Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Summer Trip 2009: Part Two

The next morning we got up bright and early and hit the buffet again (...hard). Then we went ahead and checked out. We wanted to get an early start, not because we intended to spend the whole day having fun, but because we were on a mission of sorts. You see, my wife's one remaining grandparent, her 90+-year-old grandmother in Tokyo, is still mentally sharp as a tack, but her physical body has declined rapidly over the past year. She still lives at home, looked after by one of her sons, but he himself miraculously recovered from lung cancer about eight years ago and isn't exactly in the best of health. He also isn't the tidiest person in the world. When we went to visit them last January, we found them essentially living in a house full of garbage under a thick layer of dust. We spent almost the full day cleaning (over their loud protests). Now that half a year had passed, we figured it would be best to do the same thing again.

Part One - Shopping

There was a problem, however; my wife realized that we had set out on our trip without our cleaning supplies, so a shopping stop was in order. It was still early in the morning, so most regular stores were still closed, but after a bit of nosing around in Kisarazu I saw the sign for a Jusco shopping center and headed in its direction. The parking lot appeared to be designed to deter outsiders; you couldn't realistically enter it from the main road during times of busy traffic, but luckily it was fairly early on a Sunday morning. I was able to turn across the main road and pull in without getting blocked.

The Jusco department store section and the satellite stores (including a Subway, unfortunately) were all closed, but the supermarket section was open. We were able to go in and fill a cart up with all manner of dusters, wipes, and cleansers...and draw some stares. My wife's "quick" pit stop also gave my son time to hit the toy/gum machine row and get yet another little model robot (to get left on the floor and stepped on). Meanwhile, while I stayed near the store entrance waiting for my party to come back, I managed to give a store security guard a chance to think he was surreptitiously keeping an eye on me, though his hovering about was about as inconspicuous as a helicopter gunship. I gave him a quick smile as we left. Naturally, he pretended not to notice.

Part Two - The Aqua-Line

It wasn't long before we were back on the expressway network, but instead of heading back to Ibaraki I aimed my nose toward the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line, the half-tunnel/half-bridge route that crosses Tokyo Bay between Kisarazu and Kawasaki.

I know I've posted about the Aqua-Line before, but I can't seem to find any of it. I've been on it a number of times, and I never fail to stop at Umi-Hotaru, the little rest stop on the man-made-island where the bridge and tunnel meet. Other than the engineering feat itself, I always thought the most notable feature of the Aqua-Line was the fact that people didn't use it much. You see, despite all the hype and all the hope that the Aqua-Line would help relieve some of the bloated congestion on the Tokyo highway system, it had one serious problem: a ridiculously high toll. It cost about 3100 yen (about $32 at the current exchange rate) one way in addition to the fares of the expressways getting to and from it. It was far cheaper to take the long way around, so most people did. The Aqua-Line wound up being mainly just a tourist that was losing money at an alarming rate.

Enter the government with its ongoing drive to encourage people to buy ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) machines for their cars. All of the expressways currently have special, changing discounts for cars using ETC. Well, this summer someone managed to put through the idea of reducing the Aqua-Line toll from 3100 yen to 900 yen for ETC-equipped cars. I think you can guess the result. Traffic has gone up by around a factor of ten, and the Umi-Hotaru rest stop has been consistently packed. The Aqua-Line is now turning the first profit since its opening. And since I now have ETC in my car, I was perfectly happy to offer my contribution. Naturally, we stopped on Umi-Hotaru, and I was surprised at how easy it was to find a parking spot despite the crowds.

Umihotaru 1

It was turning into a rather hot and muggy day, which kept the crowds inside the shops. That at least meant that the observation deck on the Tokyo side was relatively empty.

Umihotaru 2

Turning around a hundred and eighty degrees from the first shot, you can actually see all that water surrounding the Umi-Hotaru island. Of course, it's hard to smile for a picture when the sun is glaring balefully right in your eyes.

After doing some obligatory souvenir shopping, we got back into the BLUE RAV4 and went through the several-kilometer tunnel that is the Tokyo side of the Aqua-Line. Soon we were just another ant packed into the "expressway" network in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area, but only for a little while. After that we were nosing our way around the various veins and capillaries of the city itself.

