Monday, August 31, 2009

Noh - ehhh, no

A long, long time ago, a powerful dude in Japan decided that what the country REALLY needed back then was some new, fancy-shmancy art form. So he summoned an artsy dude that was on his payroll and said, “Yo, Kanami, you’re doing OK with that rice-field monkey dancing stage thingy you have going on, but we need something that would blow other clans socks off. Something truly impressive. Something that only the truly classy and cultured ones would understand.” Kanami, the artsy one, nodded, because he knew where his money was coming from and besides, he liked his head in its current position.

But the Ashikaga shogun, being the pragmatic guy that he was, had an ulterior motive as well. He was going to show those other clans what a classy, cultured guy he was, that’s for sure! But why stop at that when you can do so much more? And all at the same time, in a classy, cultured way.
He added, “And oh yeah Kanami, while you’re at it, make sure this new art is a real killer.”

Kanami (観阿弥 清次) and his son Zeami (世阿弥 元清) took those words to heart and devised the highly refined form of torture known as the modern Noh (能) theatre. Stuff so mind boggingly boring that killing off rival clans members after they fell asleep during the performance was actually an act of mercy (otherwise the poor schmucks would have to kill themselves when they woke up to restore their honor and atone for sleeping during the show).

Either way, the Ashikaga clan flourished and very quickly rose to prominence. The shogun constructed himself a very fancy residence in Kyoto, the audience learned to stick toothpicks into their eyes to stay awake during Noh performances (because chewing your leg off would be so low class), and the rest is history.

This history manifested itself a couple of weeks ago when we went to watch a Noh play in Nikko. It was an open-air performance right outside the Rinnoji temple. The tickets were rather expensive - section A – about 70 bucks per person, which considering the type of chairs we had to sit on was, hmmm… how to put it nicely? Excessive would be the word, I guess.

Before the show

Yes, I know, not exactly a budget activity, but it’s art, dammit. And I was going to be artsy and cultured and all that.

Well, what I turned out to be was wet – it started to rain in the middle of the performance.

Watching noh

The show was stopped and the organizers patiently began distributing plastic rain covers. So we sat there, on hard seats in the pouring rain and watched a couple of guys in funny masks move across the stage with the speed of a snail going backwards. The masked guys were shielded by clear plastic umbrellas held lovingly by an assortment of various stage hands.

Lacking toothpicks, I was unable to keep my eyes open and began to seriously consider chewing my leg off to stay awake. Not a very honorable alternative, I know, but still better than falling asleep. And just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, the gods took mercy upon me and the show finally ended. And all through this ordeal I was thinking of all the exciting things I could have done with my 70 bucks. So that’s a definite “no” for Noh from me. I think I’ll stick to super-kabuki (the kind with lots of smoke, fire and wire action).

The show
Sorry for the cellphone quality of this shot, but taking photos during the performance was strictly forbidden.

No photos allowed

PS. Husband really enjoyed the show. He said the actors looked like badly operated bunraku puppets.
And the next day I read on the internet that the plays we saw (two of them, actually) were "full of action". And let me tell you, if that was full of action, then I really don't want to know what kind of sick torture boring Noh must be.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Feeling Touristy in Asakusa

Our first impression of Tokyo was “wow, there are so many foreigners here!” And “wow, English! They speak English!” Granted, it was the foreigners that spoke English, but still, the effect it had on us was impossible to describe. And our joy impossible to contain. After going for weeks on end without seeing another white face (apart from my American co-worker), Tokyo felt just like New York. So multi-ethnic, so full of variety in all shapes and sizes, so melting pot. Yeah, you know you’ve been living in the countryside, if you think that Tokyo is a melting pot, but there you have it.

And in order to get our gaijin fix for the coming months and enjoy hearing not only English, but also French, Spanish and Urdu, we headed to Asakusa.

