivation to study these days, but she can still run!

2007 osg undokai-4

Now, at a later event (a sort of costume race), my son, second from the left, is getting pumped up ready to go. As you can see, he has plumped up more than a little (mainly thanks to his grandfather, who owns stock in McDonalds and thus gets lots of nice, little discount coupons...which he's only too determined to use several times a week despite my protests). However, he can still move his shrimpy, little legs fast!

2007 osg undokai-6

Now we move on to the team drills. Here you can see my daughter literally carrying the weight of the team on her own back.

2007 osg undokai-7

These things just keep escalating!

As for me, I did my share of participating, too. I'm (theoretically, at least) the chief of the PTA Welfare and Study Committee, which is responsible for a lot of what goes on at the Athletic Meet. I was in charge of organizing and preparing for some of the events. I also got to fire the starter pistol for a couple of them. But that wasn't all...

My neighborhood district also asked me to take part in the District Relay Competition (A diminished 7th fanfare, modulate to slightly out-of-tune D sus4 resolving to a rumbly D minor). I knew I'd have to do that someday, but I never expected to be named the ANCHOR. I was. When my turn came up, I started out in the third position out of seven, ran my arse off, passed one person, got passed by another, and caught up with another just too late to pass. I wound up in third...and I was seriously hating life afterward. I mean, I did track & field in high school, but nowadays I'm anything but athletically inclined. I must have put about a month's worth of energy and strength into one 200-meter sprint. To be honest, I was amazed I even made it all the way around the track, let alone defended my team's third-place position against runners that were all volunteer firemen and probably averaged about eighteen years younger than me!

I was not a happy camper afterward. So naturally I went to our neighborhood's customary party afterward and allowed them to show their gratitude by wining and dining me into oblivion. Perhaps if I'd been in a bit less exhausted it wouldn't have been so bad. However...

Sunday, September 16
I forced myself out of bed and somehow got myself to Ye Olde Academy for the morning rehearsal I had scheduled. I had been smart enough (thank goodness) to take Tylenol before going to bed the night before, so my head felt okay, but I was still weak, shaky, pale, and drenched in sweat. I also felt like I could hurl my breakfast at any minute. The Flying Eggheads had a performance that very afternoon, and we were expected to put on a full hour show, but the twisted schedule of the previous two weeks had made rehearsal a rare luxury.

By some miracle I got through the rehearsal more or less okay, and the kids sounded more or less alright.

Getting to the performance venue was surprisingly smooth and easy this time. Once again we were unable to borrow the school vans, so we had to divide transportation between my BLUE RAV4 (with a removable back seat, thank goodness) and Mr. Ogawa's white Estima. We were going to have the kids walk there, since it's only a few kilometers from the school, but since temperatures had climbed up to right around 33 degrees C (90 F) again we decided to shuttle them. Even so, we had the whole lot there with all their gear more than an hour early. That gave us time to relax, eat the food they provided, and check out some of the other acts.

The performance venue was outdoors in front of Kashima City Hall. I mean it was literally RIGHT in front of it! We were set up under the roof partition right in front of the main entrance! It was an all-day festival of "pop and jazz in Kashima" featuring mostly amatuer acts. We, as it turned out, were the headliners. Low-key events like this are usually kind of fun, but it would have been nicer if we'd had a bit more shade and a lot more audience. When we arrived there were only about eight or nine people in the guest seats, clutching either fans or umbrellas and not looking very happy.

(The manager kept trying to get the Eggheads to sit in the guest seats so that they'd triple the audience size, but our well-sheltered kids all immediately ran for cover and didn't come out till it was our turn to take the stage!)

When our turn finally arrived it was like a comedy of errors. They told us to use their "electric piano" instead of bringing ours, but it turned out to be a classroom keyboard with no sustain pedal. (I ran and got our pedal, but it wouldn't work right with their keyboard. The kids tried to use it anyway, but it kept sticking...with disastrous results.) We had brought our own drum set, but the "stage" crew couldn't figure out that we wanted them to remove the borrowed set they had placed right where our trumpet row was supposed to go. Once the chairs and stands were in place, the sound man set up the mikes...and told me the emcee mike wouldn't reach out in front. He finally attached an additional extension cable, but then we had connection problems, and the emcee mike kept popping in and out and making obnoxious, electronic noises. To make matters worse, though it had cooled off thanks to some passing clouds, the wind had picked up. I had told the kids to bring clips, and they had, but there was still a lot of struggling with music going on.

