Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Running of Horses -or- "Yet Another Wrecked Family Outing"

Today was this year's planned outing for our local neighborhood Children's Association. The destination, which we helped plan, was Hakkeijima Sea Paradise near Yokohama. It's a really cool place that we've been to before. We wound up opting out. Instead, we hoped to make it up to my son by having a small family outing of our own.

As usual, we wound up running into snags from the start.

We'd hoped to leave in the morning, but my wife got roped into patrol duty. You see, a matsuri (festival) was due to be held at one of the shrines in town, and as usual its local elementary school was obliged to send staff to patrol the area and keep their students out of trouble. The school had assured my wife that the event was usually really short, never more than an hour, so I decided to tag along and bring the kids so we could watch the matsuri events too (and leave as soon as they were over).

I never knew that there was a "Yasaka Shrine" in town. The name connects it to a historically significant shrine in Kyoto. Today's matsuri was apparently a well-known, historically famous event that I'd never heard of. My attending it today seemed like a wonderful learning opportunity.

Yasaka Matsuri 2

The first thing we saw on arrival was a few nervous-looking horses decked out in colorful (well, one was all white) decorations bearing samurai crests. Men in traditional festival dress were getting them ready for...something.

Yasaka Matsuri 3

Not far away, they had the mikoshi (portable shrine) placed in a temporary shelter with an altar set up in front of it. A second, smaller mikoshi sat rather forlornly off to the side.

Yasaka Matsuri 5

The avenue approaching the shrine was roped off and quickly filling up with spectators. I couldn't help noticing that the side facing the lake was becoming a regular thicket of camera tripods. I overheard several people saying, "This year I'm going to get a good shot!" I guess they treat it like a competition.

Yasaka Matsuri 6

This is our local "Yasaka Shrine". It's not as big or as colorful as its namesake in Kyoto, but apparently the locals hold it in very high regard.

Yasaka Matsuri 7

A traditional taiko drum signaled the start of the events at precisely 3:00 p.m.. Things didn't get started for at least another half an hour after that. First we got to see the chigo (a boy selected as the sacred "page" of the shrine deity - although being "selected" apparently comes with a $20,000 price tag!) parade down the shrine avenue on horseback. The horse made it about halfway until it started to panic and had to be led back.

Yasaka Matsuri 9

After another wait, the high priest of the shrine performed a ceremony before the mikoshi while the black-coated shrine elders watched.

Yasaka Matsuri 11

The chigo made another brief appearance on horseback, mainly just standing near the mikoshi (apparently for a photoshoot). After he left again, men in festival clothes went around offering some of the blessed rice to the spectators to eat. (It wasn't bad at all.) Then an older man started walking along the road and up the shrine avenue sprinkling the rice in front of him as he went.

Yasaka Matsuri 13

Then a group of (rather drunk) local bruisers men (most likely the local fire brigade) gathered, waited, took hold of the yoke of the mikoshi, waited some more, got all psyched up, waited still more, and then, with an exuberant cry, hefted the mikoshi aloft and bore it around and up the avenue to the shrine.

Yasaka Matsuri 15

They were preceded by the chigo, who was on someone's shoulders rather than on horseback (and I don't know why!).

Yasaka Matsuri 16

The mikoshi team came up the avenue in the usual excited, violent fashion. As they shook the little shrine to rhythmic chants of "Washoi! Washoi!", they occasionally turned and charged aggressively into the crowd. It was fun to watch, though one attempt at a close-up shot nearly got me trampled.

Yasaka Matsuri 17

(I took this one after dusting off and recovering my wits.)

Yasaka Matsuri 18

The smaller mikoshi was brought by a team of boys who looked ages 10-13. (They offered to let my son join them. He declined.)

After a brief rest at the shrine, both mikoshi teams went out and came back again twice. Then the REAL fun began.

I wasn't able to get any good pics of what happened next, but each of the three colorfully-decorated horses was brought up the avenue toward the shrine in turn. As each came close, the mikoshi teams let out a cry which caused the horse to panic. The horse's handlers did all they could to get the horse turned around and keep it from bolting through the crowd as it left at a full gallop, one of the mikoshi teams charging hot on its tail, mikoshi in hand and chanting! (The adult team did it twice, and the boy team did it once. Unfortunately, the boy team lost control of its mikoshi halfway through the pursuit, sending half the boys tumbling and only narrowly missing having the thing land on top of them!) It was all deliciously violent!

