Sunday, December 30, 2007

New Year's Eve

My absolute favorite part of New Year's Eve is called joya no kane. It takes place at midnight in Buddhist temples all over Japan, a kind of ringing in the New Year. Or more correctly, a ringing out of the 108 sins of mankind.

We go to a temple up on a hill near our house at about eleven thirty. It's peaceful, cold, and very, very dark. But we're bundled up and have flashlights. We survive the short hike from the parking lot to the main temple to find that the monks have built fires in barrels to keep everyone warm and I suppose provide a little light.

This picture was taken two years ago. J and a barrel fire. They feed the fires with Japanese cedar so they smell lovely.

The monks and their wives prepare vats of steaming hot amazake, a sweet drink made from fermented rice, as well as have readied numerous bottles of rice wine and hundreds of small porcelain cups. In the picture below you can see that they are offering everyone drinks. The light in the background is on the tower where the big bell is hung.

After our warming beverages and some small chat with the monks, we line up at the bottom of the tower. By midnight there is quite a line.

The ladder leading up to the narrow platform we must balance on to ring the bell is a tad shoddy and ill lit. The head monk, however, always provides illumination in the form of a large goose-shaped light. It never fails to crack me up. Just as we enter the building and make our way up the ladder, there stands a goose (or a duck) with a light bulb up its butt. The cutest darned thing. So Zen, I think.

When midnight strikes a group of local taiko drummers take off all their clothes, begin playing and we're allowed to go up and take a swing at the bell. We climb back down and let the next person/family go up.

Now the bell is only supposed to be rung 108 times, one for each human passion or sin. But again, the head monk is a hoot and doesn't count or hand out numbers. Instead, he just lets us have at it until the last person is done.

Here is a different temple. But you can feel the mood. Our temple is darker and the bell is on the second floor of a small tower. No snow either.

Oh, here is J (two years ago) enjoying some too-hot amazake. He's sleepy.

After we ring the bell we go home, get three to four hours sleep, and then I wake everyone's asses up at five AM to go see the first sunrise of the New Year. Here, we again pile into the car and head to the beach. Invariably, there are already dozens of people there milling about -- teenagers in tight groups trying to keep warm, old men building beach fires and getting drunk on sake and trying to invite the teenage girls to join keep warm. The mood is far from the relaxed mellowness of the night before. It's more high tension giddiness if anything. Everyone gazes across the ocean and waits for the sun to come up. When it breaks the horizon or line of clouds a cheer goes up and some tipsy old fellow makes a toast to the New Year and makes us all "BONZAI!" three times. By us I mean everyone on the beach. He's quite insistent.

Oh, and before I forget, for your first dream of the New Year there is an old Japanese saying:

"Ichi fuji, ni taka, san nasu", which means it is good luck to dream of Mount Fuji, a hawk or an eggplant. The most felicitous dream would be that of Fuji, next the bird, then the vegetable.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Nengajo/New Year's Post Cards

Kinda like Christmas cards...but not.

Nengajou are postcards sent out to all your friends, family members, business associates, I even get one from the guy who cleans my septic tank once a year.

Oh. You thought I was into obento. Nengajo have also got me by the throat. I send out over a hundred each year. And the best part? I get over a hundred back.

This is how it works: You make and address your cards the months, sometimes weeks, sometimes days before the end of the year and then drop them off at the post office. The last week of of the year men walk up and down the streets near the post office with enormous red bags (ho! ho! ho!). Because it is so crowded that you'll never find a place to park, they just mosey on up to your car, you roll down your window and toss your rubber banded cards into the bag (not unlike the drug deals I use to watch as a kid in Florida). Now what is truly amazing is that nearly every single one of these postcards gets delivered on January first. There are a few stragglers but not many. You wake up to the New Year with an enormous bundle of love in your mailbox.

The purpose is to wish the receiver a happy new year, to thank him or her for the previous year, or to just touch base with someone you haven't seen in many, many years. We still send and get them from J's kindergarten teachers, exchange students I knew in America that have since returned home and whom I have not met in over 18 years, and well, the guy who cleans my septic tank once a year.