At 3:00 p.m., amazingly right on schedule, we hit the downbeat and launched into a shuffle-swing version of Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" followed by a nice, peaceful "It's Only a Paper Moon". Both tunes went well, though our bass player kept fighting with her music and often wound up dropping out. I also got fed up with the noise produced by that sticking sustain pedal and yanked its cord out of the socket halfway through the first tune. We continued on to Mancini's "The Pink Panther", in which our lead tenor sax player delivered another fine performance. Then, with gritted my teeth, we concluded the first set by doing "In The Mood". (We had only started rehearsing it a couple of days before, and the tune was sadly rusty. Today, fortunately, the kids were in the groove, and it sounded pretty good...even with that clanking, sustainless keyboard and the bass often off collecting her music.)

Once the first set was done, it was my turn. The organizers of the event had asked me to give a solo performance with a professional rhythm section. I had declined citing lack of practice and confidence. Instead, I had worked up a few quick tunes with the Flying Eggheads rhythm section. First we did a quick, easy arrangement I'd slapped together of "Georgia on my Mind", with lots of improv and drama, and it felt great! Then we continued to another quickie of mine, this time of "Satin Doll". The first time through the chorus I played the melody with a bit of license. The second time through I picked up the emcee mike and sang. The third time through I took up the sax again and broke into an improv solo, but realized to my horror that I didn't match the piano at all. The silly girl had continued to the coda instead of repeating again. Realizing her mistake, she tried to jump back into the chorus partway through, but by then my concentration was completely shattered. There was no way I could pick up the groove again. I vamped around a bit, trying to find a key that worked with the still-struggling piano, got thoroughly disgusted, and wound up feeling very embarrassed. I was happy when the tune mercifully ended. I closed my set playing a ballad, the song "Someday" from Disney's "The Bells of Notre Dame" with only piano accompaniment. That went really well until the open cadenza I'd added at the end. Normally I keep it simple and beautiful, but this time I was still pissed off over the "Satin Doll" debacle, so I suddenly broke into a wild, aggressive swing. It was fun, but it was also overkill. Oh, well. The audience, which now numbered at least a few dozen, seemed satisfied.

The Flying Eggheads came back and played their second set, which opened with Jobim's "Quiet Nights and Quiet Stars" followed by another Latin standard, "Mas Que Nada". From there we went to a tune that has always worked well for us, a really cool samba arrangement of "Blue Bossa". That was technically the end of our show, but for our encore we played Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon" (actually more like the funky Maynard Ferguson version), and since the kids were pumped we went ahead and did Chase's high-wailing "Get It On". It went so well, and felt so good, that I ran and grabbed my sax and took a solo break myself. THAT was fun! When it was all done, we ended both our set and the whole festival by playing an arrangement of "Auld Lang Syne" (a la "Moonlight Serenade") that I'd concocted for the recent La Boheme performance. We ended miraculously right on time at 4:00 p.m.. Then it was time to break it all down and head back to the school.

We were all dog tired, especially me, but it was worth it.

Monday, September 17
Today was, thankfully, a day off. Specifically, it was Keirou no Hi (敬老の日 - Respect for the Aged Day), a national holiday. Father-in-law already had plans for the day, and mother-in-law still didn't feel like doing anything but rest, so the rest of us decided to load up in my BLUE RAV4 and go somewhere. Naturally, the others wanted to go shopping, which was the LAST thing I wanted to do, so I decided to take a detour first. Actually, I was hoping to go and check out the National Aviation Museum near Narita Airport. I had always wanted to see that, and I'd heard entry was free that day. Moreover, there was a special exhibition of Japanese TV superheroes such as the Power Rangers and Gamen Rider (literally "mosquito face rider" because he wears a bug-like mask), which I thought the kids would like. My daughter, who'd already been to the museum twice, didn't seem so excited about it, but my son was tickled, and my wife offered only limited facial expression resistance. We hopped in the car, set the navigation system, and we were on our way.

Unfortunately, we arrived to find a great, big long line of cars waiting to get into the museum parking lot. Apparently an awful lot of other people had had the same idea. I didn't really want to deal with that, and neither did the others, so I gave up, reversed course, went into downtown Narita, and we spent the day shopping. Oh, well. I came out with some new CDs, some really good coffee bought 50% off, a new sustain pedal for the Flying Eggheads, a very satisfying lunch, and a lot more fun than I probably would have had elbowing my way through a crowded museum.

I hoped to leave a bit early so we could hike around a nearby park. We didn't, so we didn't. Just as well. We got back just in time to prepare a really nice dinner for my wife's folks and give mother-in-law a belated birthday party. I won't post the picture because of the sad state her illness has left her in, but believe me when I say that smile was more than worth it.