One problem with driving in Tokyo is all those winding, one-way roads, divided parkways, and non-euclidean street layouts that don't make a damned bit of sense. You might as well try driving in R'lyeh. (Godzilla fhtagn!) If you miss your turn-off, chances are you'll spend the next half hour fumbling about trying either to get back onto the same street pointed in the opposite direction or go around the block and try it again (assuming you're even still in the same dimension). That's exactly what happened to us. Somehow I went past our usual, little pay parking area without noticing it, and my windows were all frosted up from my yelling (and the rest of my family about ready to throttle me) by the time I managed to come back again for another go. I got it right on the second try, so we were finally lugging our payload of gifts and cleansers through the muggy streets of residential Tokyo.

Our visit was unannounced, and I said through the doorbell PA that we were Takkyubin (the Japanese equivalent of UPS package delivery service). That brought my wife's uncle to the door immediately. They weren't disappointed to learn the truth. We chatted only briefly before setting to work. This time the protests weren't quite so heated, and the the mess, though still pretty nasty, wasn't nearly as bad as before. My uncle-in-law still had trouble dealing with the concept of a man (i.e. me) doing housecleaning, and my explanation that we always do housework as a family team simply didn't compute, but they were pretty happy when I left their bathroom a completely different color from before.

At one point I heard what sounded like a little girl shrieking in horror. Actually, it was my son. He'd uncovered a whole nation of cockroaches under a pile of boxes. We weren't sure whether to laugh or sigh, so we did both.

We did what we could within the span of a couple of hours. Then we had a spot of lunch, tidied up a bit, and then got ready to leave. As we did so, my wife's grandmother insisted on giving the kids gift the tune of 10,000 yen (about $110 at the current exchange rate) each.

We couldn't possibly accept it. My wife's grandmother and uncle are living off the grandmother's savings and meager pension. Add to that the increasingly expensive medical care and the cost of the house-calling nurse that stops by from time to time. They may not be desperate now, but they could wind up that way at any time. We knew the kids wanted the money, but we (secretly) explained the situation to them, and they seemed to understand. Promising to make it up to them by buying something nice for them later, we hid the money in one of the gift bags we'd brought and took our leave.

Part Three - More Shopping

We decided to take a little detour on the way back. My wife had decided along the way that she wanted to have a barbecue party at our house in a couple of days. We'd planned to have one last year, and I'd already sent out feelers to some of my friends, but it wound up not happening. This time we hoped to see it through, though at such short notice the only guests looking to come were some acquaintances of my wife (who she'd already invited). So where did we go to get the barbecue fixin's? Where else? COSTCO!!!!! (Cheesy but powerful fanfare)
Of course, it being Sunday afternoon, the place was packed solid. It was also the last day of a special sale on certain food items, so the produce and meat sections were like a Tokyo gridlock. I'm chronically allergic to crowds, even despite living in Japan, so after only a few minutes of clawing, biting, and cart-slamming my way to get anywhere I started getting really irritated. Fortunately, my wife knew what she wanted, so we were able to grab what we needed on the fly and beat a retreat. I'd hoped to make a stop at Carrefour after that, but we bagged that, headed for home, and made a stop at our local Apita shopping mall instead.

The main reason we went to Apita was for the kids. Since we hadn't let them keep the 10,000 yen they'd each gotten from their great grandmother in Tokyo, we first gave them some free play time and then let them pick out something for us to buy for them. Not surprisingly, my son chose a game cartridge for his Nintendo DS (cost just under 6000 yen). My daughter got a couple of "cool" outfits on sale at a young women's fashion boutique (total cost around 4000 yen). Then, tired and happy, we went home, had a quick dinner, and settled down for what we hoped would be a relaxing evening.

Part Four - The Bombshell

(This part has been re-edited by request.)

You might recall that, in part one of this two-part blog post, I mentioned that one point of the trip was to try to mend ties. Unfortunately, things have been kind of strained in my family over the past year or two, and it isn't just because of my father-in-law. There have been issues. There have been incidents.