When that was done, the horses were quickly calmed and loaded into their transport van. Then, after a brief ceremony, the mikoshi teams went out for one last circuit. (The adult team was in very high spirits. The boy team was exhausted and looked like they'd rather be at home with their PSPs.)

I quickly rounded up my group, and we ran off to my BLUE RAV4 to beat the crowds and set out on the second leg of our trip, which I'll cover in the next post.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Proof Your Daughter Is Now a Teenager - Case 378

Scene: A department store in Narita. I, Mrs. Minstrel, and Minstrette are walking through the children's wear department.
(Note: All lines except mine are translated [figuratively rather than literally] from the Japanese.)

Mrs. Minstrel: So how many new outfits do you need?
Minstrette: (Apathetic scowl) Um, I don't know.
Mrs. Minstrel: Two? Three?
Minstrette: Three.
Me: *sigh* We're gonna be here all day.
Mrs. Minstrel: Don't worry! She's easy to shop for! So, what do you think?
Minstrette: (Looks around half-heartedly) Ummm...
Mrs. Minstrel: See anything you like?
Minstrette: (Totally disinterested) Ummm...
Me: We're gonna be here all day.
Mrs. Minstrel: Don't worry! What about these? (Points to a rack)
Minstrette: (shrugs)
Mrs. Minstrel: Or these? (Points to another rack)
Minstrette: (dead silence)
Me: I think we're in trouble.
Mrs. Minstrel: Isn't there anything here that you like?
Minstrette: (Looks around, shrugs)
Me: (Points to a rack of rowdy-looking T-shirts with stupid Engrish on them)(Sarcastically) Hey, how about these?
Minstrette: (Turns toward rack, eyes light up)
Me: (chuckles)
Mrs. Minstrel: Forget it! (Glares at me)(Turns back to rack) Oh, hey! (Pulls out a pastel blue blouse) This is pretty! Isn't this nice? How about this one?
Minstrette: Yuck.
Mrs. Minstrel: But look at it! It's so pretty!
Minstrette: Yuck.
Mrs. Minstrel: Come here! (Holds the blouse against Minstrette) Oh, how cute!
Minstrette: No thanks.
Me: That does suit you.
Minstrette: No thanks.
Mrs. Minstrel: What's wrong with it?
Minstrette: No thanks.
Mrs. Minstrel: (Sighs, puts blouse back, picks out an off-white one of a different design) How about this one? This one's nice, isn't it?
Minstrette: Yuck.
Mrs. Minstrel: But you have one that looks a lot like it, and I see you wearing it all the time!
Minstrette: That's why I don't like it.
Mrs. Minstrel: (Sighs even louder, pulls out yet another item) How about this one?
Minstrette: (ponders) Umm...
Mrs. Minstrel: Oh, come on! There's nothing wrong with this!
Minstrette: (not convinced) Umm...
Me: Alright, what do you want?
Minstrette: (Marches straight to the rowdy Engrish T-shirts, picks up a black one with "Love Me" spelled out with vinyl transfers that are apparently meant to look like studs) This'll do.
Me: We're in trouble.
Mrs. Minstrel: No way!
Minstrette: This'll do.
Mrs. Minstrel: That looks so dumb!
Minstrette: But it's so cool!
Me: (shrugs) At least the English on that one makes sense!
Mrs. Minstrel: (Gives me a look that would melt brass, picks up the pastel blue blouse again) But this one is so pretty! It would look so much nicer on you than...that!
Minstrette: Yuck.
Me: Do your friends wear stuff like that?
Minstrette: (pause) No.
Me: What do they usually wear?
Minstrette: (Pauses again, then points reluctantly to the rack of blouses next to her mother)
Mrs. Minstrel: (triumphant) You see? (grabs both the pastel blue and off-white blouses) These suit you better! Why don't I get you both of these...
Minstrette: I want this! (Holds up the black "Love me" T-shirt)
Me: Do you think you're going to be able to wear that everywhere?
Minstrette: (Deflates like a punctured water balloon)
Me: Alright, why don't we get her that plus one of the blouses?
Mrs. Minstrel: (sigh of defeat) Alright. (Holds up the pastel blue blouse) Is this okay, then?
Minstrette: (Thinks a moment, then grabs the off-white blouse and hands it to her mother with the black T-shirt) These'll do.
Mrs. Minstrel: (Starts to put the pastel blue blouse back, then tries again) Are you sure you...?
Minstrette: Yuck.
Me: (chuckles) Our daughter the metalhead!
Minstrette: What? Heavy metal? Yuck! But this shirt is cool. Black is cool! Black with...AH! (Turns and runs to another rack, pulls out an Elmo T-shirt) ELMO!!!! Elmo is SO CUTE!!!!!
Mrs. Minstrel: Yuck.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The First of the Next (2009)

