Sunday, April 22, 2007

Hanami at Hamamatsu Castle Park... April 1, 2007!

Cherry blossom time in Japan can be fun if you have friends. Because if you have friends, they will probably invite you for a hanami... a picnic under the sakura blossoms at a local park. Coming out of winter, entering spring, a hanami is a good time to engage in that popular Japanese pasttime- drinking alcoholic beverages of all kinds.

Which, as we all know, is more fun during the day when the weather's nice and warm.

This is Hamamatsu Castle park. Families and groups of friends were lounging around on tarps, enjoying the breezy day, while in the grassy field itself fathers and sons played baseball and children kicked around soccer balls. Another popular game is badminton, played minus a net, roughly like hacky sack.

The original castle was destroyed during the Meiji Period, when Japan was rapidly modernizing and doing away with practically anything relating to the old ways. This was before someone wised up and realized they were throwing away their cultural heritage. The current Hamamatsu Castle is a concrete replica built in the 1950s.

Because Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that unified and ruled Japan for over 300 years, spent part of his early career living here, this castle is also known as the "Castle of Success."

Here are some hanami closer to the castle, but not under actual cherry trees. There's a park about a block away that was also full of hanami... but it actually had cherry trees for everyone to sit under. Most of the groups there seemed to be older people, eating and drinking, talking and laughing. Hamamatsu Castle Park is more of a fun place to run your kids and dogs around until everyone's exhausted.

But there are cherry trees around the castle. This wouldn't be a proper Japanese castle without extensive gardens to walk in and contemplate enlightenment... or if you're lucky, get some hanami neck.

Nighttime cherry blossom viewing is extremely popular. This is a lantern, hundreds of which were strung between the trees. As lovely as electric light can be on flowering trees at night, imagine how it must've been back in Tokugawa's day when these lanterns would've held oil and wicks, giving off the soft glow of their candles.

Here's a typical hanami partygoer. He wears the traditional hanami costume of a Popeye ringer tee and some baggy pinstriped slacks. Pose inspired by some Nicholas Cage movie or something.

Here's another hanami-goer. In this photo, we can see the traditional hanami "Don't take the photograph until I'm out of the frame" dance, which she performed expertly but none too effectively. The man in the cap behind her could care less if his photo's taken because he has nothing to hide.

Hamamatsu-jo. The stone walls are the original walls, built about 1570. Tokugawa conquered this castle in 1577 and lived there for about 17 years, fighting many of his famous battles during that time.

If you're having your photo taken in Japan, usually you flash the peace sign. This is a very cute and fun person doing just that, with lovely pale sakura blossoms behind her.

This is a stone bust of Tokugawa Ieyasu, carved as a study for the massive bronze statue of him that stands outside the castle. The statue I forgot to photograph.

The castle has a small museum inside full of Edo-period armor and weaponry, and a small 3D model of Hamamatsu during the time Tokugawa ruled from its castle. This is a suit of samurai armor. I'm not an expert by any means but I'd guess this is an example of some of the later styles.

One of the best features of this castle is its secret basement well. If you're under siege- and these castle frequently were during Tokugawa's early career- you need a supply of fresh water. The lucky feudal lord had one within the castle itself. I don't know if you can still get water from this well, but I can tell you there's another one outside the walls.

On the castle steps, there were some cool dudes hanging out. Look at all the sakura blossoms.

This was also the first time I got to explore the castle gardens. Before this, I just assumed there weren't any, that the park itself was the whole point. Actually, the Hamamatsu-jo gardens are very beautiful and feature streams, a koi pond and a small waterfall, and this lovely wooden bridge.

This is a poorly-framed photo of the Hamamatsu War Victims Memorial. During WWII, Hamamatsu was one of many Japanese cities completely leveled by Allied bombing and naval bombardment. I think it's important to remember that governments may choose to go to war, but it's always their people who suffer from those decisions.

Here's a stone bridge over a koi pond. My friend T and I had fed koi at Hamamatsu Flower Park the day before on our own hanami, but we didn't have any food left over for these fish. I'm sure they got plenty from other people that day, though.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Virginia Tech Tragedy and Japan...

When something truly horrible happens overseas, the news penetrates almost everywhere. In America, the news media rarely covers foreign countries unless their citizens are committing genocide, or starving to death, or getting washed away by mighty tsunamis. So it goes with America in the news here in Japan.