I probably shouldn't go into too much detail about what had happened before the trip, but it involved a considerable amount of money stolen from my that was supposed to go toward the Shin-bon observances for my mother-in-law. Basically, one kid had stolen the money and made it look like the other kid had done it, compounding already existing issues. We found out the truth later, but only after the wrong person had gotten into a lot of trouble. Things stayed pretty tense in the house after that. I made an effort to talk to the kids to find out how we could patch things up, and it was from that conversation that we'd come up with the plan for the Boso trip. As warm and happy as things seemed to be after that, I was fully convinced that it had all been a success.

But then the phone rang. It was my wife's uncle in Tokyo. He'd found the money for the kids that we'd returned. However...there was only one. That meant one of the two kids had secretly pocketed his or her share. Both denied it, of course, but I wound up catching the culprit red handed as the money was being hidden behind a desk. Things got pretty ugly, but when the explanations finally came, things just got complicated.

Things are better now between our family members than they were before, but now there are new issues to deal with. That'll have to wait till another season, because summer is done.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Summer Trip 2009: Part One

Well, after summer seminars, music camp, and my mother-in-law's Shin-bon, my family finally managed to find itself with a bit of free time. To make matters better, my wife's school district gave her four full days off from work for "Refresh Vacation" time. It was a perfect opportunity for my family to get away from it all and spend a few days unwinding and mending ties.

Which naturally meant it wasn't going to happen.

Unfortunately, that little speck of a holiday wound up getting caught between my August work schedule and my daughter's handball club. We'd talked about going to Hokkaido, Gifu Prefecture, or the Shikoku area for a few days. That wound up crashing in flames. In the end, we settled on a much less ambitious, one-night trip down to the Boso Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture.

So we left fairly early in the morning on Saturday, August 22nd. First we went straight to our hotel to have a look at it and confirm its location. Since check-in wasn't till later in the afternoon, we decided to keep heading down the peninsula to explore. I'd once been to a summer music training camp down there, and while it was without a doubt one of the worst summer music camps I've experienced, I remembered that the area was really nice. I thought it would be nice to check it out again...if I could find it. I remembered that one of the sightseeing spots was near a cape, so when my navigation system pointed out the Futtsu Park located on Cape Futtsu (pronounced "foo-tsoo" with a stop in the middle), I figured that was it.

Futtsu Park 1

It wasn't, but it was still worth it to get out of my BLUE RAV4 for a bit and walk around. We didn't go all the way out to the tip of the cape, but we found what was apparently an old castle ruin surrounded by a moat, and it's now a wildlife refuge.

Futtsu Park 2

It's hard to see in this cell phone pic, but the trees were full of colorful sea birds we'd never seen before.

Getting back in the car, I scanned around on navi-chan a bit more, and I saw that the Tokyo-Wan Kannon was only a little further south. I remembered seeing it from a distance when I'd gone to that camp, so I figured now was a good time to check it out. A drive on a narrow, curvy road finally revealed:

Tokyo Bay Kannon 1

Built in 1961, it was the tallest free-standing Buddhist image in Japan until the Ushiku Daibutsu was completed in 1995. Still, at 56 meters it's no mean idol! It was really hot and muggy by then, but after a bit of a squabble we finally decided to try climbing the 324 steps to the top. My son, ever the lazy coward, wimped out and started squealing by the time we'd gotten to the 4th of 21 levels, so we sent him back. The rest of us continued to the view decks up in the head.

Tokyo Bay Kannon 3

There was quite a view from up there, even with the hot mist!

One thing that was fascinating about the Tokyo-Wan Kannon was that each of its levels plus the main stairway itself housed several carved wooden Buddhist sculptures, each apparently made by the same man who'd designed the big statue itself. Naturally, each image was accompanied by a small offering box. I went ahead and popped a coin into the box for Benzaiten, the goddess of everything that flows, including water, words, ideas, and music (i.e. a woman after my own heart!). However, when I was near the top, one of the last images was another spiritually significant woman who I would never have expected to find in a Buddhist sanctuary: the Virgin Mary, holding a baby Jesus! Her offering box even bore a cross! (Actually, that's really not so surprising. A Buddhist nun in Taiwan once told me that Buddhism believes all faiths to be one. I've also heard from more than one Buddhist that they believe Christ and Buddha to be one and the same, a single being in different incarnations, sent from Heaven for the same reasons. I guess that qualifies Mary to be a Bodhisattva [saint/angel] in Buddhist tradition as she is in many Christian denominations!)

