Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

All Through The Family, episode Q

Pt. I: Yesterday
FIL: (voice in cell phone) Good evening. This is [ ].
Me: (screaming hysterically into cell phone) Hello!!! Would you mind moving your car?!?
FIL: What?
Me: You're blocking my space, and I can't park!!! I just got back from work, and I'm wearing a suit!!! We're in the middle of a torrential rain storm, and there's lightning going off right over my head!!!
FIL: (monosyllabic grunt of acknowledgment)
Me: Why do I have to park down the street?!? Why are you blocking my space?!? I'm...
Me: [expletive] That hit a pole not a hundred meters away! I can't get out of my car! Would you PLEASE move yours so I can park?
FIL: Just run to the house. You'll be fine. [click]

Pt. II Today
FIL: That rain today was really something, wasn't it? Mm! Yeah! It was something!
Me: (frosty tone) Yes, it was.
FIL: The rain yesterday was really something, too!
Me: Speaking of which, could you tell me why you blocked my parking space so I couldn't park when I came home last night?
FIL: What?
Me: Remember? Last night? Your car was blocking my space?
FIL: (monosyllabic grunt of acknowledgment)
Me: So I had to park down the street?
FIL: Yeah, that was terrible rain, wasn't it? And that lightning...
Me: And all you had to say was, "Just run to the house. You'll be fine"?
FIL: (monosyllabic grunt of acknowledgment)
Me: In the down-pouring rain, in my suit, with lightning hitting all around me?
FIL: (totally unconcerned) Yesterday I had some blankets hanging outside. When the rain first started, I had to run outside and bring them in.
Me: What?
FIL: I had to bring the blankets in quickly, all by myself. No one was here.
Me: I was at work yesterday...
FIL: And the greenhouse. I had to put on a rain poncho and go out in the down-pouring rain, with lightning hitting all around me, so I could close the door.
Me: I didn't have a rain poncho. I was wearing a suit.
FIL: A suit?
Me: And I had to park down the street...a lot further away than the greenhouse...
FIL: Yeah, that rain was really something, wasn't it? Well, that's enough dinner. I gotta get back to work! Busy...I'm always busy... (leaves)

(And this guy wonders why I'm not more enthusiastic about helping him?)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Odaiba Down

Pretty much every neighborhood in Japan that has children (kodomo) also has a "kodomo-kai" (Children's Association). It's a local manifestation of the elementary school PTA, coupled with our "kinjo-kai" (Neighborhood Association), that is supposedly centered on the kids rather than the parents.

Note the word "supposedly". It definitely doesn't seem to be the case in my neighborhood. Our local kodomo-kai serves three main purposes:
  1. Deciding who (i.e. which adult) participates in what event at our local elementary school's sports festival,
  2. Organizing parties to celebrate certain traditional events, our local elementary school's sports festival, and the graduation of 6th graders (i.e. giving the adults another excuse to drink copious amounts of alcohol),
  3. Organizing the yearly group family outing. (Diminished 7th power chord)
Actually, the term "group family outing" (my own), is something of a euphemism. It used to be that the children discussed among themselves and chose where they wanted to go, which wound up being Tokyo Disneyland about 97.43% of the time. Somewhere along the line the parents decided they'd already bought one to many sets of mouse ears and promptly took over the decision process. Now they go to a lot of different places...with a noted emphasis on the adult diversions (i.e. shopping & pubs). I can't really complain too much, because we have gone to some pretty cool places over the past half-decade, but the kids' wishes seem to be rather far down the list.