My first year in Japan, the Columbine murders popped up frequently in conversations, both personal and in the Nova voice room. Many Japanese people I've met are fascinated by this image of America- that all Americans own guns, that America is a dangerous place.

"Do you own a gun?" they asked me. "Have you ever fired a gun?"

And being the truthful sort, I'd answer "No" to the first question and "Fairly often" to the second, explain that in Georgia hunting is a popular sport and describe my father's personal gun collection. I also took care to emphasize his absolute insistence on gun safety and the fact that we rarely saw those guns at home.

And we were absolutely forbidden to touch them. Because of the way both my parents expressed this household law, I never felt the lure of "forbidden fruit." Maybe I had more common sense than the average kid. Once something was explained to me as dangerous, I was content to leave it be.

I always felt my father preferred fishing to hunting (fishing seemed to fit the more gentle aspects of his character) and he was unsentimental in many ways about animals and guns alike, maybe because of his farm upbringing. Both existed for him in a completely utilitarian way. He didn't take his guns out to fondle them or show them off- they stayed hidden away, only to appear for one of his yearly hunting trips to north Georgia, or in the case of his .22 automatic, for protection against water mocassins and copperheads on fishing trips.

He didn't often force me to do things, but he did make me take a hunter's safety course.

Therefore, I can't understand gun culture, or the fetishization of firearms, or this desire to flash a gun and show it off to friends. Whether or not you believe gun ownership is a necessity, playing with them never is. They are deadly tools and having been present for one frightening gun accident... I really prefer not to be around people who play with firearms, especially when they're compelled to do so. It's foolish.

I always took great care to explain this to the Nova students. I have had to revisit this speech several times this week at my current school.

Of course these negative stereotypes get reinforced whenever something like the tragedy at Virginia Tech unfolds, or something happens to a Japanese national who's living in or visiting the U.S.; for example, to hear people here tell it you'd think Hattori Yoshihiro, who was shot to death in Baton Rouge in 1992, was killed just last week. I think America does its own stereotyping, with organizations like the NRA creating and enhancing suburban paranoia and filmmakers like Michael Moore creating other distortions in order to further their own political agendas.

However... these massacres are mystifying to people here. It's almost incomprehensible. It's not that murders don't happen here. The same day people entered hell in Virginia, the yakuza boss of Nagasaki assassinated city mayor Ito Iccho.

With a gun.

As the mayor of one of only 2 cities in the world attacked with atomic weapons, Ito was a nuclear disarmament crusader who traveled the world promoting peace. The man who shot him was the leader of Nagasaki's branch of the Yamaguchi-gumi crime family, Japan's largest. He was angry because the city wouldn't pay to repair his car after he drove it into a hole and damaged it. What the pro-peace mayor's culpability was in someone's stupid traffic accident, I'll never know.

So, yes, gun murders can happen anywhere... even in safe little Japan. It's just that in a society where guns are largely banned and not even particularly desired (although realistic toy model guns are surprisingly popular), the mentality that goes into shooting and killing another human being, or a culture that romanticizes such killings is alien and difficult to comprehend. Columbine and Virginia Tech are impossible here.

But you can have things like Aum's March 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway, where a doomsday cult murdered 12 and injured hundreds of others (some permanently) with homemade sarin gas.

While guns can make it easier to kill large numbers of people in short periods of time, we should also remember that like in the Aum attack, they're not an absolute necessity. Oklahoma City was perpetrated with fertilizer-based bombs and the September 11th attacks were carried out with box-cutters and, ultimately, airplanes.

So to me, murder isn't just a lone crazy person's problem, or a gun problem, or even an atomic bomb problem. It's a human problem. Something possesses us to kill, and not only to kill, but to justify it beforehand or in its aftermath. Religion, politics, personal slights. These are all stupid reasons to do what should be as unthinkable and alien everywhere as it is in my classroom, or a Nova voice room.

My heart goes out to the victims' families, and also the killer's family. I feel horrible for all of them. I can't imagine what it must feel like to lose a friend or loved one in something as senseless and stupid as this. I can't imagine what it must be like to be related to someone who would do something like this.

I think the family deserves our understanding and sympathy. They are victims in this too, and in some ways the betrayal they faced is the worst of all. At least the rest of us can give vent to self-righteous rage, or engage in sensitive introspection. The gunman's family, though?