The fun part is you can do whatever you want with the postcards. Almost every store sells hundreds of different types of premade nengajo with a design of the animal from the Chinese zodiac, felicitous wishes and a space where you can add your own little words of greeting. But the majority of cards I receive are hand made. We're talking favorite pictures, calligraphy, water colors, stickers, clip art, some people even carve designs into potatoes and use them to stamp blank postcards.

And the excitement doesn't stop there. Oh, no. On the bottom of each card is a lottery number where you can win everything from commemorative stamps to a wide screen, high definition television set -- which I've yet to win, although I do get tons of the stamps.

Some cards are funny:

Some artistic:
We have a friend who plays guitar and always paints his own nengajo. His are always a treat:

I use to experiment with carving wooden stamps and such but soon settled for pictures. This one was for the year of the rabbit when J was a baby. I made him lay down in a baby bed full of stuffed bunnies.

I must show you my favorite card I've ever sent. The piece de resistance, the year of the tiger. I spent two months making a paper mache' tiger and then experimented with various poses. This is what I ended up with.

Next year is the year of the rat, btw. And no, I haven't rendered a giant mouse out of mud and paper clips. Although I have considered it. I've become a tad more efficient and now use my Christmas card picture for the New Year's card as well. Besides I don't think I could talk everyone into wearing those cow suits I bought a couple years ago again.

Boy, do I have a lot to tell you about the New Year's holidays!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas! (Am I not supposed to say that?)

Since I don't think anyone who reads this received one of my Christmas cards, I'm going to post the picture I sent this year. Here we are with most of the pets (the holdable ones).

And here is the picture that wasn't used. All the animals said 'That's enough!' and they weren't so holdable.

Also, an early Christmas gift, Virginia was kind enough to give me one of these! How sweet is that? I love the shameless part. Ni~ice.

I hope everyone is staying warm and enjoying the holidays. I gotta go now and bake a pie. There are a bazillion interesting things going on during the Japanese New Year and I'm gonna try to get those up here in a timely way.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Obento Lunches

I remember quite vividly the lunches I took to elementary school. Every weekday for six years I ate a ham or peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a bag of chips and a nutritious Little Debbie dessert. For a drink I had some red or orange flavor of Kool Aide, sometimes purple. I never complained. I suppose if I had brought veggie sticks and apples I'd have gotten the snot kicked out of me. Little Debbie was cool. Carrot sticks were not. I still remember the day one girl learned to freeze her Coke just right and wrap it in tinfoil so that it was perfectly bubbly and still cold -- but not frozen -- by noon. She was awesome. All I got was a freezer full of sticky goo and a red behind.

I quite liked those Nutty Bars too.

Today is J's last day of school for the year. And while they usually eat school lunches (a blog post in itself!) today was Obento Day, bring your own lunch.

And in Japan cool is different. Here, healthy IS cool. Kids, for the most part, like to eat well and moms enjoy spending time making an attractive and nutritional lunch (and breakfast and supper and snack). It's actually embarrassing and completely uncool to come school with anything resembling a peanut butter sandwich and a bag of potato chips. Not to mention the fact that the teachers would have a heart attack and the mother would probably get a phone call. Another big no-no is filling your child's thermos with sweet drinks. And by sweet I'm talking even fruit juice. The only drinks allowed are unsweetened teas, green and wheat mostly. But there are a whole bunch of teas here that can be served hot or cold. So it actually turns out to be more flavors that red, orange and purple Kool Aide.

Luckily, many years ago, I totally jumped on board this obento thing. I've always liked making them, eating them, buying books about them.

So this morning I woke up and made this, today's creation:

For dessert green and golden kiwi pieces with pomegranate seeds.

For main course, some meatballs with melted cheddar and Gouda cheese on them, rice sprinkled with black sesame seeds, a spring roll chopped into fourths (to make it fit), fresh green beans, a mini tomato, a salad of lotus root, carrot and soy beans and that snowman wearing a Santa suit is really made of cheese and salmon (I bought that).