This year we went to the Odaiba area in Tokyo, which is a unique place with a unique history. Over the years it has been:
  • a series of artificial islands supporting batteries (i.e. forts with cannons) desperately constructed in the 1850s by the last shogunate as a response to Commodore Perry's "black ships" (i.e. it's all America's fault),
  • a mostly consolidated harbor defense complex built by the revived Imperial regime at the turn of the 20th century to reflect Japan's increasingly international vision (and fears of eventual conflict with the West),
  • a park opened to the public after the defense installations were abandoned in the 1920s,
  • a giant business and expo center modeled after Expo '85 in Tsukuba, similarly intended to showcase modern technology, but in a permanent venue focused mainly on (bubble-era) Japan, started at the tail end of the '80s but soon became:
  • a very modern, never-completed, virtual ghost town standing as a stark and cynical (not to mention expensive) monument to the dangers of government pork and politicians whose eyes are bigger than their public support, and finally:
  • a new residential, commercial, and entertainment district built on the bones of the failed expo center from 1996, now one of Tokyo's biggest tourist draws and a smashing success.
Yes, there is a lot to see and do there. The most obvious attraction is the iconic Fuji TV building, but there are also at least four good-sized outlet shopping malls, a couple of amusement parks, several museums of science and technology, numerous concert events and exhibitions, state-of-the-art convention centers, resort hotels, a couple of brewpubs, and a partridge in a pear tree. (Okay, maybe not the last one.)

Odaiba 2010-1

Our chartered bus arrived at the main parking area at about 9 a.m., which was before anything was open, but it didn't matter to most of the group because they all headed straight for the nearest station so they could board a train and go somewhere else (i.e. this whole thing was pretty much pointless). Those of us that opted to stay in Odaiba, however, headed straight for the Fuji TV building and got in line, which was still short thanks to our early arrival.

Soon we were at the main pavilion on the 7th floor of the Fuji TV building, where I immediately went to the ticket booth and got a welcome new addition to the Odaiba repertoire: a one-day passport. Many if not most of the main attractions in the area require paid admission, but starting this year it is now possible to pay once for a Disneyland-style passport that gets you into almost everything. (Believe me, it is a good idea.) After I distributed them to my wife and son, my son decided he wanted to go off with his friends and their parents, and my wife decided she wanted to...

Odaiba 2010-4

...go to the cafe to get something to drink...?

It wound up turning into an early lunch, after which we soon boarded an elevator (after I succeeded in keeping my wife away from the sno-cone booth) and headed up to the attraction floors.

Odaiba 2010-6
...but not before I had my picture taken with the "Mezamashi Terebi" (Wake-Up TV) morning news crew! Funny...I never realized just how wooden they really are...

Odaiba 2010-13

Odaiba 2010-14

It was kind of cool seeing actual props, sets, and previews from a soon-to-be-released, highly anticipated movie called "Odoru Daisosen: The Movie 3". It was also cool seeing actual cells and backgrounds from an episode of the long-famous Japanese anime Sazae-san scheduled to be televised the very next day! (They're all still hand-drawn...and painted with watercolors!)

Odaiba 2010-7

It was also fun to have our pics taken on the set of a popular game show, even if the pic gives pretty much no clue as to where we were, or the fact we were standing on a trap door. (I made a point of ignoring a tourist trap snack counter/gift shop based on a popular "gal anime" complete with cute, young women dressed as the lead characters...even though I almost had to drag my wife away from the snack counter.) The little corner based on a cute chicken mascot for a fictitious ramen brand from a popular kids' anime was actually kind of fun, too, especially the video screen that superimposed digitally-rendered cartoon bits on the image of the people walking by (but I had to drag my wife away from there, too, when she suddenly started talking about ordering some ramen from the snack counter there).

While we were in the Fuji TV building, we ran into a complication that soon got worse. As I said, I got a one-day passport for my son, but he stayed with his friends and their parents rather than come with us. It turned out that the group he was with didn't want to spend time or money on any one thing, so after a quick (free) walk-through they left Fuji TV and headed for the shopping malls. The parents in the group tried to urge us to drop everything and follow them, and when we didn't, they opted for what they apparently thought was the next best thing: they ditched my son. They were over in an interesting amusement arcade that has physical games rather than video ones, and they asked my son if he was hungry. When he said he wasn't yet, they told him they were going to go have lunch and left him there. Alone. Without telling him where they were going. Luckily, my wife had loaned him her cell phone, so he was able to call us, but his only concern seemed to be that he had run out of money. We immediately went and collected him. Then we had a bite of lunch and did some shopping, after which we headed for the amusement park called "Odaiba Land".

