Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, June 28, 2009

And Now Here's the News (End of June Supplement)

I've had a terrible habit of not posting lately. I've just been too occupied with other things. Well, anyway, I'll take this opportunity to try to bring people up to date.

Funeral - Pt. I

The funeral for the student who died was held on June 23. Our school sent the entire 7th grade class to attend as well as all the homeroom teachers for the grade and the administrators. As for the assistant homeroom teachers (like yours truly), however, they imposed a strict "Only if it doesn't conflict with anything else" policy. I had two senior high classes at that time, so it was game over for me. I had to stay behind and teach those classes...not that the students really appreciated it all that much.

However, as with all Buddhist funerals in Japan, there were actually two services, the main funeral and the Tsuya (lit. Night of Passage) held the evening before. I decided to attend the latter. I was there together with most of the 7th grade staff and administrators. It was very sad, but it was also kind of awkward. There had been, and may yet be, some issues with the family. I won't go into details, but Ye Olde Academy has had to take some special precautions as a result. As the boy's assistant homeroom teacher, I was warned that there was a certain amount of risk involved in my attendance. The fears turned out to be unfounded. I went through the motions with my coworkers, paid my respects to the boy, bowed to his family, greeted them on the way out, and went on my way. Hopefully we can all find closure - and go through the legal necessities - as smoothly and painlessly as possible.

Yes, there are definitely some issues with that family, but I would never wish that on anyone.

Funeral - pt. II

By strange coincidence, the one-year anniversary funeral (aka funeral #5) for my mother-in-law was held on Saturday the 13th. Quite a number of relatives attended, but not the huge crowd that was there for the main events last year. It was a short, simple service followed by the usual placing of incense at the grave. After that was a feast at the nice, little seafood restaurant half a block from my house (at which I rarely eat for some unknown reason...perhaps the close proximity to my house). It was all rather typical, a nice family gathering despite the somber occasion, and there didn't seem to be anything unusual...except that there was.

You see, my father-in-law's rather large family is currently in the middle of a heated feud. I won't go into too much detail, but suffice to say it has to do with the way the old family homestead is divided up among the siblings now that the patriarch is long gone. For much of the past decade, the clan has been divided into two factions. One, headed up by my father-in-law, decided to do something very kind, noble, and, in my opinion, totally correct. The other, headed up by an uncle that lives up north in Sapporo, decided to be greedy and take advantage of the others' generosity for their own selfish gain. For a long time there was just a lot of quiet ill will, and the two sides weren't so clearly defined. Then, especially since the start of this year, the issue quickly became more heated and more serious. Clear sides were taken, lines were drawn, and ultimatums were issued. Now it's in litigation.

Not surprisingly, most of the members of the "other side" haven't been on speaking terms with "our side" (including my wife and I even though we're not really involved) for several years. However, one aunt who recently switched to the "other side" (and has become one of its most vehement members) showed up at the anniversary funeral on the 13th. She asked my father-in-law to provide parking for her (meaning I was asked to park my BLUE RAV4 elsewhere for the day), showed up with her husband, participated in the events as actively as a close relative should, and was all sociable with everybody like nothing was wrong. After it was all done, she said her goodbyes, hopped in her car, and went home. Meanwhile, she's in the process of suing my father-in-law and at least one uncle and one aunt who were present at the time.

Everybody is wondering how she had the nerve to show her face there. Frankly, I'm amazed her presence was even tolerated.

The Minstrel's Mood

I finally got the results back from Torecon, that home recording contest I participated in. I didn't get any awards, obviously (and almost all of the winners were of a suspiciously similar style which is different from mine). However, my instrumental "Herald of the Dawn" got quite a good score and was given judge comments that were very detailed, constructive, positive, and encouraging. The other tune I submitted, the acoustic folk song "Quite Enough", didn't do nearly as well; in fact, it was all but panned. The score wasn't really bad, but it wasn't good either. The judge was pretty direct in his criticism (which is what I wanted, anyway). He said the tune was clearly an unfinished product that had been slapped together without a whole lot of thought (which I suppose is a fairly accurate description). I promised a lot but wound up offering little; certain good ideas weren't well utilized, so they wound up going to waste. Most surprising of all was the judge's rather harsh criticism of my vocal style, which he described as "raw and colorless". He suggested that, instead of belting it out the way I did, that I try singing more controlled and musically and layer the tracks for power.