Those poor people. He fired as many bullets into their hearts and souls.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Sakura Performers...

A couple of weeks ago, back during sakura time, my friend T and I went to Hamamatsu Castle Park to look at the cherry blossoms and spy on all the hanami. As a very special treat, we got to see a performance by a musical group with loud drums and ghost-like dancers.

The performers wore cool costumes, like this guy. He's got sakura painted on his back and was part of a matched pair. After one set, they both worked the crowd, patiently submitting to dozens of photograph requests by adopting the perfect pose. My regret is not getting more shots of the rest of the performers, but I only had a disposable camera and was on a strict photo budget.

The ghosts, meanwhile, in armless, legless floral costumes, each did a slow, high-stepping walk, their alien body language seamlessly creating these mysterious spirits from the other world.

Some children were more curious than others, and bravely approached the ghosts:

These kids subjected one ghost dancer to a thorough investigation, but she never broke character. She scooted away from their prying hands, her eyes serenely closed, and never once spoke. When it was time for her to dance again, and she rose from the bench, the children cried after her, "Can you speak? Why can't you speak Japanese?"

My friend T took this picture, my favorite of the day. When the ghost saw T ready to snap the shot, she quickly shuffled into close-up, leading to this gorgeous photo.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Japan is a Very Seismically Active Country...

We had another earthquake, just after noon on Sunday. I was sitting around doing nothing (my semi-girlfriend had other plans for the day) when my apartment jumped. It happened quickly, a jolt that felt as if someone had crashed into the wall with their car or else my upstairs neighbors' refrigerator had fallen over.

Although in the latter case, it probably would've come right through the ceiling. And I'd now have two refrigerators.

Experts say there's a 90% chance Tokyo will have a major earthquake sometime in the next 50 or so years. I've also heard that about Los Angeles and San Francisco for as long as I can remember. But according to a Discovery Channel documentary I saw recently, if a quake of about the scale of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake strikes... given the population and construction density of Tokyo, devastation and death would be beyond belief. The economic impact on both Japan and the United States would stagger both nations.

Friday, April 6, 2007

News and Random Notes from Nihon!

It's election time here. A few weeks ago, some unknown agency erected signboards with numbered slots and within a few days those numbered slots had bloomed like the sakura, only with posters featuring photos of various candidates for office.

I have no idea what the political parties are here, but they have more than 2. The main one is the LDP, or Liberal Democratic Party. That sounds really liberal, right? Bill O'Reilly's face is already turning red and there's a little shiny fleck of spittle at the corner of his lip, and Ann Coulter is banging her head against the wall just from the name alone.

Liberal? Democratic? Wrong, my friend. This is the party of Koizumi Junichiro, the previous prime minister who privatized the post office, and Abe Shinzo, the current PM whose hardline stance on North Korea and visits to the Yasukuni Shrine (much like Koizumi's before him) have alienated other Asian nations. Abe also wants to change the Japanese constitution to allow the use of military force abroad.

There are some other parties, but the LDP has been in charge almost constantly since the end of WWII. I suppose the main thing in Japan is stability, though. Keep the shinkansen running on time, make people believe that indeed, "Japan is safety," and all's well with the people. I do miss Koizumi's magnificent main of gray hair.

Election season means noise, noise, noise. If the Grinch hated Whoville and its raucous Christmas celebrations, he would go absolutely ape shit over Japan's election season. All day long at the station, candidates speechify. Endlessly. We can hear them through the window glass at our school, roughly a half block away.

And then there are the sound trucks. At regular intervals throughout the day, starting around 8 or 9am, these minivans with loudspeakers on top and political signage along their sides cruise through the neighborhoods. Inside are volunteers in colorful windbreakers and, with white-gloved hands, they wave to passersby. They even wave to me.

I cracked up my two high school students by describing my sound truck encounters. I described how I love to wave to the political volunteers, and how they happily wave back and smile and nod. But they have to know I'm not voting for their candidate.

I framed my face with my hands and said, "Look at me! Look at my face! Do I look like I'm going to vote in your election this year? Do I look like a voter?" and the girls cackled and clapped.