Odaiba 2010-20
On the way to Odaiba Land, looking toward the iconic Rainbow Bridge and...wait a that the Statue of Liberty???!?

Odaiba 2010-21

Odaiba Land is apparently connected with Fuji TV. I say this because many if not most if not all the attractions there are based on popular programs currently aired on Fuji TV. We got to try our hand at games used on actual game and variety shows (i.e. after having yelled, "You idiot," at contestants trying those events on TV so many times, we got a chance to be idiots ourselves). Those were fun! The computerized quiz games, just like the ones on TV, were a blast.

Odaiba 2010-22

So was the competition for taking hard-to-handle sushi with chopsticks from a plate moving quickly on a conveyor belt, a regular sketch from a comedy show we really like. (I, my wife, and my son were all successful. The girl sitting next to my wife was not, so she got punished.)

We ended our visit there with a crack at a pitching (i.e. baseball) competition, whereupon I was cruelly reminded of why I stopped playing baseball after Little League. (I was good at batting back then, but I have never been good at throwing, especially overhand at speed. My crooked arms aren't much for ball control.) It rather soured my mood, already made very cranky by having to elbow my way through crowds (who elbow back) and wait in line in dizzyingly hot weather. After that we did a little more shopping, had some ice cream, and then headed back to the bus.

Once we were back on the expressway heading northeast, I was given more beer (which I couldn't drink since I had to drive as soon as we got back, so I just shoved it into a bag), and then we sat and listened to the others chatter and cackle about how they'd taken the train to see things in other parts of Tokyo. My son's friends(?) went on to tell him excitedly about all the things they'd done after ditching him (which wasn't much, apparently). My wife and I shared a sigh. We're probably going to be in charge of our kodomo-kai next year, which means we'll have to plan next year's outing.

I know! Why don't we just take a bus to a centralized train station and split up? Done! That was easy! Judging from this year's event, it'll probably end up that way anyway.

Friday, July 23, 2010

From the Minstrel's Workshop:

Another new tune is done! It's a classical/rock blend instrumental called "Helicopter Mom". Give it a listen!

Details can be found on my Minstrel's Muse site.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

What Comes Around...

In the summer of 1997, the first after my family had moved into the house on my in-laws' property, the local elementary school hosted a Bon Odori as it had every year for a long time. The Bon Festival is about as traditional as Japanese events can get, so my wife's parents naturally figured it would be only proper for us to follow custom and dress the part. I, my wife, and my (at the time) toddler daughter all dressed up in yukata and strolled over to join the festivities.

What is a yukata? I'm glad you asked! (And if you didn't, shaddap!)

The yukata is essentially the casual version of the kimono. It is usually made of light cotton and tied in the front. Although some women do wear them with an elaborate obi (decorative sash) as they do a regular kimono, it is more common to use a plain, simple sash. Yukata are usually issued to guests at hotels in Japan, particularly at hot spring resorts, and it is common for people to wear them after taking a bath. It has also long been the custom for people to wear yukata at summer festivals.

When I was still a newcomer to Japan and very single, I was often invited to join my new Japanese friends at festivals in the greater Kashima area. There I saw lots of people in yukata. Most of them were women, especially younger women, but I saw plenty of men in them as well. I thought it was great to see people proudly maintaining their traditions. That's why I was only too happy to put on a yukata myself together with my wife and little daughter when we went to that neighborhood Bon Dance in the summer of '97...

...and found everyone else in ordinary, Western-style dress. We got lots of compliments and even cries of "Arigato!" from the elderly folks there, to be sure, but from those of our own generation we got mainly stares, smirks, and grunts of amusement. The men-folk invited me over, gave me a beer or two, and asked me why I'd even bothered. I replied that someone had to maintain tradition, even if it was a foreigner. That got some laughs (and another beer or two).

The same thing happened the following year. The year after that, my wife decided it was time to ditch the yukata and just dress "normal" like everyone else. Then, when the Bon Festivel came around again the next year, neighborhood apathy for tradition had gotten to the point where the Bon Odori was scrapped altogether. It hasn't been held in our area since.