You stack the two tiers, put a band around it, slip in a pair of chopsticks,

wrap it all up in a bandanna and fill a thermos full of hot green tea and voila!

Soda says..."Gimme some of that cheese man."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Me, Genius?

So, I discovered today that my neighbor thinks I'm a genius or something.

She comes over and hands me several pages that look like this:

She says, Could you translate them for my husband's work? They read something like this:

I don't have the slightest idea what that means in English...much less Japanese.

Also, end-of-the-year insanity is in the air. Right now the Forget-the-Year parties keep the streets and bars filled until all hours of the night. I had a Christmas party for work Saturday night and barely survived the train ride home. The next day I had to go into the city early for work and the streets looked like the day after the Apocalypse. No other living creature was out -- it was just me and endless piles of vomit, pools of blood, torn clothes, broken jewelery and all the cigarette butts you could possibly imagine. Damn.

Here is a picture I took on the train ride home from my party. Everyone looked this way.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Character of the Year

Beginning in 1995, every December a single Chinese/Japanese character is chosen to represent the previous year. Beforehand, there is a national vote where anyone living in Japan can choose what word they think portrays the feeling, mood, or overall image of the year.

On December 12th at Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto crowds of people gather to watch as the head monk uses a giant brush to write the kanji that received the most votes.

2007's character was "nise" meaning fake or under false pretenses. This year dozens upon dozens of reputable companies and supermarkets were found to have falsified expiration dates, ingredients on food products, and let's not get into China and lead or the case of the steamed meat buns that had seasoned cardboard in them. Pork and rabbit meat was being sold as beef and a few McDonald's chains were selling milkshakes made from ingredients over a year old.

The monk says later that it is very embarrassing to have such a kanji for the year 2007. Last year's word was Life, btw. The year before, Love.

Here he is revealing for the first time the kanji. You can hear the crowd's response as they realize what it is before he finishes.

Here is a list in English of the previous year's kanjis and why.

The event is put on by the Japanese Kanji Proficiency Society.

Not quite the positive conotation as w00t! but hey! Virginia has great timing.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Driving by Mirrors

I have acquired an interesting skill from years of driving around my neighborhood. I can navigate by mirrors.

This is what a typical corner looks like -- narrow with tall mirrors that sport signs under them reading, 'Be Careful!' The streets are so narrow in fact that very rarely can two cars pass each other. That passing thing is another skill altogether. One I had almost mastered when I got a bigger car.

You must cultivate ninja-like awareness to be able to spot oncoming vehicles all the way a long street. But what really sucks are intersections. Invariably, you'll have some toddler, some elderly man or some teenager thumbing her cell phone dart out in front of you. Not to mention cars. To help prevent accidents at these intersections, where houses and fences are built so close to the road that you can't see around the corner, we have mirrors.

Here's a mirror reflected in a mirror.

And here we have three mirrors on three corners. This is the usual set up.

The trick to driving by mirrors is to know which mirror to look at when you get to a corner. And that means not to mistake your own car for an oncoming one, which is easy to do. I remember the time I sat there all day waiting for a car I could only see in the mirror to hurry up and pass. It just sat there! I could see the driver was getting frustrated obviously waiting for me to pass first. She began hitting the steering wheel, yelling. Yea. It was me.

But once you've mastered that it's pretty much smooth sailing. Except on frosty days or rainy days when the damn mirrors fog up and you have to close your eyes, say a prayer, and go for it.

It's a little difficult to judge just how narrow the streets here are. I was lucky enough to almost get hit by a car. But I got the shot!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Flash Fiction Carnival Ⅲ

Thanks so much to everyone who commented. I had to take the piece down for now. But looking forward to the next FFC.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Beware of Fire/Hi no Youjin

I've seen probably a half dozen house fires in my life. The absolute worst ones though were here in Japan. Japan has an interesting relationship with fire. At the drop of the hat people will set something ablaze:, mountains, good luck objects, even people. And yet things regularly get out of hand and burn down. So we're told to be careful.