In other news, my doctor wants me to have surgery. This is something I can't afford because I don't have health insurance here. Medical care isn't crazy-expensive in Japan, but it can add up... and I'm sure something as major as surgery and a hospital stay will not come so cheap. My first trip to the clinic was only 13,000 yen (around $140) and I got medicine. This time it was about half that, medicine included. The surgery they recommended is only 53,000 yen... but it requires a 1-week hospital stay. They said I could do it in two days, though. There's the problem... I can't miss even that much work and I don't have a few thousand dollars to toss around.

The whole thing is ridiculous anyway. George Brett had this same problem back in 1980, had surgery and played in the World Series a day later. I know medical technology has advanced since then. And Japan is a thoroughly modern, up-to-date nation. It's not like I'm in some isolated, sparsely populated exotic land.

Maybe I'd get a different diagnosis in Tokyo. But it's no to surgery, yes to the Plan B they offered.

Our school has lost a lot of adult students, and a few kids, too. But with an influx of new bodies, we now have more kids than ever before. My boss is pretty happy about this because he didn't advertise our kid's classes at all last year. This is all word-of-mouth, which means our school's reputation has grown.

It also means we have to buckle down and work harder to maintain this reputation. You don't do any laurel-resting in Japan. Getting praised means... doubling your efforts! So we've had some kid's classes meeting and changed our method to try to bring uniformity to what we offer.

These parents are not playing around. They believe speaking and understanding English is a huge advantage for their children and they will be quick to complain if they don't feel their little ones are improving.

I know I'm too slack on the kids. It's my American way, and also my father's influence. He was pretty laissez-faire as far as discipline went. He pretty much expected that we'd be doing the right thing but he was a soft touch. And so, therefore, am I.

The parental concern is both a drag and a benefit. We're under scrutiny, but so are the children. So for the most part, they work hard. Most of our kids are cheerful and dilligent. I've got a couple of boys who are jokers, but they're nothing compared to what a teacher would've faced from my best friend and I in a similar situation. I mean, we once caused a Cub Scout leader to pull his car to the side of the road and berate us in language that would've made R. Lee Ermey's drill instructor character from Full Metal Jacket to say, "Whoa! Calm down there, buddy!"

But having pleasant kids who are actually there to learn and obey is such a blessing, compared to Nova classes which tend to be comedy improv versions of Lord of the Flies with a little Battle Royale tossed in for variety's sake.

This week, I declared war on bad pronunciation. No more letting kids slide with using "dees" instead of "this." I stopped Wednesday's lesson a few dozen times to have the kids practice making the "th" sound. As far as I know, that's one of those sounds that absolutely doesn't exist in the Japanese language, along with l, v and z... at least not in the way we're familiar with.

"What did you do this weekend?"

"What... deed... you do... dees... weekend."

"Uh uh... 'What DID you do THis weekend?'"

"What did you... do... dees... weekend."

"Nope nope nope. THis. This. This. Tongue under your teeth like this. Th. Th."

"Dees. Dees. D. D."

"Th. This. This."

"D. Dis. This."

"Good! 'What did you do this weekend?'"

"What did you do this weekend?"


Victory is sweet.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

The First of April... Hello Juniors!

As my new friend J recently sagely said, in Japan March is a time for goodbyes and April is a time for hello's. This is because school graduation ceremonies take place in March and most employees join their companies the following month.

J is undergoing this process now. She completed college in January, then spent a month touring Europe from Serbia to Paris. But on Saturday, she had her first job training. Her actual career begins the following Monday.

Many of our students are taking off for Canada or new jobs now, too. A very transitional period for us all.

This morning, I had to run some errands downtown. I took the #9 bus and at many bus stops there were groups of freshly-minted salarypeople. Men and women in smart black suits. From high schools to banks and DoCoMo outlets, from fast food restaurants to maid cafes, Japan is a country that loves the uniform. These black suits, either the male trousered variety or the female skirted one, are another permutation of that.

Another concept found in Japanese work culture is the junior-senior relationship. It's a common belief that Japan is a hierarchical society. Age and rank play an important role in social and business interactions. Explaining all of that would be a post in itself.

But when you join a company, you're on a ladder. Above you are your seniors. Even when speaking in English, people here will frequently refer to "my senior" or "my junior." It's a sort of mentor relationship, I think.