Now that the BLUE TAXI CD is done (though not quite yet in circulation), I can put my muse to other things. Actually, I've just completed a new one. It's called "Matching Smiles", and it was inspired by a beautiful story I've had the pleasure of watching unfold in the life of one of my online friends.

I tried following the advice I got from the recent contest, particularly with the vocals. Instead of belting it out, I sang "gently" and stacked it. I used a fattener effect only on the main vocal track. I'm not sure how satisfied I am with it...mainly because my voice just keeps getting worse thanks to my persistent throat trouble. I also tried some different mastering techniques for tone and level.

This song is also notable in that all the synth parts except the drums were done using software rather than hardware synths. Details on this and other things can be found on my Minstrel's Muse site.

Please listen and give me your comments!

UPDATE: Now that I know she won't mind my mentioning this publicly (Sorry...I'm still reeling from that privacy issue with my blog two years ago), I'd like to say that the song is about the recent ongoing odyssey and romance of blog friend Olivia. (Specifically, it was inspired by the pics of her and her Jeff smiling together on this post.)

(Did I just hear a blush?)

Anyway, as it turns out, the timing of this song probably couldn't have been worse (or better?) because Olivia and her family have been struck with tragedy. Her mother has just been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (commonly known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in the US, the best-known form of which is Lou Gehrig's Disease). Olivia has always seemed to have a knack for keeping her cool at the worst of times, but I know how hard this must be, especially after having gone through my mother-in-law's cancer and death in recent years.

Best wishes, Olivia!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ah, So...!(?)

Wow...I'm getting SERIOUSLY negligent with this blog. Posts are getting fewer and further between. Then again, I haven't really had much to talk about. Summer "vacation" (brief, spasmodic laughing fit) is only a few days away, so things might change.

One can only hope.

The only really notable news item around here right now (other than North Korea, but I'll give that a miss) is happening in the political scene. They just finished the elections for the Tokyo Metropolitan government, which are widely seen as an indicator for the upcoming Lower House election. The results weren't really surprising, but they are still something of a shock...and a cause for some worry.

For the overwhelming majority of Japan's history since the end of the Second World War, the government here has been in the hands of the horribly-misnamed Jiminto (henceforth LDP, literally "Liberal Democratic Party", though it would actually be far more accurate to call it the CCOP [Conservative Corporate Oligarch Party]). During the past decade, the LDP's hold on Tokyo has been made possible partly by a coalition with Komeito (usually called the "Komei Party" in English, a political/religious party established by the Soka Gakkai lay Buddhist organization). For as long as I've been keeping tabs on news in Japan, I've only seen the LDP thumped out of power once. That was back in the mid 90s, when a couple of splinter groups of the LDP broke away, formed their own parties, allied with the Socialist and Democratic parties, and took over control. They didn't hold it very long until the LDP-Komei alliance clawed its way back into power again.