Roof figure

I am ashamed to admit, but we had never been to Asakusa before. Number one touristy place in Tokyo and yet somehow it had not been graced with our presence. Until last Saturday. Of course, the fact that we HAD to go there to take the train back home (Tobu line to Tochigi) was merely an irrelevant coincidence.

Asakusa passage

Once in Asakusa, however, our disappointment was hard to hide. If Tokyo was New York, then Asakusa was its Chinatown. A lot cleaner and better organized, that’s for sure, but still – Chinatown. Even many of the vendors were Chinese pretending to be Japanese. Pretending to speak English. Selling “made in China” genuine Japanese souvenirs. In other words – business as usual.

Rikshaw pullers

But at least in New York we had a reason to go to Chinatown every so often – after all, dumplings don't make themselves, and fresh shrimp don’t grow on trees. Everybody knows they come from all sorts of goofy little shops off Canal Street.
Asakusa was different. There was really no reason for us to be there (apart from the Tobu line, but for that we didn’t need to wander the streets).

Making ningyoyaki

Making ningyoyaki

So what do you do in Asakusa when you don’t want a rikshaw ride (at least two of the pullers turned out to be Chinese who spoke Japanese), or have no tacky souvenirs to buy (except for that "made in China" Asakusa Hello Kity cellphone strap), when the big temple is covered in ugly scaffolding and there are so many people inside that you don’t even feel like getting close to the building?

Me in asakusa x800

Feeling very touristy in Asakusa

You go and have yourself some whale. Fried whale. Whale sashimi. Whale steak. Whale curry. Whale soup. Whale whatever. It’s all yummy and the prices were shockingly (for Asakusa and for whale) affordable.

Kujira cuisine

The restaurant had no English signs on the doors, there was only Japanese writing and a discreet picture of something resembling, yes, a whale. Located at the back of something that looked like a seafood shop (probably to camouflage the fact that it was whale they were selling – better not to upset those foreign “save the whales” zealots) but with a separate entrance, the place was tiny. Just four (or maybe five) tables, a cheesy curtain over the door, and the ever present smell of cigarettes (the place is not smoke-free).

I don’t remember if the menu was bilingual, I vaguely recall that some items might have been labeled both in Japanese and in English. But maybe not. By that time, I was tired, sweaty, smelly and hungry. Very hungry. Lack of English on the menu was the least of my concerns. I was so starved I would have gladly eaten a stack of zebra burgers with a side order of fried snake skins. And besides, I’d had whale before, I just wanted to check if it tasted the same over here.

And the verdict? It was better than I’d remembered it. Juicy, succulent, done just right, perfectly yummy Minke whale. (Yes, it’s “Minke”, not “mink” as many people seem to think).

It was also cheap. A dinner for two set us back around 3000 yen. And considering that a hanafuda card-size piece of whale meat at our local supermarket costs around 600 yen, this was an incredible deal.

Hmmm… suddenly I regret I didn’t buy that package of whale curry. But hey, at least that gives me a good excuse to go there again. And eat more whale. And maybe even take a rickshaw ride and buy a tacky souvenir.

Asaskusa dogs 3

Taking a rest in Asakusa

Sunday, August 16, 2009

War Is Over – Visiting Yasukuni on August 15th

For those who don’t know – Yasukuni jinja is the very controversial shinto shrine in Tokyo. Well, the shrine itself is not controversial. It’s just a normal shrine, but because it’s dedicated to dead soldiers and because those dead soldiers include several dudes commonly considered elsewhere as war criminals, you can imagine that things can get a little complicated when high ranking Japanese officials visit the shrine to pay their respects. Normally when that happens, I mean, when a Japanese public figure visits the shrine, the noise made by furious Chinese and Koreans can be heard around the world. (But as an aside, the very same Chinese who steam with righteous anger when it comes to Yasukuni seem totally fine with the fact that their very own Chairman Mao himself was responsible for many more deaths during peace time than those Japanese officers during war time.)