Houses are light weight, wood and paper mostly. They are built very close together. I personally don't know anyone who owns a smoke detector -- although last year it became the law, I still don't know anyone who has installed one yet. To make matter more dangerious, it isn't strange to find open flames in a home even today. There is a family altar that has candles and incense burning as well as the stinky kerosine heaters popular in the winter. While we don't have an altar we have used the kerosine heaters for years. They always make me nervous.

So one night I stood a couple blocks away from a real inferno quite near our old home. The lady next to me said to watch the sparks because very often they fly over several houses, blocks even, and start working on a new place just when the fire department has gone home. I sprayed my house with a hose when I got home.

So winter is here. But before that even, when autumn arrives and the air cools down and dries out there is something in Japan called 'hi no youjin' or 'beware of fire'. The first time I heard it I freaked out considerably.

Nightly someone from the neighborhood group is assigned the duty to go out alone or in pairs with these:
(they costs nearly ninety bucks, btw)

They're made of wood and make the most clear and loud clacking sound when struck together. The person on duty will walk up and down the streets calling out "hi no youjin!" CLACK! "Hi no youjin!" CLACK! Up and down the cold, dry, very dark streets.

It is most surreal actually.

My understanding is that people after hearing the warning are then careful of fires in their home. I found this old commerical on Youtube. You can hear the distinctive CLACK! CLACK!

I suppose, though, it's not unlike the "Even you can prevent forest fires" commercial when I was a child. Although much more upbeat. And with monkeys.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Belongs to the Dog

Japanese are perceptive. Super perceptive, in fact. For example, they can tell you if you've lost or gained a kilo even before you know it yourself. Not to mention tell you exactly what you wore on a certain date, how your hairstyle has changed over the past ten years, if you happen to have some rice stuck on your shirt, how many grains. I'm trying to learn this technique. I don't think I'm succeeding very well.

I had a traumatic experience once with laundry. We lived in a different house then. I was young and wild and I hung out my jeans with the holes in the knees to dry. An hour or so later several old women came to my door to explain that it was embarrassing and I should take them down right away. We've moved and ironically enough I miss those noisey old grannies. But they certainly left an impression on me.

Let me introduce you to the culprit in this story:

Today was doggy blanket laundry day. I usually wash them and dry them on this side of the fence so people can't see the damage he's done to his most beloved Blankies. You see Cha likes to gather them into a big lump so he can straddle them, suck on a carefully picked out piece while whining and massaging. He misses his mommy. What happens is that he sometimes ends up tearing a chunk out of the blanket. He enthusiastically misses his mommy.

" Ma ma~!"

So I put a the load in and then went to the store. By the time I returned home M had hung the blankies outside. However, he hung them upstairs over the veranda where anyone passing by could see them. I couldn't complain, right? Because he DID try and help. But they are really in bad shape.

I thanked him very much before I slipped into the other room and made a sign that I clothespinned to one of the holes. Here is a picture taken from above. It basically explains that these blankets are used by the dog. You know just in case the doorbell rings later today and I answer it to find out the neighbors have taken up a collection to buy us poor folk new blankies.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Job for Grandpa

My mother-in-law is crazy-superstitious.

The other day she came over and told me about how she went to get her haircut (no mention of hand massages, btw). She was explaining to her beautician how she was worried because her hair was beginning to thin. The beautician says, "We'll that sounds like a job for Grandpa." And then pulled one of these out of her pocket.

This is Grandpa. Well, two Grandpas.

They are good luck charms. These two she bought for my son and husband. They didn't have my birthday in stock....she says. Although she promised to bring mine over when she got it.

This is how they work.

1) The little men have no hair. In Japanese that's "ke ga nai" or if you run it together..."kega nai". The second sentence means "no injuries". So these guys are believed to keep you safe from harm.

2) The old dudes also have short legs. Short legs in Japanese is "ashi ga mijikai". It means that your money will not run away on long, fast legs. They also help you keep your money in your pocket.