For what it's worth, I think I hear where he's coming from. The trouble is that I thought the tone and meaning of the song called for "belting it out", but whatever. Next time I'll try to keep in mind just what kind of contest it really is.

I'm actually very happy with the results. Even if "Quite Enough" didn't do so well, "Herald of the Dawn" exceeded my expectations and gave me encouragement to keep going. Besides, I think I learned a lot, which is what I hoped for when I entered the contest (and I intend to go for it next year, too).

I have also invested in some good mastering software and am currently remastering all the tunes on the Blue Taxi CD. I'll try them out on a few trusted individuals before I commit the revised versions to disk and my websites.

For more information on these and other tunes of mine, refer to my "Minstrel's Muse" site.

Day before yesterday, former fellow Ibaraki ex-pat Coleman Sensei (known more on Facebook than here) came to visit together with his wife, Kar3n. After having fun running around Kashima Shrine and driving on certain infamous roads in the Kashima area, we had dinner at Sushiro. Then they crashed at my place. The next morning (yesterday), we headed out to Mt. Tsukuba for a climb. Unlike my last visit there, it was sunny. It was bloody hot for the first part of the climb, but once we were into the forest it wasn't so bad.

Tsukuba 2009 12 the Myotaisan (female peak) summit: The little shrine, the newly-built stone rail with the names of contributors, Coleman Sensei and Kar3n examine a map post, their friend Yuko ponders a boulder.

Also unlike last time, we actually had a bit of a view from the top. It was hazy, but at least we could see out to some distance.

Tsukuba 2009 11

Tsukuba 2009 13

Perhaps the biggest problem was my son, who begged me to let him come along. Lazy slob that he is, he started moaning after the first five minutes of the climb and continued griping and holding us up with frequent stops till we got to the top. Once there, when I mentioned we were going to have lunch at a restaurant in the cleavage of the twin-peaked mountain, the word "lunch" apparently acted like Popeye's spinach with him, and he suddenly had ten times as much energy as the rest of us. He ran almost all the way to the restaurant (after having said he had "no energy left at all" in his body only ten minutes before).

Tsukuba 2009 9
My son struggles to tackle the last climb before the summit...

Tsukuba 2009 10
...and fails yet again.

Oh, well. It was worth it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

BLUE Renew

Yes, it was time to be shaken again. No, I mean SHA-KEN (車検), though "shaken" is a common way to feel during and after the process. It was time to take the BLUE RAV4 in for its mandatory vehicular inspection and all the various tune-ups, adjustments, replacement of parts, financing of fugitive Nigerian royalty, etc. that go to turn an already overpriced bureaucratic hassle into the financial equivalent of sticking your hand into a Cuisinart. Sure, it's cheaper than buying a new car, but since it's something one has to do every two years, does tend to add up.

Basically, you have to take your car to either a mechanic or a dealer. (Doing it yourself ist streng verboten.) They test your car and tune it up until they are confident it will pass the test. Then they truck it to a government testing center located on a moon of one of the gas giants (or so it would seem). If it doesn't pass, it goes back to the garage, and the whole thing gets repeated until the thing DOES pass.

My BLUE RAV4 is nine years old. That's about forty-five years old in Japanese reckoning. And naturally, the older your car, the more bloated the bill gets.

Since I knew it was going to cost a lot anyway, I decided to give my car the works and go for all the options. They really did sock it to it, too. My engine got a thorough cleaning. All the various fluids got replaced. They also replaced my fuses and spark plugs with something a bit less cheez-whizzed. A burnt-out light in my dashboard got fixed up, so now I can read all the switches on the air conditioner at night (though I'd gotten used to doing it all by feel). About the only thing that didn't get replaced was my tires (which have wound up being part of shaken in the past...much to my chagrin). I also went for the maintenance pack option, which added about a third to the price, but at least I get free tune-ups and oil/brake fluid changes at intervals until the next shaken.