And for those who don’t know – August 15th is the day when Japan surrendered in 1945.

War is over

So now you see, it can get quite funky at Yasukuni on August 15th. But not today. Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Abe visited the shrine (but not Mr. Aso, or "aho"* as he's being commonly referred to these days), but we didn’t see any angry protesters.

Cops in riot gear

There were plenty of cops in full riot gear, which I thought made them look awfully sexy. There were plenty of reinforced paddywagons parked along the street, too. Everybody was ready for some heavy action, the only problem being - there was no action.

Right wing suits

Instead, there were plenty of uyoku dantai (far-right) members (some looking very swanky - dressed in sharp black suits, and what’s up with their meticulously trimmed eyebrows, huh?) and even more ordinary people doing what people do at shrines. Except that today, due to the sheer volume of people, they had to wait their turn.

People waiting with flag

People waiting with flag 2
And waiting...

Girl in crowd
And waiting some more...

There was also some cosplay.

Old guy salute
This guy, Mr. Sanada, has been doing this thing at Yasukuni for years. And not just on August 15th. He's there most days during the week and every weekend year round.

Cosplay 2 

I've seen these guys before, but they're a rival "cosplay" faction and not as friendly and approachable as Mr. Sanada.

Muppets doing cosplay 

Mr. Sanada and his little helpers do this show almost every hour. And when the "soldiers" are not available, he does it himself.

Now, I realize that some may consider it bad taste, but at least it provided much needed (and free!) entertainment for the throngs of natives and gaijins alike during this hot, and otherwise very boring, afternoon.

What I think is bad taste is this.


And please, spare yourself the explanations that swastika is originally a religious symbol. I know that. But their swastikas clearly weren’t of the religious variety. That to me was not only bad taste, but also monumentally stupid. Why? Those guys didn’t consider themselves neo-nazis. They had no clue what a nazi swastika meant and simply thought it was a cool thing to put on their uniforms. And yes, I know that Japan and Nazi Germany were allies in WW2. But so was Italy and somehow the Italians now have more common sense than those Japanese.

But anyway… Considering that we had schlepped to Yasukuni all the way from Utsunomiya (using only Tobu lines - because we had free tickets, which involved getting up at 5AM and making four train changes), you could say that we really wanted to be there. And yes, that’s true. After all, August 15th only comes once a year.

PS. And the cuteness factor was provided courtesy of young right-wingers who were feeling very patriotic today:

Right wing girls 2 

Dressed all in black. Naturally.

I may not like them uyoku dantai folks, but you gotta admit it - those bastards have style.

*) "aho" (アホ) means "stupid" in Japanese

Friday, August 14, 2009

Cat Cafes? Why Not?

Meido cafes are like so 1990s. Really. People still go to those places? I know they are popular with tourists (well, tourists, nuff said), but just how dasai and totally uncool do you have to be to actually admit to visiting one of those establishments? Hint – very.
So where do the cool kids hang out these days? At cat cafes!

One of them, funky, furry, “happiness lives here and purrs in your ear” places has just opened in Utsunomiya. Yeah, a cat café. With actual, live cats. Cats that stroll around while you sip your tea. Cats that sleep next to you while you enjoy your cake. Cats that make it very clear as to who owns the place. Really owns the place.
The cat café “Felis” in Utsunomiya is located at 863-7 Naka Tomatsuri (phone: 090-5499-7099) and is open from 11AM till midnight. As the manager, Hiroyuki Morota said, there are 30 cats living there. All of them were abandoned as kittens, and are vaccinated, tested for diseases, healthy, clean, litterbox trained and ready for adoption.

The customers are free to play with the cats, entertain them, enjoy their company and give them as much love and attention as they want, or demand (since we're talking about cats here, right?). And this peculiar arrangement seems to be working.
Mind you, Felis is not the cheapest café in town. Far from it, actually. But somehow, I don’t mind paying 850 yen for a cup of coffee and a piece of cake if I know that my cash goes towards feeding 30 sweet furry babies, who otherwise would have been abandoned and homeless.