Similar apathy seemed to have spread everywhere. Festivals in general seemed somehow cheapened compared with the way they'd been in the early '90s. There was also a noticeable decline in the number of people wearing yukata (or even kimono during winter events such as New Year). It was as if people in their 20s and 30s had decided it just wasn't worth the bother; they dropped by festivals just long enough to say hi to people and eat something before going back to their cell phones. The sense of taking part just wasn't there anymore. It seemed like Japanese tradition was doomed to die a horribly lonely death.

Now jump to 2010. Imagine my surprise a few weeks ago when it was announced on a pop fashion program that yukata are now THE THING among young women. It's true, too; all the big fashion brands are suddenly coming up with their own yukata designs. Even the little teeny-bopper stores like the ones my (now teen) daughter likes to frequent have colorful yukata prominently displayed at the entrance. (My daughter hasn't asked me to buy her one yet, but I figure it's probably just a matter of time...) It's not even uncommon to see young women in yukata walking around in the uber-nauseating hip Shibuya area of Tokyo, the mere idea of which would have been greeted with hysterical laughter a short decade ago!

Does this mean Rush might start wearing kimonos again?

I guess this just goes to prove the old adage, "What comes around goes around." Wait long enough, and an old, dead custom might just become the latest fad. There's nothing wrong with that, I guess, but I'm not really hoping Japanese women start putting resin or some other chemicals in their hair and combing it into strange shapes like...


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Nan De Darou pt. VII

Yes, I know the song, "Nande Darou?" ("Whatever For?"), which got played to death here several years ago, is now officially considered fossilized, as is the comedy duo Tetsu and Tomo, but its basic message still rings true today. Basically, the song consists of Tomo (the one in blue with a guitar) singing ever-changing verses about various current facts or events that don't make sense, each followed by the refrain, "Nande darou...nande daraou," while Tetsu (the one in red) dances around, does funny things with his hands, and sometimes gives Tomo a hard time.

Okay, here's my latest take on the song (and forgive me if there are some repeats):

♫ Why do so many drivers here in Japan simply pull to the side of the lane, partly blocking it, while they fiddle with things or talk on their cell phones, even when there's a pull-off not twenty meters ahead of them?

Nande darou? Nande darou? Na-na-na-nande darou?

♫ In fact, while we're at it, why do so many drivers in the country here wait at an intersection until an oncoming car is at point blank range before suddenly whipping out in front of it?

Nande darou? Nande darou? Na-na-na-nande darou?

♫ The first-ever Democrat administration here in Japan promised to lower taxes, eliminate expressway tolls, make public high school free, revitalize education, increase the subsidy paid to parents for each child, eliminate government pork spending, and carve out government corruption. A lot of corruption turned up in their own ranks. They eliminated not only the pork, but a lot of useful if not vital projects, too. The child subsidy was (finally) increased, but it is such a confusing, mismanaged mess that a lot of people wonder if they'll ever get their money. The revised curriculum looks and sounds fantastic, but the schools can't make heads or tails of it, and it doesn't fit the reality of the firmly-entrenched college entrance system. They couldn't make public high school free per se, but they have introduced an income-based student stipend system that no one can quite figure out. The expressways still aren't free, but a new, simplified toll system was introduced that reduces rates for some people...and increases them for others. Now Prime Minister KAAAAAAAAAN!!!!!! is saying that they'll have to double the sales tax from 5% to 10% to make ends meet. Even more baffling, they expressed surprise that they took a pounding in the recent election.

Nande darou? Nande darou? Na-na-na-nande darou?

♫ Why is it that so many of the people screaming the loudest to make lack of English proficiency a punishable offense in the USA are themselves unable to write English with better proficiency than a third grader? ("Hey all countries got there own rules!")

Nande darou? Nande darou? Na-na-na-nande darou?

♫ Spy swapping between the US and Russia? What is this, a great leap backward to the 70's? And yet it has been rightly pointed out that this swap happened with uncanny speed and smoothness, almost as if it had been planned or at least suspected from the beginning. Just WHAT is going on in geopolitics right now?