One nice thing was that I got a real cool loaner for the two-day period. It was a Toyota Auris, which was apparently developed by Toyota UK as a replacement for the venerable Corolla. I got an Auris when I had my last shaken done in 2007, it was a baseline version, and I wasn't all that impressed. This time I got a brand new 2009 model with some options attached, and it was loads of fun! It's not a big car, but the interior is roomy (at the expense of cargo space), and I liked its design. The one I got was a 1500 cc model (There is also an 1800 cc version), which has a smaller engine than my RAV4, but it accelerated quickly and had nice, punchy handling. Another cool feature was that funky "smart key", the first I'd ever experienced. It never came out of my pocket. As long as it was on my person, I was able to lock and unlock the doors from outside the car with a touch, and starting and stopping the engine was done by pressing a button on the dashboard. I'm certainly not getting rid of my BLUE machine anytime soon, but the 2009 Auris was kind of fun to drive for a while. wife has been talking about getting a new car...

I also couldn't help noticing that the Pruis is on sale right now and therefore available at a substantial markdown...

Naturally, the car shop person kept reminding me that, as part of the shaken package, a new car purchase in the near future would be at a substantial discount.

Oh, well. At least I got this biannual ordeal out of the way. As usual, my car came back with noticeably less power (kind of like when one passes the DEQ inspection back home in Oregon), but it's running smoother, sounds nicer, and looks all nice and sparkly BLUE. Besides, I can read all the buttons on the dashboard for the first time in at least a couple of years!

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The End of the Storms

The last few days have been cold. When it wasn't raining, there was a thin but persistent mist in the air, soaking the body and chilling the spirit. For the past few nights we've been bombarded with an almost steady barrage of thunderstorms and torrential rains.

Yesterday morning the student of mine who has been in the hospital since April passed away. He was 12.

Even despite the weather forecast, the sun has returned. The sky is blue. A gentle breeze is keeping the humidity at bay. A strange calmness hangs over everything. Even the birds seem affected.

We had a school assembly this morning for the announcement. We had a moment of silence. Somehow it didn't seem sad. It just seemed calm...calm and warm.

So what's next? Who can tell?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Tracked Down

It's not unusual for abandoned animals to turn up in our neighborhood. In fact, six of the last seven cats kept at our place over the past seventeen years or so were ones other people had dumped off. (The one exception was Aka, who was born here.) Most of them just suddenly turned up on our property (and a few moved on after staying with us a while). A couple, including Tora, appeared at the campus of the elementary school down the street and wound up being brought home by my daughter.

Yes, my daughter has a soft spot for animals, especially cats. If she'd had her way all the time, the number of feline tenants at our place would probably have been considerably higher, and I actually had to blow the whistle on a couple. At any rate, we figured the fuzzy influx would finally drop if not end altogether when my daughter entered junior high school this year.

Dream on.

The last cat that my daughter took care of at her school was a kitten that turned up there last March. She never brought it home (thank goodness), but fed it and played with it during her last month at the elementary school. During Spring Vacation, after she graduated, she kept going back to the school to take care of it, but after a few days it simply vanished. She figured either it had run away or someone had taken it in, and it was soon forgotten.

Last Saturday, while my daughter was in her room (supposedly) doing her homework, she suddenly let out a cry. I went to see what the matter was. There, sitting on a ledge on the neighbors' property so it was just level with my daughter's bedroom window, was a youngish cat. It just sat there watching us, occasionally meowing. My daughter went outside to investigate, but it was gone. It didn't stay that way long, however. It began to come closer, little by little, as it overcame its fear, but it was clear that it was most comfortable around my daughter. That wasn't surprising since it appears to be the same cat that she was taking care of at her school last March.

I have to wonder whether this will end up being a new resident or not. Even though Tora has been fixed, and has already become a lot less aggressive as a result, there are two unneutered tomcats that lodge in our greenhouse at intervals. They are actually fairly even-tempered; in nearly every case it was Tora that picked a fight with them (and tended to get his butt kicked much if not most of the time), but they seem amazingly tolerant of the presence of other felines as well as being comfortable around humans. This new youngster actually seems a bit more on the wild side, though he's calm around my daughter. Even if he is welcomed by everyone else, however, it's questionable whether my father-in-law will put up with him; he tends to get antsy if another cat shows up...though quite often he's the one who decides to take them in after all.

(I'll try to get a pic of the new guy if I can.)

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Fading - A Japanese Soliloquoy

(NOTE: The following is NOT autobiographical, though it is based on true-to-life examples.)