Tokyo Bay Kannon 5

It was pretty windy up there, in any case!

After we went down and collected my slob son, we decided it was time to seek gastric enlightenment, i.e. lunch. There we didn't seem to be having much success. I continued down the coast, and while we passed a number of small and kind of questionable-looking noodle shops, there wasn't anything that really caught our eye. Then, when we were on the verge of giving up and looking for a 7-11, we stumbled on what appeared to be some kind of tourist trap roadside resort complex. It included a small hot spring bath/spa complex, gift shops, and a restaurant. It also seemed to be rather busy. We figured it was worth a try.

Kanaya resort

Actually, it turned out to be a nice bit of serendipity. The restaurant was very simple, being more or less a big, roofed deck right above and open to surf-pounded rocks. However, it was very busy, and with good reason. The seafood fare was all locally-caught and kept in tanks right there in the restaurant, i.e. everything was about as fresh as it gets! I went with one of their recommended mixed plates, which included sashimi, shrimp tempura, and scallops, and everything was great. Even the asari (clam) soup, a staple generally taken for granted, was good enough to merit special notice. The prices, while not really cheap, were still reasonable. After lunch, we went down to the rocks below the deck of the restaurant and played in the tidepools for a while before heading back to the BLUE RAV4.

I pressed on south for a while so we could take in the unique scenery and character of the South Boso area (even running into a festival parade at one point) before we decided it was time to go back north, where our hotel was waiting.

Ryugujo Hotel 1

We stayed at the giant Ryugujo Hotel Mikazuki in Kisarazu. There are three hotels in Chiba Prefecture bearing that moniker, taken from a legendary sea castle, and all of them are big, fancy, and very famous. The accommodations only account for a small part of the complex, which includes a spa/resort building with a massive pool area and hot spring bath facilities plus convention and event halls. Almost more of a theme park than a hotel, I'd definitely say it was crafted with families in mind.

Ryugujo Hotel 4

This was the view from our room, which was on the ground floor. The palm trees are actually masking the outdoor part of the sprawling pool facilities. Naturally, the kids wanted to head there immediately, and my wife went with them. As for me, however, I suddenly felt an attack of apathy. Not only was I feeling a bit burned out, but the thought of being out in that big, CROWDED pool complex surrounded by people who would be staring and pointing at me sounded about as appealing as a root canal, so I opted to stay in my room, read a bit, and take a nice, long nap. That was probably better for me anyway.

Ryugujo Hotel 3

I still went ahead and put on a yukata (light cotton kimono) with the others after they came back. That is, after all, the tradition at a spa resort.

The next big event was eating. Dinner and breakfast were both buffet style. My wife wasn't too enthusiastic about that; buffet-style meals rarely seem to be all that impressive. We were pleasantly surprised. Having to elbow our way through crowds to get anything wasn't fun, but some of the dishes they served were good enough to merit multiple trips.

Ryugujou Hotel 7

I don't know how many trips my son took back to the buffet, but he probably got the high score in terms of quantity in the end. (No, the beer is MINE!)

Ryugujou Hotel 8

Not that his sister didn't give him plenty of competition!

Ryugujou Hotel 6

As for me, I was a good boy...during the first round. Then my appetite finally woke up, and my superego got taken down. I think I went back and loaded up my plate five or six times...

After dinner we did something my daughter had requested and had been looking forward to for over a year: our playing the Game of Life (a la Milton Bradley, now part of Hasbro) as a family. We'd promised to do so during our New Year trip to Yokohama in 2008, wound up not, and then had failed to keep our promise throughout the ensuing year and a half. I hadn't known it, but apparently my daughter had been very upset about it. Now was our chance to rectify that. My wife was reluctant at first, not being a fan of games, but she wound up enjoying ourselves. It was certainly no big deal, but it clearly meant a lot to my daughter.