3) And lastly, the fellas have a lot of wrinkles. Wrinkle in Japanese is "shiwa". "Shiawase" means happiness. The little Grandpas bring happiness to the holder.

On the back is this mysterious design. My Mother-in-law explained that it was top secret stuff there and for me not to ask.

She sat here for two hours drinking green tea and explaining how if you want anything you just "ask Grandpa" and he'll make sure it gets done. I said that I planned on asking mine to allow me to pick out the winning lottery ticket for this year's big End of the Year Lottery. She smacked me and said that was much to crass to ask the little good luck man. While thinking to myself "but growing more hair is okay?" I said something about how if we all got our Grandpas to focus on me winning the lottery I'd most certainly share the wealth. I think I might have convinced her too. Now I just gotta wait for my Grandpa to show up.

Friday, November 16, 2007


Japanese hair salons are fancy. I'm talking fancy-shmancy. You get head and shoulder massages, beverages and snacks served to you while your hair is getting trimmed, and all sorts of high tech equipment used to dry, mist, and wash your hair. I don't go. Well, I went once. I said to the man, do something exciting and fun. Something new. And I ended up with this:

But it was worse because he actually shaved the sides of my head. I smiled, paid, and cried on the car ride home.

I take J though. He doesn't like the old barber shops they have here and because of an unfortunate ear incident a couple years ago, I'm not allowed near him with a pair of scissors. So he goes. Occasionally.

Yesterday was the day. I took him to his usual place only to find out the guy who always cuts his hair quit. We were bummed. He was a nice kid. But there is this new guy. So fine. I sit down on the other side of the room and read and sneak glances. I watch as he gets his hair washed, shaved, trimmed. Someone comes and gives him candy. He then gets his hair re-washed. He sits back down for the re-trimming when one of the girls who works there walks up. She is all sexy with black kohl eyeliner and stilettos and a mini skirt up to here. Now, you must keep in mind J is twelve and at the girls-are-yucky stage.

She saunters up to him and hands him what looks like menu. He reads, hesitates, orders. She leaves and comes back and sets a pump bottle of something down on the table. Hmmm. They talk a few seconds and then I see him carefully stick out his hand from underneath the cape and I watch as the girl oils up her palms and begins to give him a hand massage. I suppress a giggle. She massages all the way up to his elbow and then goes to the other hand/arm before click-click-clicking back to the other side of the room. Gradually the overwhelming smell of coconuts reaches my nose.

After we paid and were on our way home J asks me if I saw what happened. I pretend I didn't. He explained it like this: "You wouldn't believe it. They hand me a menu with names like, Rose and Cucumber and Herb and I was like, Who wants to drink a cucumber? I mean where's the orange juice? I finally picked the the only thing that looked drinkable, coconut and mango."

He smells his hands and goes. "Guess they don't serve coffee anymore."

Thursday, November 15, 2007

AW Chain Number Twelve

Kate over at Finding Brodie wrote a perfectly hilarious post about writing and why people do it. She talked of sadistic editors and masochistic writers, about how despite low income, a potential for alcoholism and probable depression writers still gotta write.

So while I agree, I thought I'd flip the coin and talk about my own personal demon, why I don't write.

The house has to be clean, the dog walked, and the dishes washed. I usually vacuum, shower, and hang out laundry as well. It's like some great routine that starts the moment my family leaves the house in the morning and lasts up to two hours. Eventually though it does get finished and I can sit down at the computer. However, invariably the phone rings, a cat meows, or an e-mail falls into the box. Yesterday's interruptions included a man going door to door selling bread out of the back of his truck, a nap, and a woman on the phone wanting to sell me underwear -- she said she'd bring it to my house if I was interested.

It's always something.

I find it takes a different kind of concentration to write. When studying I read, jot down notes, re- read. But with writing I mull stuff over, I have that all-powerful 'What If...' forever nipping at my thoughts and steering me into new directions. I hit walls and come back. But what really amazes me is how when things get tough my mind will forever find some errand to save me from the task at hand, did I feed the newts? open the upstairs windows? water the flowers?