The cats have their own private doors, and if they wish, they can leave the main café area and hide in the back. But the little fellas don’t seem to mind the hoominz at all and if anything, they look like they’re enjoying all the attention.

The place is not perfect, however. During our visit there today, a piece of one of the chandeliers fell down, hit my glass of water and covered me with tiny glass shards pretty much from top to bottom. The situation would have been a wet dream for any American lawyer, but here the manager merely inquired if I was injured (I wasn’t), led me to the restroom so I could shake the glass bits from my shirt, hair and bra and apologized for the inconvenience. He did not even offer to comp our tea and cake - we paid our bill in full.
But despite that, will I go back there again? Yeah, I will. Those cats are just so bloody cute.

More cat cafe photos are here and here on our Tochigi Daily Photo blog.

P.S. And here's a video from our second visit in January 2011.

And here are photos from that visit.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Memories of Poland

I've been thinking a lot about Poland lately. A friend of mine asked me if I liked it there, and when I answered that yes, I did, she wanted to know what it was that I liked most. Hmmm... Now, that's a difficult question. And I'm not going to give you the standard cookie-cutter, touristy answers to it, because that you can read in all sorts of guidebooks all on your own.

So, here are my thoughts (some of them were published in a more genteel form on a different blog, but here you get the uncut version):

Poland is a most amazing country - over there you can name your company "Blow" and nobody's going to even bat an eye. You can even erect a full size highway billboard for your Blow and nobody's going to get upset over it. A few foreigners might temporarily lose control over their vehicles while driving by, but hey, every Pole knows that foreigners are atrocious drivers to begin with, even without any blow by the side of the road.

Blow x800

Foreigners might be atrocious drivers, but every time I saw a baby being used as an airbag, it was a Polish driver (or passenger) who employed this particular kind of extra protection. How do I know they were Polish? By the very eloquent curses they hurled at me when I snapped their photos.

Baby airbag
OK, I admit it, there are stupid people all over the world. It just seems that a disproportionately high number of them was driving in Poland around the time I was there.

But most Poles are very smart people. And very proud of their foreign language skills. I've met Polish people who were busy studying Thai, and Swahili, and even Quechua. Too bad that at the same time very frequently their English skills were left to rot.

Victoria gruop x800

But then again, this haphazard approach to English was rather refreshing. Here is one country where anything goes. Where a jewelry store named "Apart" sells wedding bands and engagements rings and nobody thinks anything of it:

Apart x800 
I want to see them opening a branch in the UK with the slogan - "Apart - the very best choice for the rest of your life."

But hey, who knows? Maybe they're just cold realists and this is simply a very straightforward message to their potential customers? In Poland, anything is possible.

Anything. Even Jewish style porkchops:

Jewish pork x800
The sign in the middle says "Porkchops - Jewish style." Unfortunately, the store was closed (it was Saturday, after all) when I was walking by and couldn't investigate this mysterious Jewish pork up close and personal.

To be continued...

Monday, August 10, 2009

Miya Matsuri 2009

Last weekend was the Miya Matsuri festival in Utsunomiya and I’ve been debating whether or not I should mention it here at all. I uploaded a few photos (here and here and here) on the photo blog, but I wasn’t sure if the event deserved to be described using actual words. Why? It was boring. Very boring. It also seemed smaller than in previous years. Yeah, the crowds were there, but they weren’t as thick as in the past. And the parades were there, but they looked well… how to put it? Lame. And some people looked positively embarrassed to be participating in them. Like this woman, who if she could, would have liked to turn invisible:

Black and red girl bt

In the beginning, I was planning to get involved in one event, but then upon seeing the first rehearsal quickly reconsidered. And I’m glad I did. Because coordinated folk dancing in the rain is not my idea of fun. Stuffing my face with fried chicken is more like my thing.