Everybody started dropping off to sleep after that, but I was still wide awake (probably thanks to my afternoon siesta), so I went over to the spa section. All of the facilities were supposed to be in full swing till eleven, but I went into the hot spring bath facility at about 10:45 to find the towel counter unmanned (so I just grabbed a couple of towels from the pile), the outdoor bath locked, and the famous gold bath shut down. There were still all kinds of funky baths and jet pools to enjoy, but I still felt a bit short-changed.

I don't know why, but hot-spring baths tend to make me feel all pumped up and full of energy...almost too much energy. I remember visiting a natural hot-spring bath over in Niigata once, and I was left so quiveringly energized that I had to run around the block a couple times afterward to calm down. This one didn't overload my batteries quite so much, but I still felt weirdly wired and unable to concentrate as I made my way back to the hotel building and my room...mistaking almost every turn. One poor trio of girls that shared my route apparently got unnerved by my frequent wandering off in a different direction and then stomping back in a huff, the youngest of the three finally whispering anxiously, "You know, I really hate that guy!" I'm sure my stringy-wet hair hanging limply in my face (Yes, I need a haircut!) probably didn't help matters. Still, I made it back to the room, had a cold drink, washed my hair, and went to bed.

Naturally, it was too cold with the air conditioner on and too hot with it off. I didn't sleep all that well.

(To be continued...)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Summer Muse 2009

I wasn't able to spend nearly as much time in my studio as I would have liked this summer, and the reasons are obvious. I have completed two new tunes, however. Both of them are instrumentals, which is not my usual fare, but I seem to be doing those more and more lately, so it might be my new direction. Both were also conceived and begun at the computer and then fleshed out in the studio.

"Per'anai", both eerie and wild, was inspired by a character in my Impasse sci-fi/fantasy setting, a priestess who is benign but mysterious...and has an edge to her character. I composed this tune entirely at home.

"No More Coffee" was initially created while I was away at the music club training camp. I'd only had 3-4 hours of sleep the night before (as with every night there), but the coffee supply had already been torpedoed before I'd gotten there. Sitting in the hotel lobby feeling half dead and half ready to go out and stomp on kittens wasn't the best of times to listen to a 7th grader practicing the bassoon. I oozed back to my room and started this very moody and silly piece.

Both tunes can be listened to using the player in the sidebar on the right. Listen as much and as often as you like, and feel free both to access my ReverbNation profile page and sign up as a fan! (Shameless plug...) More details are also available on my Minstrel's Muse site.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Welcoming a Reborn Spirit

Obon, or simply Bon (pronounced like "[oh-]bone"), is a Japanese Buddhist festival which has been celebrated in Japan since at least the 15th century. Thanks to mass confusion following the switch to the solar calendar, the date of the observance varies according to location. The Tokyo-Yokohama Metropolitan Area and parts of northern Honshu traditionally observe it around July 15th. Some scattered locations maintain the original lunar calendar date (15th day of the 7th lunar month), and thus the modern calendar date changes every year. However, in modern times the officially-accepted date of the Obon Festival is the three-day period from August 13th to 15th. It is a holiday season, and most people take the time off to return to their old family homestead to participate.

It is believed that, during the Obon period, the spirits of deceased ancestors return to the family homestead to visit their living descendents. Therefore, the traditional observance starts with family members visiting the family graves to pay homage to them and then, after returning home, lighting a ritual fire to guide the spirits home. Visiting members of the extended family will have a banquet at the old homestead, during which time the household butsudan (Buddhist altar) is shuttered to acknowledge the fact that the spirits are also there participating in the festivities. It is also common for communities to have traditional observances such as Bon dances.

Obon takes on a special significance if a household has a member who has been dead for one full year. Buddhist tradition in Japan apparently believes that a spirit becomes fully developed (for lack of a better term) one year after death occurs. Therefore, the first Obon after the one-year anniversary of the passing marks the first visit of the reborn spirit. It is called "Shinbon" (新盆 lit. "New Obon"), and it is a major event...almost like yet another funeral.