Nande darou? Nande darou? Na-na-na-nande darou?

♫ All last winter the intertubes were filled with mockery of the Global Warming™ thing because there was all that snow. And yet news that last month was the hottest June on record and July might be a contender as well, not to mention the fact that the past year has had the 5th highest average temperature in recorded history, has been greeted with deafening silence.

Nande darou? Nande darou? Na-na-na-nande darou?

♫ Recently it seems like one of the the most impassioned religious dogmas trying to force its beliefs on the general public has been Atheism.

Nande darou? Nande darou? Na-na-na-nande darou?

♫ There has been an awful lot of bitter frothing about President Obama, but since it seems like a large percentage if not the majority of his administration's current policies are simply continuations of things put there in the first place by W. Bush, inc. (e.g. the recession, the deficit, bank and corporate bailouts, the War on Terror®, discouragement if not outright suppression of dissent, etc.), I have to wonder why these same people were largely silent only a few years ago. ("Because he's a socialist!" Okay, how many businesses have been nationalized so far?)

Nande darou? Nande darou? Na-na-na-nande darou?

♫ The trend here in Japan is toward more expensive, higher-quality coffees and teas and cheaper, lower-quality beer ("beer-like beverages", actually).

Nande darou? Nande darou? Na-na-na-nande darou?

♫ If bread gets a little moldy, it's a health hazard and must be thrown away. If cheese gets moldy, it's gourmet fare and must be eaten.

Nande darou? Nande darou? Na-na-na-nande darou?

♫ All this time collecting and playing musical instruments, having a special passion for hand-crafted items, and having the deepest of admiration for the culture and spirit of the Native Americans, and I had no idea there was such a place as the Oregon Flute Store. (Still debating which one to order first!)

Nande darou? Nande darou? Na-na-na-nande darou?

Okay...Tetsu and Tomo didn't usually draw the song out quite this long, so I'll stop it here for now. Until next time!

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Samurai in BLUE!!!!!!

Well, Japan's stint in the FIFA World Cup 2010 (also known as the Great Vuvuzela Concert with added Soccer Attraction) has come to an end. They made it as far as the second round, whereupon they lost to Paraguay in a PK shoot-out.

...which, when you think about it, is quite an achievement for several reasons:
  1. They came into the World Cup tournament ranked 45th in the world.
  2. Though Japan has advanced to the World Cup several times since the debut of the pro J-League at the beginning of the '90s, they've been consistently cursed with a shooting drought, sending them home after the first round with a tally of losses and scoreless draws. The only notable exception was in 2002, when Japan hosted the World Cup. Their win against Cameroon this year was actually their first-ever victory in a World Cup match not played on Japanese soil. Their subsequent win over Denmark was their second, sending them to the second round for only the third time in all of Japanese history.
  3. Every game they played was against a team that was expected to bury them. Their win over Cameroon was exciting enough. Their victory over Denmark had jaws dropping to the ground. The fact that they held mighty Holland, who went on to beat Brazil, to a mere 1-0 win on a goal scored in the second half, was impressive. And the fact that they defied all predictions of a brutal massacre at the hands of Paraguay in the second round, holding on in a strenuous against a much-higher-rated foe through regular time and extra time only to fall at last in a PK shoot-out (i.e. they might as well have decided the game by rock-scissors-paper) definitely shows that they deserve far more respect than they've gotten.
  4. They were outplayed but never completely outmatched. The movement on the field was there. The positioning was there. The plays were there. The shots were there. As always, Japan was plagued with that weird curse that always seems to guide their shots into posts or over them in tournament games. It was good that some shots found the mark when they really needed to, but if a few more had been better aimed, the outcome would have been very different. On the other hand, there was some fantastic effort on the part of the fullback defenders, coming to the rescue of the goalkeeper during a few crisis situations.
So the Boys in BLUE have finished their stint and are back home now ready to rejoin league action. They did a heck of a job, and they have every reason to be proud.

Now excuse me...I want to go catch the match between Germany and Argentina! :)