All I'm sure of is, if your senior is an asshole, you're screwed. T's senior seems to have a lot of personal problems to go with a prickly personality and hardly a day goes by that T doesn't email me about stomach aches and stress from how this woman treats her. Fortunately for T, her senior is quitting in July and T will become the office senior. She already has a junior, another young woman of her own age who recently joined the office staff.

Like T, she's tall and very young. T has the ability to connect with almost anyone; she's definitely not shy. So they're well on their way to establishing a mutually enjoyable relationship at the office. Which is great because another aspect of Japanese working life is the after-hours drinking party.

It's not optional. It's a requirement.

I'm All Hanami'd Out!

It's Sakura season in Japan. Almost everywhere the cherry blossoms are in full-bloom or close enough, so people are taking their weekend afternoons and spending them lounging around on blue plastic tarps, drinking beer and eating yakitori under the white or pink flowering trees. These picnics- called hanami- are for enjoying time with friends and family while savoring the bittersweet brevity of the cherry blossoms.

Saturday, I went with 3 of my students and my friend T out to the Hamamatsu Flower Park for our own hanami. I really expected just to walk around looking at flowers, but we did the whole schmear. Lots of homemade treats and some store-bought ones as well. It was a chilly, cloudy day threatening rain... lots of dark shadows over the nearby mountains... but the wetness held off until almost midnight.

T and I walked and talked and giggled a lot at our various corny remarks and silly stunts. We fed ducks and koi and watched families at play together.

Today, with much better weather, T and I ate lunch at SaintMark, a restaurant and bakery where the servers bring around baskets of bread while you eat. After filling up on bread and elegantly small portions of 5-grain soup, seafood yakitori and steak, we went to Hamamatsu Castle Park, another choice hanami spot. We crossed through a former railway tunnel that's now part of a nature walk contained within the urban environs of Hamamatsu. Four years ago, my friend Mike and I got lost looking for the castle in the exact same area. Turns out we just didn't walk down far enough.

The paved path was lined with white blossomed cherry trees, and down a slope in a grassy park, there were dozens of hanami groups on the requisite blue tarps. T made fun of them in a good-natured way, declaring them "Real Japanese style" and imitating their laughter.

Beneath Hamamatsu Castle, there's a tree-ringed field that was also full. Picnickers lolled about on blankets and tarps under the trees, while in the middle groups of people played netless badminton or kicked soccer balls around, and one father/son duo threw a baseball, the father feeding the boy hard grounders the kid fielded with soft hands and well-practiced skill.

An eclectic group of musicians and performers were giving a concert nearby. They'd outfitted themselves in traditional Japanese performance garb, and two of the guys had sakura body paintings and were posing for pictures, while a couple of women with painted faces pranced around in these armless, legless ghost costumes.

At one point, one of the women silently allowed a couple of cute kids to torment her. She stayed in character the whole time, even when posing for a photograph with the kids for their grandmother. When she finally made her way back for the group's next performance, the children shouted after her in shrill voices, which cracked up T.

She imitated them: "'Can you speak Japanese? Why don't you speak? Why can't you speak Japanese?'"

It was almost as if they truly believed she truly was an otherworldly creature. Or at least had themselves half-convinced by her craft and their own childish imaginations.

We walked up the stone steps among cherry trees and paper lanterns and went into the castle. Inside there are displays of classic samurai arms and armor. Katana and even musketry from the final spasms of the great wars for Japanese unification, the process finally completed by Tokugawa Ieyasu himself, commemorated by a large bronze statue outside.

We walked through the gardens, over a bridge below which white and orange koi glided in dark green water, white cherry blossoms speckling its surface.

I snapped a lot of pictures and I'll try to post them soon.

Afterwards, we drove out to Aeon Shitoro Shopping Center and shared a chocolate brownie at the Starbucks there. Then we ate at Sawayaka, a popular "hamburg" steak restaurant. T was feeling tired and under the weather from what is possibly a cold so we called it quits after that.

Finally, I got to experience the hanami. As enamored as I am with various Japanese customs and history, I'm more a fan of the modern subcultures here. The avant garde music scene and the crazy fashionistas in Harajuku. But the hanami is one tradition that should be adopted by the rest of the world. It's a beauty of an idea, as delicate and as fragile as the short-lived cherry blossom and as warm and inviting as sharing a beer and some delicious food with your best friend.