This year was the Shinbon for my mother-in-law, who died last year. Not surprisingly, it was a big event that took a lot of preparation. I usually look forward to Obon, but this year I dreaded having to put up even more than usual with my father-in-law going totally jittery, bossing us around constantly as if we were his personal servants, expecting us to drop our own lives whenever he had another passing whim, saying one thing and meaning another, going three-stage ballistic whenever something he wanted wasn't there in front of his face, constantly forgetting which way was up, and generally being a total arsewhole. He didn't fail to deliver. My wife and I tore into the horrendously extensive preparations with plenty of zest, and his house and yard are probably cleaner and in better condition now than they've been in decades, but we were seriously close to throttling him by the time the starting date finally arrived.

As with my mother-in-law's death and complex funeral observances, my father-in-law's house had to be rearranged. One room was designated as the room for paying homage to my mother-in-law. The funeral parlor we've been contracted with for the past year helped set up a beautiful altar:

Altar - daytime

This is the way it normally appeared during the day. The traditional Obon lanterns, of old-style design but with rotating, colored lights, were leased or bought by different individuals or groups. Normally my father-in-law only turned on a few of them at a time.

Altar - nighttime

This is the way it appeared in the evening with the overhead lamp turned off and all the lanterns lit. Although the scope of the camera is limited, the room was also hung all around with Buddhist images as well as calligraphy scrolls my mother-in-law had made in a seminar she'd attended during the last decade of her life.

The guests knelt on a cushion in front of the altar, placed incense sticks in the white burner pot in the foreground, prayed, and left a gift and/or money.

Family lantern

Guests coming in through the back door, as we hoped, were greeted by this hanging lantern emblazoned with my in-laws' surname.

My father-in-law told us that the observance would be on the 13th and 14th. The 13th was to be for general guests, and the 14th was to be mainly for relatives. For the most part that's exactly what it was. We spent all day on the 13th the way we had during the funeral period, i.e. constantly greeting guests at the door (by prostrating ourselves), leading them in, watching while seated in a seiza position (i.e. sitting on our ankles) as they placed incense and prayed at the altar, serving them food and drink at the table (which they rarely touched), and chatting with them at least until the arrival of the next guest gave them an excuse to leave! The 14th was mostly the same, but the overwhelming majority of the visitors were relatives, so they stayed longer, ate a bit more (i.e. they actually ate one or two bites), and had us bring out the beer and sake.

One old man, my wife's great uncle, had a few glasses of sake and then suddenly started declaring to me quite passionately that Japan was going to defeat the United States. Pressed for an explanation by his neighbors, he went on to say that his military unit was poised and ready to kick the asses of "ignorant, weak" American soldiers like me if we dared land on Japan's beaches. The others tried to get him to calm down, apologizing to me like crazy, but the old man (who is someone I've always liked) was on a roll. He seemed really excited and happy as he shook my hand and told me over and over again that I was a good person, but his military unit was going to smash us if and when we invaded. Not wanting to burst his bubble, I went along with it. Finally, the others present decided laughingly that they were all members of the same troop, poised and ready to fight, and I was their prisoner. On that note, I helped walk the very drunk, old man home and told the others they didn't need to apologize. A farmer in the rural outback, he'd probably never had a chance to say things like that to a real, live American before. He looked happy, so no harm done. Besides, I'm sure his unit really had been poised, proud and ready to kick ass all those years ago. We can be thankful it never came to that (though I will NOT welcome statements trying to justify the atomic bombings).

My FIL originally said that everything would end on the 14th, but true to form he suddenly declared that he had invited a number of people to come on the 15th. That meant abandoning our plans so we could be on standby. My wife was furious, but luckily the invited guests came in two groups at predetermined times. There was also one unexpected guest, but only one. That made things a lot easier. After that, we had a bit of a party to celebrate the end of it all. Then my FIL demanded that we remain on standby on the 16th too just in case. My wife and I were ready to tell him he was full of it but, wouldn't you know it, one guest did show up in the morning.