And after all, how many mikoshi processions can you stomach? In the rain. Huh?

But this is what it looked like before it started to rain:

Old ladies dancing
At least the old ladies looked like they were having fun. Sort of.

Funny guy little
Kids are so easy to amuse - just give them a basket and point a camera at them. And they'll be having the time of their lives.

Funny guy
The same applies to certain adults, especially after a couple of beers.

But some children took their roles very seriously:
Pink girls

And of course, here it is, the obligatory kid mikoshi:
Kid mikoshi

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Obscure Summer Festivals in Tochigi - 2009 edition, part 2

10th Fest in Oya 2009
-local chow: brown noodle, fresh vegetables and fruit will be available!-

on Sept 4th:
- from sunset to 22:00 - Only illuminating of oya stones will take place on that day
on Sept 5th:
- from 10:00 to 22:00 - Illuminating of oya stones will take place from sunset until 22:00
- from 19:00 to 20:00 - music by Taiki KURASAWA “Message of Sound and Flame” at Tagesan Johouin (different mountain, but a very nice place, I think it's worth stopping by)

on Sept 6th:
- from 10:00 to 22:00 - Illuminating of oya stones
- starting at 14:00 - Music and Reading “Ura Bon-E” written by Jiro ASADA, produced by Eiji YAMADA, read by Mitsuko MATSUDAIRA, music by Fumiko WAKU and others. Ticket price: 1,000 yen (with Japanese sweets included: imo gushi and dango – yummy stuff, no worries, you’ll like it)


- Oya Stone Yume Akari – A flame for peace - oya stone Illumination on:
Aug 8th (Sat) and 9th (Sun), 14th (Fri), 22nd (Sat) and 29th (Sat) at Heiwa Kannon Sando (that’s where the huge statute is, ask anyone, they’ll be able to point you in the right direction)
- Hiking at Mt. Tage (Tage-san) on Aug 22nd (Sat)

On Aug 14th (Friday) Mercury Band (local talent) and possibly others will play starting at sunset.

And from 17:00 stands with pizza, beer, drinks, sweets, crushed ice with sweet juice and other goodies will be available.
Live music by local bands everywhere.

From 13:00 to 17:00 on all days:
Experience oya stone arts (shaping figures and polishing)
Sightseeing trips organized by volunteers (free of charge)

I like the whole Oya area. The Oya Stone Museum is one of my favorite places in Tochigi. If you go there, be sure to protect your camera (it will get wet, whether you like it or not) and bring a sweater - it's very chilly down there underground. If you plan to take photos, a tripod is essential for your camera and gloves for your hands - your fingers will get numb  - yes, it's THAT cold. A flashlight will also come in handy. And a towel.

Blue pillars bt

That's inside the mine. The decor changes every so often, some thing disappear and new things show up in their place. Personally, I liked how it looked back in 2003 - it was more rugged and raw. Now it's all going towards high touristy gloss. But still worth a visit.

And what's this oya stone? The crap that's lying all around over there - from teeny, little bits on the ground to the hills themselves:

Around the museum 2

My preferred use for the oya stone - to scrub my feet.

Other local events you’ve never heard of:

The 33th Ikanbe* Festival in Nasukarasuyama (I love that town, btw!)
August 21st (Friday)
From 17:00 to 22:00 at the Ikanbe stage - all sorts of stuff going on

August 22nd (Saturday)
From 10:00 to 21:30
Fireworks starting at 21:00.

I am actually quite disappointed that I won’t be able to make it, because it’s on the same day as the Noh play in Nikko. Bummers…
But if you go there, be sure to check out the awesome bridge in that town.

And did I mention that I absolutely LOVE Nasukarasuyama?