Like just now, I look over and see that the dog has climbed the cat tower and is trying to get my attention. Awwww. So I have to find the camera, take a picture, upload it, resize it...

Here are a list of the other participants. In Chain Twelve I hear we're all wearing black and white stripes this time!
Virginia Lee: I Ain't Dead Yet!
Playing With Words
A View from the Waterfront
A Thoughtful Life
Gillian Polack: Food history
So, You Majored in Creative Writing; Now what?
Life in the Middle
Finding Boddie; A Simple Way to Snort Your Breakfast
Kappa No He

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Tokai Earthquake Preparation

I do a little local radio show once a week. One of the main purposes is to help inform all English speaking expats who live in the Shizuoka area about the predicted Tokai Earthquake. It's supposed to be huge, devastating. In this area a big one hits every 100 to 150 years and here we are at like year 153 now. "Any day now" seems to be the mantra of Shizuoka-ites.

There are all sorts of ways to prepare, but here is a fun one. A friend and fellow radio DJ brought this if for one show.

It's toilet paper that has printed on each little fluffly square some tid-bit about earthquake preparedness.

Here it says that gasoline stands are built to withstand enormous earthquakes and they might be a good place to run if things start falling. Yea, right.

On this little piece it gives you a list of provisions you should have packed away in your Earthquake Bag. Things like: duct tape, food, flashlights, batteries, gloves, wet tissues, drinking water, and undy pants.
And this darling tells you that you should buy or make an emergency toilet.

I said this joke on the radio when we aired this show and I don't think I've been very funny since. It went something like... "So when you're sitting on the toilet waiting for the Big One you can read and learn all about the Big One."

Ba dum dum!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Aki Matsuri -- Part Three: The Stops Along the Way

A seven hour walk is a lot shorter than it sounds. At least it is when you're stopping every fifteen to twenty minutes to play music, dance, eat, drink beer or search frantically for a bathroom.

Both Saturday and Sunday everyone met early at the Shrine. The children got their make up done, adjusted their costumes and ran around with their friends. The adults loaded several trucks full of beer, sake, and snacks. Here's a truck being loaded.

The main event is the children doing this: (that's J on the big drum)

They've been going to practices for two months, twice a week to learn to play these instruments/songs and by daggit, by the end of this thing they'll be playing them in their sleep. Heck, by the end of it, I'm playing these songs in my sleep.

As we walk up and down the narrow streets pulling our enormous yatai everyone comes outside to greet us. Invariably someone from each household will slip an envelope into the hand of some dressed-up-happy-dancer and that dressed-up-happy-dancer will deliver it to the guy with the mic. The envelope is filled with money, a little or a lot. Doesn't matter. The fellow with the mic will thank the person. Their name is written on the front.

Some houses do this:

It's kinda difficult to tell but the yatai is coming down the street towards the camera (on the right). On the left is a house where they have set up tables filled with sweets for the kids and salty snacks, beer, and whiskey for the adults. It is getting late in the day and a lot of the men have a nice buzz going. They're very friendly. I was drug into the back and given several cups of whiskey and then had a whoozy old man talk me up about WW2.

So we stop for music, we stop for dance, we stop when a house beckons us or a lady in an apron brings out plates of homemade sushi. And as soon as we stop the guys in the trucks do their jobs. They walk around to all the adults participating or watching and they hand him or her a cup and offer beer or sake. Next comes the guys with the fish cakes or rice crackers. Here's a picture of me as I was watching the little ones dance and was plied with beer.

But don't worry. While the adults are getting beer the kids are getting puddings, ice creams, tea, rice balls, fish cakes and dried squid on sticks. This happens roughly every twenty minutes.

At one point we passed a retirement home. Man, I cried. We have this certain route we gotta walk and because the darned yatai is so big we really can't veer off course. The staff had brought out all the elderly people and line them up, but they were facing the wrong way! So since my job was mostly keeping kids from falling into the river or climbing up fences I ran over and told them where we'd be performing and then helped push a few wheelchairs into a better position.

