Search Box

Links to Culture Cafe Episodes!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Shamisen, Bunkasai, and the Power of Teru Teru Bozu

It's been a while since I've last posted and I figure that it's high time I put some updates on what's been going on over here. That being said, the bulk of this writing will likely be a hodgepodge of all the things that I've been meaning to make note of.

Perhaps the biggest thing to mention is the fact that I'm learning how to play the Shamisen. I mentioned that I would begin to be playing last time, but I've actually had two lessons since that time now. I'm really having a great time of it, as is Mitsuko. My only regret is that I don't currently have enough money to afford the entire setup which includes: the instrument itself, the case, the bachi (strumming utensil) among other things. I had initially thought that the price of the entire kit would be ¥63,000, but I later learned after the most recent lessons that this price reflects only the Shamisen itself, and the total cost of getting it fully loaded would lean more towards ¥90,000. Learning this fact basically secured the notion of owning a Shamisen into the realm of fantasy, at least for the time being. Our very excellent teacher Tamura-sensei mentioned that he could cut the price down to something about ¥70,000 after we've practiced enough and become somewhat decent at playing it. While it is extremely generous of him to even suggest that he would be willing to do that, it remains dramatically outside my price range. All this was made worse however when he said that, provided we were really intent on buying the Shamisen, we could take the instrument home from the shop, and pay for it when we were able to. Oh well. Maybe I'll run into someone who has a stack of cash that they feel is weighing them down. It's possible, right?

Irrespective of actually buying the instrument, we're still having loads of fun learning how to play it. I must admit that I have a sneaky advantage by having experience with both violin and guitar. Mitsuko did play flute for a while when she was in high school (if I'm not mistaken) but it unfortunately has little application or transference of technical ability to what we're doing now. We're still at the basic stages of going through each of the three strings and finding the most rudimentary of notes on each. There's a bit of a trick to knowing where the second note is, as the neck of the Shamisen is split into three pieces. If one moves down the neck from the top of the instrument where the tuning pegs are, distinct lines where the wood has been merged can be seen. On the first of these separations is where the "second" note is. The "first" is roughly at the top of the neck, and has much less of a visual cue, relying mostly on ear training and muscle memory to locate. I put those in quotes because the book we study from writes the notes in a rather unusual way. In a fashion similar to how guitar tablature is written, each of the three strings are assigned a number. The highest string is written as 7, the middle string as 3, and the lowest string being notated by 7•. We played many exercises that only made use of the three strings, which allowed for us to get a proper feel for the spacing and distance between each of the strings as well as how to strum properly. On the first string, 1• indicates the first note, which is played up close to the neck. 3•, on the same string, is positioned where the first break in the wood along the neck is, making it relatively easy to find.

I think I assume with a certain sense of confidence that there's a 2• in between the both of those. Then again, that just might make too much sense. And much in the way the first string works, there is a 4 and 6 (of dots) on the second string.

I'm going to hop over to some of the other things that happened for now.

On November 27th and 28th, Kofu's Junior High School had their cultural festival (Bunkasai). It was amazing to say the least. Leading up to that weekend I spent Monday through Friday with the boys once again, rehearsing the English speeches that they recited at the West Tottori Speaking Contest. We were also asked a couple days before the Bunksai to do up some decorations for the door outside the smaller gymnasium. We managed to squeeze that in between all the other stuff we had going on that week, including the Halloween kindergarten lesson, which will get its own separate post in due time. So, I made some paper cuff links, managed to sneak in a bit of Laker's purple and gold in there too (hardly Halloween colors, but who cares!) and Mitsuko cut out some Halloween type shapes, pumpkins, moon, etc. I decided to make some "ghosts" out of toilet paper and plastic string. I bundled up a ball by rolling the toilet paper around itself a fair amount of times, and tied it off with the string, leaving behind a cape like tail-end which served as the body. I topped it off with some faces of various expressions and hung them outside the door.

Turns out, when Japanese people see this, they're not thinking ghosts.

I'll throw up a picture later of a side by side comparison of mine and what something known as "Teru Teru Bozu" look like. They are in fact amulets made for the specific purpose of asking for good weather. The vice principal came up and asked us that night while we were hanging them, what they were. I mentioned that they were supposed to be ghost but by that time Mitsuko had already mentioned to me that they looked like Teru Teru Bozu. He reiterated this fact to me, but thought it was interesting that we viewed them differently. Despite thinking they were neat, he commented that everyone was probably going to assume they were Teru Teru Bozu. It was supposed to rain all weekend in Kofu, and it only ever did once -for about half an hour- during lunch on the second day. So maybe there's a bit of magic in them after all...

