Archive for August, 2007

Let’s Dancing!

Friday, August 31st, 2007 by Steph

One more post on the joys of small town life. Akita Prefecture is playing host to the 62nd Annual National Sports Festival of Japan (that’s right! the sports-playing tree mascot is not a general Akita symbol as we originally thought, but is in fact Sugitchi, the mascot for this Olympic-style sporting event). Yesterday, the city of Noshiro held a rally in the center of town to celebrate the opening of this sports festival next month. This was a Big Event. What looked like the entire student bodies of at least five schools filled the streets to see a torch go by. There was music and dance-like gyrating:

Sugitchi Rally

After sitting around on sidewalks for half an hour, the actual “action” lasted for about two minutes. The torch went by, photos were taken, and over a thousand students made their way back through the streets to their respective schools.

The Japanese school year is one of the longest in the world, at least six weeks longer than the American school year, but many of those extra days consist of festivals and field trips like this.

Mixed Feelings

Friday, August 31st, 2007 by Steph

This is how I came to be face to face with the naked Japanese man.

I’ve been flirting with onsens lately… well, me and Chris both. Onsening seemed a little intimidating and unnecessary at first. I already have my own shower and the luxury of privacy in my own home, why jettison both for a clothes-free dip with strangers? Well, we’re sucking it up now, and giving it a try.

There are tons of onsens around, so each one has to find its niche to stand out in some way. An onsen’s selling point may be the mineral content of their waters, which are piped directly out of the bowels of the earth. Or it may be the water color, with shades ranging from turquoise to rusty brown, chock full of various healing properties, bound to cure whatever ails you. Another way an onsen can add spice to the bathing game is to add gimmicks to their pools. Here is where my stress comes in.

The general pool-soaking concept, I get. It’s a no-brainer. My issue is with the onsens that have decided to get overly creative, the places with slots for individual bathers, one inch pools with wooden head rests for laying down, electric pools, super hot pools, super cold pools, outdoor pools, or spouts of water that fall from the sky. Each onsen has a sign next to it explaining what’s going on, but this usually does me little good. Every time I go to a new onsen, I have to scope the scene, and watch everyone else nonchalantly to make sure I understand what each pool is “for”.

In the spirit of sampling the wide diversity of the onsen spectrum, we decided to visit Taenoyu near Lake Tazawa, where the water has a famed and mysterious milky-white hue. People come from all around to soak in these waters, and we wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

With a new onsen, you just never know what you’re going to get. We’ve been to onsens that were basically ugly linoleum boxes, large industrial complexes with lockers for hundreds upon hundreds of guests, designed with an eye for volume instead of aesthetics. We were relieved to find the opposite layout at Taenoyu. We were welcomed warmly into a discreet little wooden building, overflowing with charm and ambiance. The small foyer, which was filled to capacity with empty pairs of shoes, hinted at the modest size of the establishment, with barely room for 20 people in the baths.

taenoyu.jpg

Once I had paid and disappeared behind the red curtain which marked the women’s only area, I found a beautiful bathing area constructed entirely out of wood, with only 4 showers for everyone to share. The scent of sulfur and herbal shampoo co-mingled pleasantly in the air. After showering, I soaked in the two simple yet relaxing baths, complete with wooden recliners built into the pool.

reclining-pool.jpg

Two pools are all well and good, but a bit on the small side for an onsen, especially one as famous as Taenoyu. Which is when I saw the mysterious wooden door. Figuring this must lead to another room of female-only bathing, I nonchalantly walked my naked self through.

On the other side, I found a set of rather pleasant outdoor pools, overlooking a waterfall set amongst the trees. In between me and this tranquil scene was a naked Japanese man, who was lurking just outside of the door to the women’s baths (in retrospect this seems a little suspect). This area of the onsen was unisex, every man for herself.

With an eep! I quickly retreated to the haven of the women’s only bathing room to regroup. I had heard that mixed bathing onsen existed, but had been too shy to purposefully seek them out. I then noticed this label 混 on the door. If I had taken a moment to read this kanji earlier, it would have informed me that the room beyond was “mixed”. Ahhh, kanji. If only I could learn and remember 2,000 of you I wouldn’t, for example, walk naked into a room full of men. Mental note, must study more.