When my wife's grandfather, the one who lived in this house, died about twenty years ago, more than a hundred and fifty guests showed up for his Shinbon. Since over three hundred had attended my mother-in-law's funeral, we banked on at least that many coming for her Shinbon. As it turned out, the number of visitors was less than a hundred. That meant we had a lot of gifts left over...and a LOT of food. Sushi in particular had been ordered by my FIL in abundance on each of the 13th, 14th, and 15th, but hardly any of the guests touched it. That meant that we had sushi for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks on all three of those days plus the 16th before the last batch went rank and wound up in the garbage. I normally love sushi, but the mere sight of it was enough to twist my gut by the third day. Of course, we also wound up with plenty of leftover beer, and my FIL doesn't drink, so I shan't complain.

At least from now it's regular Obon every year until the next family member is lost. Let's hope that won't be for a long time.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Not Just Another Contest

It's August, therefore it's time for the Ibaraki Prefecture championships for the All-Japan Concert Band Contest. (Punchy, brassy fanfare with a muffled squawk in the clarinets.)

The Ye Olde Academy concert band has made it to the prefectural level almost every year since I've come on board, the two exceptions being years we didn't participate for some reason. During that time we've seen some ups and downs, but since 2004 we've generally done well, taking a gold medal (i.e. top eight out of twenty-five or so) most times and even being picked to go on to the East Kanto Block championships twice. Even so, the level of competition is intense, and the best overall place we ever managed was third.

This year has been kind of an off year for our music program, and the concert band is no exception, yet they've been in reasonably good shape. The tune we picked to perform at the competition was unusual; instead of the modern, dissonant tunes favored by most powerhouse bands, we did a medley of old English folk songs! I like the piece a lot, but there were some problems with it during our summer training camp, and our guest clinicians were pulling their hair. The kids just weren't doing it well enough. There were also a lot of major issues with the conducting.

Since 2004, the concert band has been Mr. Karatsu's baby, and Mssr. Maestro Ogawa has maintained a standing request that I keep my hands off of it (saying he doesn't want me to step on Mr. Karatsu's toes). The problem is that, while Mr. Karatsu is popular among the students and coaches in a way that is very easy to understand, his conducting style is very simple. He is, after all, a math teacher, and his approach is very logical and formulaic. The guest clinicians have a problem with that. At this year's training camp, though I observed Mr. Ogawa's policy and stayed away from all the rehearsals except the last one, the guest clinicians were particularly hard on Mr. Karatsu, even to the point of humiliating him in front of the students. I felt bad for him, but he definitely seemed to improve.

Cut to the contest date. Normally Mssr. Maestro Ogawa, as the chief director of the music program, would accompany Mr. Karatsu and the concert band to the event, but since Mssr. Ogawa had a full schedule, he asked me to go instead. That's always a bit awkward, since I have very little contact with the concert band till then, but I'm usually happy to go, and this time was no different. I was even asked to help out a bit during the last, pre-contest rehearsals.

The rehearsals went well, but there were still a number of minor problems to pounce on and try to adjust at the last minute. I figured the kids could at least earn one of the silver medals, but I wasn't sure if they were quite at gold quality considering what they were up against. The performance itself, on the other hand, was very well done. It wasn't perfect, to be sure, but the kids nailed it quite well. The solo and small ensemble bits went particularly well. All in all, I thought we had a good crack at a gold medal if nothing else.

During the final awards ceremony, the seven judges were introduced. One of them was one of our longtime regular guest clinicians, a horn instructor, but we hadn't seen him all year (because he was a judge at this event). The judges were then sent off before the awards were announced. As he rose to leave with the others, our usual horn instructor looked down at our group, who were massed in the first three rows of the cavernous hall, and gave us a very deliberate smile. At the time we figured it was aimed at our horn section, who'd given us an almost spotless performance.

We were delighted at the gold medal announcement but not totally surprised. We WERE surprised, however, when they announced that WE HAD TAKEN THE FIRST PLACE SPOT!!!!! Our reaction was basically a great, unison, "HUH??!?" We weren't alone, either. It was the first time ever for us to get higher than third, let alone first(!!!), and we had unseated a number of historied powerhouses. There were some sour faces directed at us, to be sure.