And now tomorrow, Tuesday the 18th, will bring me back to work AND...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Crimson Skies

I was on my way to a local shopping center with the kids to pick up a few things this evening when I noticed a spectacular sight. The sky directly above us was mostly clear with just a few mottled clouds here and there. However, the far side of Lake Kasumigaura was socked in, and the setting sun was making that whole half of the heavens blaze with glory.

Sept 12 sunset-1

Unfortunately, I was on a main route with no shoulders, no viable turnoffs, and traffic coming up fast behind me. I also didn't have my camera. Not wanting to give up, I handed my cell phone to my daughter and said, "Shoot it!" She complied, and these pics are the result.

Sept 12 sunset-2

I'm afraid these pictures just don't do the actual scene justice. For one thing, they just don't reproduce the color accurately. The skies were blazing a deep, almost blood red. It looked like the clouds were smoldering.

We could just see the darkened, twin peaks of Mt. Tsukuba hovering over the mist in the distance like a pair of hooded figures standing there, eying us balefully, under blood-red skies. Unfortunately, that pic didn't turn out...but why am I hearing Judas Priest playing in the background?

You wont break me
You wont make me
You wont take me,
Under blood red skies

Speaking of which, my three-day, post school festival holiday is over. I'm back to work again tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

How Long Is The Long Month?

In modern Japan the months are referred to, not by any name, but by number. September, for example, is kugatsu (九月), which literally means "nine month". October is jûgatsu (十月), which means "ten month", while August has the innocuous title hachigatsu (八月), which most would translate as "eight month".

Not very inspiring, is it? However, the Japanese haven't always done it this way.

In fact, there are traditional names for the months dating from antiquity. They were originally part of the Japonified Chinese lunar calendar, which was used up until the 11th century, but they were adapted to fit the Western solar calendar without sacrificing their seasonal significance. Therefore, though the traditional names are rarely used anymore except in poetry and certain school subjects, they still apply. They can be rather colorful, too. Allow me to illustrate:

January - Mutsuki - (睦月) "Harmonious Month", so named because it is a time for people to live together in harmony (possibly because it's so cold in January that people tended not to go out so much).

February - Kisaragi - (either 如月 or 衣更着) This one is hard for me to translate. The first way of writing it in kanji (如月) can mean "Exemplary Month" or even "Buddha's Month", but the second (衣更着) literally means "Put on more clothes"!. As for the word "kisaragi" itself, ignoring the kanji, it originally meant "rehabilitate plants". So many potential meanings for such a short month!

March - Yayoi - (弥生) - "More and More Life", so named because it is the time when green leaves and grass start to appear.

April - Uzuki - (卯月) - "Deutzia Month", so named because it's the time when the deutzia blooms. Actually, the first kanji, read "u" [oo] and meaning "deutzia", is often used in classical literature to refer to the fourth item in a series, so it's hard to say which came first, the flower or the count.

May - Satsuki - (皐月) - The original meaning is unclear and may have been lost. The first kanji is never used anymore except to mean "May", either in reference to the month or as a girl's name. Actually, it originally meant either "swamp" or "shore". It is known that rice planting began during this month, so maybe it was the time rice fields were flooded, thus turning them into "swamps".

June - Minazuki - (水無月) - Literally "Waterless Month". Ironically, the month was given this name because it's when the rainy season occurs, thus, it was believed, emptying the heavens of water.

July - Fuzuki (or Fumizuki ) - (文月) - "Composition Month". The first kanji by itself means "sentence" nowadays, but it traditionally refers to literary composition. The month bears this name because it was the season for poetry readings, an important event in the classical age.

August - Hazuki - (葉月) - "Leaf Month", so named because it is the month when leaves start to show their autumn colors.

October - Kannazuki - (神無月) - The name literally means "Godless Month" because it was believed the coming of the clouds meant the gods of heaven were going off on errands, leaving their posts vacant.

November - Shimozuki - (霜月) - "Frost Month". No explanation necessary.

December - Shiwasu - (師走) - The name literally means "Teachers (/Masters) Run" because it was the time of year when teachers were particularly busy. I guess some things never change even after a thousand years.

I seem to have forgotten a month, and it just so happens to be this month. The classical name for September is Nagatsuki (長月), which means "Long Month". Actually, it was originally called Yonagatsuki (夜長月) , "Evening Lengthens Month", because, surprise surprise, evenings start to grow noticeably longer with the passing of the autumnal equinox. Leave it to the Japanese to abbreviate everything!

To tell you the truth, though, I think the more modern version, Nagatsuki, is more on the mark. With all the things going on in September, planned or not, it really is shaping up to be a LOOONNNNNNNNG month!

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