Well, if this recent election in Tokyo is any hint of things to come, the LDP is on the verge of being given the boot again. Both it and Komei were solidly trounced by Minshuto (henceforth DPJ, "Democratic Party of Japan", which could probably be called the "new liberal party"). It seems that people are fed up with Prime Minister Aso as well as with all the ridiculous scandals breaking out among his cabinet members, his confusing policies, and his lack of visible effort with regard to the economy. In fact, it would probably be fair to say that people are simply fed up with the factionalism, cronyism, and "Who cares about the general public?" elitism of the LDP. On the other hand, the "We are the people" line of the DPJ seems to be striking an increasingly positive note among a worried and neglected population.

As for me, I'd be perfectly happy to see those corporate elitists of the LDP tossed off the bench. However, on the other hand, I admit I'm not sure I'd be happy to see a DPJ-led government. They do seem to have some savvy politicians in their fold. The problem is their official platform. If you read their official policies listed on their (English) website, they do sound very rational. Unfortunately, it doesn't always mesh exactly with what their ministers in the Diet have been saying or what tends to pop up in their election manifestos. There has been a lot of flowery demagoguery but not a lot of rational thought. There's plenty that sounds really nice and probably would be if reality didn't keep getting in the way. Some examples include:
  • Giving the central government the right to intervene in local public works while at the same time claiming to support decentralization.
  • Giving individual localities authority over their own educational programs, yet asserting the central government's power to impose absolute educational policies and standards. (In other words, "You all have the right to do everything your long as it's our way.")
  • Terminating all further participation by the Japan Self-Defense Force in peacekeeping or escort operations under a UN mandate. The DPJ believes that, since Japan is a "peaceful country", they should make no effort to defend the peace beyond diplomacy. They figure they can solve all their problems with antagonists like militant religious fundamentalists, the Somali pirates, or North Korea by being "nice" and talking to them.
  • Reducing if not eliminating the American military presence in Japan.
  • Reducing taxes while at the same time vastly increasing social and development programs (i.e. more expenditures, less funding to cover them).
The thing that really has me worried, however, is the DPJ's recently-stated aim of making public senior high school 100% free. Senior high school in Japan is non-compulsory, and each school has its own unique program based on a particular academic level and/or specialized curriculum. Students choose schools that fit their individual abilities and interests. Admission is not automatic and usually requires passing an entrance exam. Since they are public schools and therefore funded for the most part by the state, tuition and fees are low (considerably lower than for private schools) but not free except in extreme cases. So what's the problem? Well, the strict, universal standards already enforced by the LDP-Komei government have reduced the differences between public and private schools. The DPJ wants to bring about even stricter standardization (while supposedly espousing decentralization). Basically, if the DPJ has its way, there will be no difference between public and private schools except cost (and perhaps admission standards). That's almost guaranteed to wipe out the clientele.

Ye Olde Academy, the school where I work, still has the highest academic standards (and best extracurricular opportunities) of all the schools in our area. However, it's still all we can do to compete with some of the recently-upgraded public senior high schools with high-level academic programs. If those schools wind up being free to boot, we can pretty much kiss our admissions goodbye. And if all kids wind up going to public schools, and the private schools all end up shuttered, it means the choices and alternatives that we do offer will be taken away. If the DPJ believes in individual freedom as much as they claim, why do they seem to be trying so hard to remove choices...and impose its own will?

I hate politics...

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Naw, On Second Thought...

I decided I wasn't quite satisfied with the overall sound of my latest homegrown CD, Blue Taxi. Acting on the advice of a couple of friends of mine who are also home recording artists, I invested in some good mastering software and went over all the tunes again. There were a few that I thought sounded pretty good as they were, so I just boosted their volume level a bit. Most of the tunes, however, got re-equalized in various ways and were given a bit of compressor/limiter treatment to shave off some of the more anomalous peaks before having their level boosted.

I think the album sounds a lot better overall, but as always I'm hoping to get some feedback (as in comments from listeners!). I replaced the mp3 samples I have posted online with new ones ripped from the remastered CD. Details of the tunes are still on my Minstrel's Muse site, but here are quick links:

Herald of the Dawn (the song that got a good score and excellent comments at the recording contest)
Blue Taxi
Secret Identity
Quite Enough (the song that got a so-so score and a polite ripping apart at the recording contest)
Intelligent Evolution

(No, these mp3s don't sound quite as good as the original files, but they're close enough. Please tell me what you think.)