When the soroban (abacus) clubs disappeared from the schools, I didn't mind. Calculators do the job better anyway.

When the hōgaku (traditional Japanese music) clubs also went away, I didn't really care. The punk rock played by the "folk rock" clubs is much more fun anyway.

When the music classes replaced kotos with recorders and harmoniums, I said fine. Kotos are bulky and expensive anyway.

When the kids started using English words as their "hip slang", I just went along with it. Kid culture never makes much sense anyway.

When the news said kids were rapidly losing the ability to speak and write their own language, I wasn't surprised. They're more interested in video games and the internet anyway.

When they held a Hyakunin-Isshu (a traditional card game from more than a thousand years ago) tournament at the school and only a few kids showed up, I said it figures. That old poetry is just boring anyway.

When they held the Torioi (an annual children's event) in our neighborhood a few years ago, and it turned out none of the kids knew the traditional song, I laughed. They should just ditch that old thing anyway.

When all the local tatami makers but one disappeared, I didn't notice. Anyone who is anyone uses carpeting anyway.

When the shops in the old town hub started shutting down, I wasn't even there. The big, one-stop supermarket down the street is so much more convenient anyway.

When they announced that yet another long-historied street market in Tokyo had been eliminated, I paid no attention. The big, multi-national shopping and entertainment districts like Shibuya and Shinjuku are a lot cooler anyway.

When the high-quality sake went undrunk at the neighborhood parties, I didn't give a damn. I was too busy drinking cheap low-malt beer anyway.

When people stopped wearing yukata (summer kimono) to the summer festivals, I was perfectly happy. Changing clothes is a pain in the butt, and I feel silly wearing those things anyway.

When people stopped having traditional boat weddings in Itako, I was not concerned. I think I'd feel stupid doing something like that anyway.

When the famous Ayame Matsuri (Iris Festival) in Itako announced that it was terminating its long-historied Yatakebi Fune (Parade Boat) event, I just laughed. People would rather stay at home and watch ball games on TV anyway.

When my neighborhood stopped holding a Bon Odori (Bon Festival dance) every year, I happily helped them throw all the gear away. That thing was such a bother, and no one gives a damn about it anymore anyway.

When the Bon Festival came around last year, I didn't bother going back to the old family homestead or visiting my family's ancestral graves. It was so much easier just to order a gift for my grandparents online anyway.

When I had a vacation, I traveled to Hawaii and Guam and stayed at Western-style tourist hotels. The old-fashioned inns at the hot spring resorts here are small and crowded with drunk, old men anyway.

When they asked me if I'm proud to be Japanese, I said of course. No other culture in the world is as rich and unique as ours anyway.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009


We finally got Tora that he's two years old! I'd been meaning to do it for the past year (Famous last words...), but everytime I tried to make an appointment something came out of the blue, forcing me to cancel it. This time my father-in-law, who has been all but adopting Tora these days, took care of it.

The last time my family in Oregon had a male cat de-stingered while I was there, the poor fuzzball was wiped out when he came back from the vet and looked miserable for a day or two afterward. In Tora's case, I came home from work only a few hours after he'd had the surgery, and he almost seemed more cheerful than usual. He even greeted me by climbing up onto a high space, vaulting onto my shoulder, and curling up there (a favorite trick of his) with his purr motor going full bore. The forced removal of his rump lumps hadn't slowed him down or darkened his mood a bit. If anything, he actually seems happier...and more affectionate.

Of course, there was also a noticeable difference in the extent of the surgery. The vet in Oregon had left the family cat more or less completely devoid of posterior decor. In Tora's case they seem to have removed only what was absolutely necessary and neatly stitched up the rest, i.e. a far less invasive procedure (but still enough to make a guy cringe).

Hopefully now Tora will stop disappearing for a few days at intervals.

2009 Tora


In other news (which is a repeat for Facebook readers), we recently had midterm exams at Ye Olde Academy. One of the tests I had to check was 11th grade English writing. The Japanese-to-English translation problems often yield some very interesting results. This time was no exception. For example, there is the student that wrote:

"She doesn't mind spending her mommy in her clothes as long as it's fashionable."

Another student, on the same problem, had this to offer:

"She doesn't mind spending her money on clothes as long as they're fissionable."
Seriously...I have to wonder what sort of Freudian hints I'm seeing here...