I struck up a conversation with two fellow female bathers. They informed me that all of the onsen in the area are mixed gender. Charming. My new friends exited the bathing pool, and covered the front of their bodies with a “modesty towel”. Why Japanese women feel the need to cover their fronts and not their backs, I’m not sure, but no one seems to mind if their bum hangs out in the breeze. Women started to gather at the door to the outside pools, sneaking peaks and assessing the situation.

I glanced at my friends, and I knew what I had to do. I told them, if you go in, I’ll go in with you. We made our pact, and I went to go get my own towel. Together, we took the plunge, through the looking glass and into the world of co-ed public Japanese bathing, and this is what we found:

waterfall2.jpg

In the end, the mixed gender thing wasn’t such a big deal. Onsens are about relaxation and contemplation, so everyone was in their own little world anyway. That plus the fact that I knew no one and would never see them again made any initial awkwardness dissipate pretty quickly.

Final analysis? Totally worth it and I’m so going back.

*Thanks to the Taenoyu website and the Flickr community for the photos that appear in this post.

Country Prized

Friday, August 31st, 2007 by Chris

There’s a marathon coming up in the nearby town of Gojome. The list of prizes completely captures the feeling of small-town life. Here they are as described by Gojome JET Corey Newman:

50 people will receive a “Morning Market Pack,” which probably has all the daikon and mountain vegetables you could eat – a virtual countryside tabehoudai!

25 people will receive 720ml of sake made right here in town. Our mayor owns a sake company, and it’s pretty good stuff.

Finally, another 25 people will receive 2kg of rice.

These prizes define Gojome.

Off Color

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007 by Steph

You know the vice-principal, the guy at my school full of propriety and decorum who keeps everything running smoothly? He thought it would be funny to tell me all the bad words he knows in English today, so he put on his sailor’s cap, and started pointing at things around the office, spewing “Bitches!” and “Fuck You!”. I was a bit taken aback, but that’s okay… little does he know I taught my English club girls how to say turd yesterday. Whaat? Don’t look at me like that. I needed rhymes for bird, and “rd” is a legitimately difficult sound for my Japanese students to make. They should get something titillating every once in awhile for their efforts. Besides, it’s legitimate cultural exchange. Months ago one of my students taught me an equivalent word in Japanese, unko, which is used with abandon. A word that happens to sound just like anko, the heavy pasty brown bean paste inside of Japanese pastries. Make sure you don’t get those two confused. It could be messy.

*Thanks to the Flickr community for helping to photographically illustrate a point

2007-2008 West Coast Tour

Tuesday, August 28th, 2007 by Chris

We’ve been madly planning our whirlwind three-week America visit this holiday season, and the chips are settling out thus:

  • Dec 22-25: Los Angeles
  • Dec 26-29: Davis/Bay Area
  • Dec 30-Jan 2: Seattle
  • Jan 3-7: LA/Thousand Oaks
  • Jan 8-10: San Diego

If you live in one of those places, we are very excited to see you. If you don’t, but can somehow manage to appear in one of them during those dates, we would be ecstatic! This is about the most complicated trip we’ve ever planned, and it’s been hard to resist the temptation to squeeze in more and more little side-trips.

Flowery Farewell

Friday, August 24th, 2007 by Steph

It seems the unbearable heat has finally dissipated, though it’s still nice and toasty. The good-n-plenty flowers (cosmos) are also out in force, while the sunflowers are having their last hurrah.cosmos.jpg

sunflower.jpg

Festival Whore

Monday, August 13th, 2007 by Steph

I haven’t seen the sun for a good ten days, and it’s making me a bit twitchy. In the midst of all this wet and gloom, imagine my surprise when a teacher burst into the staff room and asked me in a panic if anything was wet. One eyebrow raised, I followed her into the corridor, where drip drip dripping could be heard soaking through the ceiling onto the linoleum floor. Peering further down the hallway, I was astonished to see sheets of water pouring down flights of stairs. Leaky roof? No, a pipe had spontaneously burst on the fourth floor.