The residents at the home were so excited about the event that they had made these great big fans with the words Festival (matsuri) on them. Here I talked one woman into posing with one. The cute thing was that they were much too big and heavy for any one to really wave them around.

Here they are clapping along to the song. The lady on the right was really crying. But I think it was happy crying. Or nostalgic crying. At this point I was crying too.

So we stop for music, dance, food, pudding, old people and this! Towards the end of the last day they had a mochi maki and people went wild. Mochi maki is when people toss sticky rice cakes and other goodies out to a crowd. It usually happens at temples/shrines and I heard that out west people do it when they build a new house. Give their new neighbors a reason to like them.

J ended up with a big bag full of treats and me too, actually. By this point I was buddy-buddy with these two old guys. We were sitting on a bench singing, clapping each others' shoulders and hollaring for more beer when they started throwing the goodies. Completely up to the challenge we waded into the crowd and began our own frenzied attempt to collect as many treats as we could. After we had finished for various health reasions they both donated their treats to me.

Not exactly Halloween. But close. Here is some of what we got...

Friday, November 02, 2007

Car Accident

I just got into a car accident. No one was hurt and it wasn't my fault. Two very important facts. A lady slammed into a lady who slammed into me, us. I had picked up J from his tutor and we were on our way home from getting his dad at the station. Wham!

The middle car was messed up. And there were kids in there so I was concerned about that. I noticed the uniform and it turns out they went to the same school as J and live quite close to us. By the end of the night the kids were shaking gingko nuts from the trees and running off to pee in various seedy-looking bars nearby. Kids can make anything fun.

I have a phobia. Things like this bother me because I have this overwhelming fear of being blamed for something I didn't do. It all started with a girl name B. Hickey. It was first grade and I was in a Catholic school and the teacher told us to draw a picture of what the world would look like when God was finished with it. Everyone drew lots and lots of flowers, a couple puppies. Amateurs! Me? It was as if the clouds parted and a shaft of holy light bathed and stimulated my six-year old brain, I got an idea! I drew a picture of a hospital with a "Closed" sign on it.

When the teacher came around for us to present our ideas to the class she started on the wrong side of the room and reached cute little B to my left before me. B holds up her paper and it was then that I noticed that she had copied mine! Only better. A fancier hospital...with flowers, lots and lots of flowers...and a puppy. The teacher was amazed, delighted, excited. She clasped her hands to her chest and sighed. The other children swooned. There was aplause. Eventually though the teacher recovers and calls on me. She shakes her head in disapproval and asks me why I copied. I am nearly speechless but I blurt out that I didn't copy. Next she begins quoting several Commandments and crossing herself. I got a lot of that in Catholic school. That moment still haunts me. There were other moments too, the snowball. I can't forget the snowball And don't get me started about the fern spores. I'll weep. Focus, focus.

Back to the accident. So, the lady who was in the wrong came forward and said she was wrong and she called the cops and told us she was fully insured, everything would be paid for. She even suggested we all go to the hospital right now for tests to make sure we were okay. So that was cool.

The police came. Am I allowed to say they were hot? Japanese police are hot. You almost never see an overweight police officer here. I mean these guys usually look like they could take you out if need be. Which is a good way for a cop to look, I think. At one point during the questions one of these drove by:

Except it was red and had dozens of baby Mickey and Minnie Mouses (Mice?) all over it. Rudely loud too. By then I was warming up to the police fellas so I leaned over and rattled the young officer's gun (knowing he only has one bullet and he keeps it in his pocket...or some other secret place) and I say, "Look at that! What do you think of that?" He smiles, glances over at the head officer and then whispers "Man, those things piss me off. I wish they'd just cut it out." Yea. Me too, I say.

After an hour and a half of filling out papers, answering questions, and exchanging information another police car showed up. It was bigger, more lights and from it tumbled the keystone cops. OMG they were funny. They were the ones who usually do this kind of fender bender work so they come onto the scene and the first they do is name us Front, Middle, and Back and begin a much more efficient method of gathering, well, the exact same information. It took them thirty minutes to do what the other two took an hour and a half to do. Well, I suppose they could have ASKED the first to officers and taken less time.