On the second day of the festival the boys were going to perform their speeches for the entirety of the student body, which I learned is exactly 79 students right now. That's around two and a half classrooms for junior high school back at home. Anyway, the rehearsing went well. Souhei-kun remembered his with amazing accuracy. He turned out to be perhaps the most proficient at speaking, when he at first seemed as though he would need to most work. I'm proud of him, he put in so much effort, and it still pains me that they didn't take any awards home from the contest, which leads nicely to the next point. We went home that day pretty upset and after talking with our neighbor Keiko-san for a bit, we thought it fitting to make some proper awards for the boys. So later on that day I opened up Illustrator and designed some awards. All of this I mentioned before in an older post, but what I did not write about was the reaction towards them. The teachers thought it was amazing that we would have gone to such efforts, and the fact that I made it myself seemed to impress them. Rather than giving the awards out on the humble A4 sized paper bought in bulk at a chain superstore, the English teacher here and the Vice principal thought it would be more fitting to have them laminated and for us to present them on stage to the boys after they gave their speech in front of everyone.

And this is precisely what we did.

All the teachers really liked it, and the boys seemed to really appreciate it as well. Among some of the other things we managed see during the first day of the Bunksai were: various plays put on by the students broken down into their respective classes, a couple of speeches a few select students gave, and a gameshow to top off the day. The speeches were a pretty fascinating thing to watch and I wanted to make a point of noting it here. To set it up, the three students giving speeches were sitting on the stage off to the side, with a podium in the middle. The rest of the student body was situated on the floor much in the way that I remember viewing things as an elementary school student back in America. After each of the speeches were given you would see a couple of students crouched and hurriedly running from one side of the students seated on the floor to the other. These students were part of the "staff" for this particular event, and on this occasion were passing the microphone to students who wished to comment. And to my surprise, they did have lots of things to say. It was unbelievable. I couldn't imagine something like this happening in America. Not only did the students care about what these speakers had to say, they themselves had comments and thoughts to offer back to them. The notion of it was strange at first because I'd never seen something quite like that, especially in a junior high school setting. The offered words of support, encouragement, wishes to be more like the people speaking.

Before I continue, a brief aside. "Culture Shock" to me is a buzz word. It's synonymous with the use "Closure" much like one hears on TV after the sentencing of a murderer, or the capture of a fugitive. "That family will finally have some closure" you might hear right now if you turn to the news. And just as that word is used, Culture Shock, is one of those phrases that exists in the collective conscious of our media-consumerism driven thought processes. I dislike both of them greatly because they are meant to satiate a void that is otherwise uncomfortably numb and hopelessly impossible to fill. There have been moments when I was surprised by things here, but those moments are brief and quickly subside after moving on. I think perhaps what bothers me is that it creates a gap in between groups that suggests things necessarily should be different. It further propagates a need to distinguish plainly between ourselves and others. I do not care for forced separations that we bring upon ourselves. All of which is to say I do not believe in Culture Shock. I've been surprised, amazed, and indeed impressed by the things I've seen in this country. As a species we should be excited and inquisitive of one another, not "shocked".

And likewise, in that moment watching one student after another stand up and confess his or her honest and raw feelings, I did truly feel as though I were in another world.

The last day -to speed along- was filled with performances. The choir is a confusing thing to make note of. They had various arrangements of students singing, there must have been at least 6 or 7 changes to the lineup, as one would walk on stage to perform, another group would assemble off to the sides. They always started with the same song however, which I suppose made for good comparisons about which "set up" was better or worse, but it became a bit much towards the end. They all sang well however, much better than I could, and they deserved all the applause they received. The band blew us away. Right now I just thought about how that last sentence might be interpreted as a pun... But moving on! They were amazing. They played a bunch of songs I wasn't familiar with, but it didn't matter, they sounded great. Everyone was on time, in key, just outstanding. We had a good band in my high school, they traveled around the country, won competitions, and were very highly regarded. That being said, these kids could've eaten them for breakfast, smoked them for lunch, and who knows what else for dinner. I did want to note that they played the theme song from "Pirates of the Caribbean," the Johnny Depp movie, that was fun. They also played Benny Goodman's "Sing Sing Sing" or as Mitsuko put it, "The Chips A-Hoy Song!". Everyone was clapping along and the whole place having a great time, and being amongst a group like is great no matter where you are.

There were some pretty emotional moments during this whole festival though, if I may take it down a notch. In between all that joyous celebrating were lots of terribly intimate moments where some of the students gave words out the student body. In particular a 3rd year named Yui Kawakami, if memory serves correctly, gave a brief but tear filled speech about how she enjoyed all the time she spent with everyone at that school, how she'll miss them, and how she hoped that everyone will have a good future. I had started recording earlier because I thought they were going to play another another song, with a much smaller group on stage, but forgot to stop when I realized what was going on because of how captivating the whole event was. Another moment involved a group of 3rd years, meeting on stage with a group of second years, who would soon be taking over the school. The upper class-men provided words of support and wisdom those those under them, and it was almost like literally watching the school change hands.

Sometimes it's easy to forget how deep cultural changes go, and just how fundamentally different we were raised, what differences those makes and how it reflects upon the nation itself.