At this point, the individuals who had been milling around school aimlessly during summer vacation burst into action. Everyone manned themselves with old mops, buckets, and squeegees. Each tool by itself was pretty ineffective… old ratty mops and dustpans… but when used together in a sort of fireman’s brigade of pushing water across the floor, and into the public bathrooms, where we could trap the excess water, we were able to make progress. Water-sucking vacuums were brought in to pipe the water outside, where students gleefully turned the exhaust hose on each other.

Face to face, working with my Japanese colleague in the hall, he stopped for a moment, considered the water cascading from floor to floor down the stairwell and cheekily informed me in English: “summer festival”. Indeed.

Little did he know that he was talking to a festival whore. I will travel anywhere at anytime no matter what the distance if you whisper one little word into my ears: matsuri. This is how I was seduced into traveling about 2 hours southeast to Ani-Maeda (literally, the rice field just before the town of Ani) on a school night to see a Tanabata festival.

Tanabata is a celebration held either on July 7 or August 7, depending on where you live in Japan. This festival celebrates the one day a year when two star crossed lovers can meet, and is a time to make wishes. Each region seems to celebrate this festival in a different way. Noshiro celebrates by hauling fish-shaped floats throughout town, and burning them on the river. Akita City celebrates the season by toting huge fiery representations of rice up and down the street. Ani-Maeda celebrates Tanabata by setting everything on fire.

We arrived to find the usual complement of festival food: onigiri, yakisoba, cotton candy… and an unusual amount of ほるもん (intestines) and 馬肉 (horsemeat). What we didn’t expect was to see our favorite chef from Noshiro… who recognized us instantly, came over to greet us warmly, and drunkenly presented us with 5 ears of cooked corn. Such are the quirks of life in the Japanese countryside.

Shortly after we were presented with the bounty of corn, a procession of floats marched past the food stalls, and wound its way down to the river front. The floats were a bit rickety, clearly handmade by local artisans. Each float was followed by a small contingent of drum and flute players, each with their own tune, so that as the floats passed you by, one rhythm would morph awkwardly into the next.

We were adopted by a group of friendly folk. Before the big show, they waved us over, and magically produced seating for all 6 of us, effectively doubling the size of their party. As the light waned, everyone sat down on one side of the river on the edge of town. Facing the opposing bank as night fell, torches lit up one by one appeared in the darkness, streaking in lines across our field of view. Moments later, fireworks burst from these strings of lights, and only then did I realize that the lines of torches created 3 volcanoes, which had all started exploding.

The festival proceeded at a leisurely pace. Between firework displays, we watched kanji slowly appear across the river in fiery strokes as all the necessary lanterns were lit by hand. A taiko group played through the night. Strings of fireworks were lit from the bridge and dripped off brilliantly into the water below.

A zip line had also been set up from a nearby hill, in order to send fiery images plummeting into the river. Skiers made of fire, a tribute to the ski area nearby, flew through the air, only to be extinguished below. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw an airplane on fire soar through the air, and extinguish itself in the river. This was supposedly a tribute to the nearby airport, which was recently completed… though I have to say I kind of got mixed messages about the safety of air travel from the display.

I’m looking forward to the few remaining weeks of festival season, when I’ll be running like a madman all over the ken, trying to catch as many events as possible before we sink from the hot sticky lethargy of summer into the crisp golden air of autumn.

Sapporo Singing Sanitation

Monday, August 6th, 2007 by Chris

It’s not often that a garbage truck brightens your day, but here you go, fresh and ripe from the nothern city of Sapporo.

Singing Trash

Summer songs

Monday, August 6th, 2007 by Steph

Life Japan revolves so heavily around the seasons, I thought i would celebrate the coming of nature’s little gifts this year as they appear. No fanfare, just a little note here and there. What’s happening now, you ask? The cicadas are out, making a racket.

Glove Bug