Random stuff: I finally saw Pan's Labrynth yesterday. I somehow assumed they'd put Japanese subtitles to the English version. How stupid is that? Of course they showed the Spanish version. But it was awesome. I managed to understand all the subtitles and loved listening to the Spanish. The movie was much darker than I thought it would be, but good.

RSS feeds. I don't get them. I mean I get them...but then I don't. How can you have a dozen subscribers one day and then loose several the next? I mean do people subscribe one day only to cancel the subscription the next? Or maybe its the stats that I just can't read properly. Where is that shaft of holy light when I need it?

And on a final note, KM are you reading this? I think you've found it. Have suspected for awhile. Comment if you have!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Makes Me Smile

There are moments being an expat when you think to yourself, Why am I here again? Oh, I don't know, maybe you go into a bar and order a margarita and a plate of buffalo wings and they say, Huh? Or perhaps you get the third degree from someone you don't even know because you forgot to wear shoes to retrieve your mail.

And then there are moments like this:

The above is a Japanese band called Yura Yura Teikoku. The song is called "Yakousei no Ikimono Sanbiki"..."Three Nocturnal Creatures". The dance is most likely a version of Awa Odori, my absolute favorite Japanese dance. It sounds like I'd get sick of it, but I haven't yet. For now it just makes me very, very happy. I mean deep down I-wanna-dance happy!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Aki Matsuri -- Part Two: The Procession

We'll do this backwards. The slowest part of the aki matsuri procession is called the yatai. Here is a picture of what a yatai looks like head on. A sort of house on wheels. But better than a house, it has spotlights, a tape recorder, lanterns, speakers, a couple of generators and a single golden phoenix perched on top to boost auspiciousness. Attached to the front are two extremely long ropes. Ropes for pulling.

Here it is from the side. That fellow up top rides there the entire time (a six/seven hour march Saturday and Sunday). He has a whistle that he blows and a large stick that he uses to push aside tree limbs and telephone wires. He also dances when the mood arises. People below keep him generously supplied with beer and sake. The dancing mood arises more and more as the day goes on.

You can't really tell but the inside is covered in straw mats and several drums. Groups of ten kids take turns riding inside rather than doing the pulling/chanting bit.

Pulling/chanting bit, you ask? Anyone and everyone is invited to pull (and I mean that quite literally) the yatai through the streets while flute music blares from the speakers and someone with a microphone encourages us to work harder. Yea, it can get on the pullers' nerves after say six hours of walking up and down narrow streets, but we get our revenge on the turns. Believe me. He he he.

Below is a picture of one of the yatai's wheels. Wood. Occasionally someone run over and pours a bucket of water on each one so they don't just suddenly burst into flames.

The walking wasn't as bad as I thought. Seven hours! I thought. But in the end we took a lot of breaks. Everything fifteen to thirty minutes we'd stop, dance, the kids would do there druming and flute routine, someone would run around handing out juice, puddings, ice creams, green tea, rice balls or dried squid sticks. But I'll talk more about the stops on the next post.

Eventually the sun goes down and it all lights up. This video was shot in night mode so the colors suck. But the picture below shows how it looked.

Oh and also, my PTA buddies and I were handed lanterns...awesome, tattered, spooky lanterns to carry around.

The yatai is mostly children, moms, grandmas, and grandpas. Fathers and all the other strapping young men take part in the omikoshi. An omikoshi is a kind of portable shrine. Here are two resting outside the temple before they leave.

They are carried through the streets on the shoulders of the men (sometimes woman lend a, shoulder) and visit houses that have donated money or food or drink to the event. Once they get to the house they make a lot of noise, "washoi, washoi!" and shake and heave the jangly omikoshi once again bringing good luck those who reside there. It's all pretty high tension, drunken, boisterous fun. They go before us and kinda let everyone know the yatai is coming.

Here the omikoshi are being put back into the temple for the night.

Okay, next post: the stops we made along the way.