The weather was nasty that day. Thanks to the effects of typhoon #9 (known as Typhoon Morakot or Kiko elsewhere), we'd arrived in a raging downpour and had gone from the bus to the hall huddled under umbrellas. It was raining again after the event was done, hard but not driving, but most of us kept our umbrellas furled. We were too busy dancing in the rain to care.

(For the record, the judge that was one of our longtime clinicians did NOT give us the best score of the seven. He was respectfully harsh.)

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Yet Another Wrecked Family Outing, pt. II...

(continued from last post)

By the time we finally pried ourselves from the festival and got ourselves into my BLUE RAV4, we were already more than an hour behind schedule...more than three hours later than we'd originally hoped. Still, family outings of any kind tend to be few and far between for us (especially now that my daughter is in a junior high sports club), and this summer is looking to be an unusually busy one, so we pressed ahead anyway.

We basically had two agendas in mind:
  1. Grant my son's request to take him to Toys Я Us, somewhere he hadn't been in a long time.
  2. Visit the giant, new factory outlet mall just completed out in the middle of nowhere.
As it turned out, the factory outlet mall was located in the village of Ami, which till now was known only for its massive Japan Self-Defense Force base and one of the first Toys Я Us stores in Japan. Two birds with one stone! Perfect!

I hadn't been out to Ami for a number of years (since there really hadn't been any reason to go there) but it was still the same old road with more or less the same old sights cutting along the hilly area west of Lake Kasumigaura. However, as we passed the large university hospital that marks the entrance to Ami, I began to worry. I'd heard that the outlet mall was easy to find, but there wasn't a sign to be found. We made it to the center of the village, which had developed a bit since I'd seen it last, but there wasn't a giant outlet mall anywhere to be found. I circled around the downtown area and the military base for the better part of half an hour without the slightest tingle of success.

We finally gave up and decided to go to Toys Я Us first instead. Unfortunately, we'd already passed the place where I thought I'd remembered it being, and it didn't seem to be there. I circled around the area a bit and then asked Mr. Navi for help. Mr. Navi showed it in the address list and then drew the usual pink line to its location. I followed it in, and we did indeed find the Toys Я Us...


As in shut down, terminated, cleared out, signs erased, game over, listen to the crickets, etc..

My son was NOT happy.

Determined not to let the day wind up a total loss, I finally gave in to my wife's urgings and did that thing that real men are NEVER supposed to do: I stopped and asked for directions. (jarring diminished 7th chord) The guy at the gas station looked at us like we were total idiots and said (translated from the Japanese), "Um...turn around and go back the way you came, and you'll see the signs." I did just that...and it turned out that, while there hadn't been ANY signs in the direction we'd come from, there were signs on every block going the opposite direction!

Now why would that be? Had someone horked all the signs facing our way as a joke, or was it intentional discrimination since we live in hicksville and the other direction leads to the cities of Tsuchiura and Tsukuba? I don't know, but coming from the Tsuchiura (i.e. city) direction gave us plenty of signs to follow, and we had no problem getting to the the sun was already setting.

The reports hadn't been exaggerated; the mall is huge. There were lots of really cool name-brand stores, and all of them were CHEAP. Unfortunately, as late as it was, we took pity on my father-in-law and limited ourselves to a quick, twenty-minute run through the place. We did get a few items, but there were still lots of must-visit shops that we had to skip. I asked Mr. Navi for the quickest way back (I think it lied...), grabbed some quick convenience-store dinner fixings along the way, and got back home at a nice, not-decent hour.

As expected, my father-in-law was furious. He hates it when we go out, period (since he doesn't believe in people having a life...except him since he's special), but we caused his dinner to be late! (Even louder diminished 7th chord than last time) Outrage of outrages! My son and I were fortunately able to talk some of the steam out of him, defusing tensions before they could get ugly. We had our dinner, followed our usual evening routine, and went to bed.

Oh, well. Maybe we can try again some other time...hopefully during this lifetime.