*) Ikanbe means “It’s all right” in the local Tochigi dialect.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Fireworks in Ashikaga

Last Saturday, totally against my better judgment, I let myself be talked into a trip to Ashikaga. To watch fireworks. Yes, I know, I know… Fireworks are fun and all that. And don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy them. Sometimes. I remember this one occasion in New York when we all got together, made a massive sashimi platter – specially designed to look like a massive American flag (radish and tuna for the stripes and squid and fish eggs for the stars bit), and then ate it and watched the 4th of July fireworks over the river.

Now, those were some fireworks! That puny little thing in Ashikaga (even though supposedly the most splendid display in the whole Tochigi prefecture) simply couldn’t compare.

Trust me, it wasn’t my idea to go there. MY Saturday plans consisted of such exciting activities as shopping at a 100 yen shop, snacking on garlic toast (weekend is the only time when I can indulge my appetite for smelly foods) and sleeping. But since the husband wanted to go and made those puppy eyes, and even charged my camera, I gave up and said “OK, but this is a bad idea, and you’ll see that I’m right.”

So, we got on the train (Tobu line) to Tochigi and realized that even though this was the Miya festival weekend in Utsunomiya, equal numbers of yukata-dressed people were leaving town as heading downtown. "Hmmm… where the heck are they all going," I thought to myself, while trying to club a particularly unruly child with my tripod. To Ashikaga, that’s where!

At Tochigi it was clear that the circus was already in town. Everybody, their mother and a horde of rabid dogs were swarming on the platform waiting for the Ashikaga train (JR Ryomo line). (Note to the group of foreign men dressed in Japanese style attire we had to stand next to on the train: no matter how fancy you think you look, for the love of everything that is dear, please take a shower and apply deodorant before leaving home. Otherwise, you just do your part to perpetuate the belief that all foreign men stink. And boy, did you stink!)

Ashikaga expected to welcome about a hundred thousand visitors that day and it seemed as if all of them were riding into town on the same train as us. And once in town, finding the fireworks place was easy – we just followed the masses who looked like they knew where they were going.

Crowds 2

Just follow the crowd

I’m very sad to report that Ashikaga was totally unprepared for the event (regardless of what the city officials might have said) – there weren’t any trash bins around, so people simply disposed of their garbage and food wrappers where they liked; the choice of food stands was poor and the quality even worse; and the cops, well don’t even get me started on the cops – rude bastards – they told me I couldn’t stay on the bridge and watch the show from there and ordered me to move, but oddly enough they didn’t utter a word to any Japanese people there. And when I pretended not to understand, I got screamed at in Engrish. (Note to the Ashikaga city officials – you guys really need to work on those language skills - if your cops are going to insult a foreign woman, at least they should be able to do so using proper grammar and correct vocabulary.)

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, it started to rain. Now, I don’t know about you, but watching fireworks in the rain is not my idea of fun. But we stood there bravely getting wet and valiantly protecting our cameras from water damage.

The show was OK. But just barely. We (and about a couple thousand other people) decided to leave early and make a beeline for the station. The idea was to catch an earlier train out, but apparently everybody else had the same ingenious plan. People were pushy, rude and nasty (so much for the polite Japanese myth), and wet and tired. And when I saw a row of young strapping Japs comfortably sitting down and fiddling with their cell phones on the train, while a group of octogenarians was barely holding on standing up, I thought I was going to blow a gasket. I guess my age must be showing, because such behavior really bothers me, regardless of the country it happens in.

Anyway, this was supposed to be about fireworks in Ashikaga, and not about my very own self-righteous ass.

So, here you go, a few lame photos.

Fireworks bt

There was no wind to blow away the smoke.

Fireworks 1
But people still oohed and aahed from time to time.

Fireworks 5

I won’t be going there next year. And this year, we should have gone to see the Miya fest on both days. That will teach me.

PS. The most entertaining show in Ashikaga turned out to be a bunch of really bad Elvis impersonators dancing in the street by the train station:

Elvis lives