We also saw a Kagura play that day, which was the first time I'd seen something like that. It was performed by visiting members of the Hino High School. I don't want to describe it too much here since I do have a video to put up soon or later. We managed to record it, and it was probably the most exciting thing we saw during the whole Bunkasai. For the one we saw, the idea is that a warrior comes out and does a bit of a flashy dance to the beat of the taiko being thunderously pounded off to the side of the stage. Dragons crawl soon after and have a bit of a flashy dance as well, making shapes and intricate patterns with their dragon bodies. After this, the warrior comes back out to feed them hoping to lull them to sleep, or perhaps more accurately: stuff them to bed. He leaves and quickly returns sword in hand, to make short work of the beasts, but it's not as simple as that, and soon engages in 1 on 5 match against them. It was amazing, I don't have many more words for it than that. It received the most applause that anything had for the entire Bunkasai. I noticed that a certain point while holding my iPhone as steady as I could to record, my mouth had dropped considerably.

But I didn't really care.


(I'll try to get some pictures up soon, I still have a bunch more to talk about but hopefully this will suffice for now! PS Happy Birthday Mom!)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Things You Can Find On A Friday

There's been plenty to talk about lately but perhaps the most interesting day to make note of, was last Friday. We went to town on a whim, and weren't expecting half of what eventually transpired.

Mitsuko had a three day weekend just recently, and initially we decided that we would spend most of it indoors this time. However, Friday after she got off work we decided to take a little jaunt out to Yonago, which as I mentioned before, is the closest "big city" to Kofu. There's a small department store called Takashimaya there that we've heard loads about it, but never visited, so we thought maybe we could go exploring that and get a bite to eat later at an Indian Curry place that we've become quite fond of lately. Rather than take the bus, we decided to go it on foot so as to get a bit of exercise in, and to see more of the city that perhaps we never noticed before. At a certain point we came across an outdoor mall type area. It had a a covered roof, but the entrance to it was open to the street, so it felt a bit like the wall Fremont Street is in Vegas right now (if you've ever been there) but with much less sparkling light.

I took a picture of picture of the top and bottom since I was too close to get the whole thing

So you can see how it's open to the street.
 The sign says above the entrance says ほれどおり, which without the kanji is harder to translate but it seems to me that it means "Charm Street". That would be nice if that were the case, right? Either way, we headed in because we've often seen this shopping arcade while on the bus to the bigger AEON, deeper in Yonago, but never had the chance to visit by virtue of always driving past it in a bus. Having stood there at the mouth of it's entrance I felt we shouldn't waste a chance even though it was not originally part of that day's agenda. I feel these days that while I'm still in Japan and relatively young, I should not let that which is unexplored remain so for too long, even if it's something as ostensibly mundane as this. Long story short, I'm really glad we did.

The very first shop we noticed on our right hand side was something of an antique store at first glance. I noticed a line of Koto (a Japanese stringed instrument) sitting up against a wall, which immediately caught my attention. I moved towards the shop some more and peered in. Lights were on, and the door was ajar about an inch or two, so it seemed as though it was open. The insides were fairly cluttered however, littered with all manner of old Japanese curios, books, ornate boxes of various widths and length, very decorative Sensu (fans), and of course the Koto lining the wall.

The outside of the shop, note the Koto against the wall

Boxes, books, and papers oh my!

There were also flutes, the name of which I do not know

I called out, "すみません。。。” (pardon me/excuse me) in what I thought was a fairly loud voice. There was no answer however. As I was about to part from the shop, my glance happened to turn to the right and that's when I noticed a row of Shamisen (a guitar-like instrument) hanging on the wall. Perhaps it was a bit rude, but I didn't care. I opened the door and walked inside. The automated alarm started ringing, greeting us with the standard PING PONG type chime, shortly followed by the digital voice saying "Welcome" in Japanese. I moved further into the shop because standing there just kept setting it off. I moved to the Shamisen and couldn't believe what a find this store was. I'd always wanted one of them but the only place that you could physically go to a see one was Little Tokyo in LA back home, and I could never be sure of the quality down there. It is also one of those things that would be more exciting to buy IN Japan. Anyway, the first thing I noticed was the price tag. Coming in at a whopping 63,000 Yen (as of this writing, exactly 800 US dollars) these weren't toys to be sure. Now obviously more expensive doesn't mean better, but I thought I could safely assume that these were more than decorative pieces. Shortly after the welcome chime stopped we heard a voice from deep in the back of the shop, where we couldn't see. A man soon appeared from the back and greeted us. We apologized for rustling him from wherever he had been, and stated that we were just looking, and hoped that it was okay. He was very kind, and asked us about what we were looking for. I pointed to the Shamisen and asked if it was in fact a Shamisen. I knew it was, but oftentimes I like to ask a question I know the answer to as a way of probing conversation in a certain direction. He nodded and said that they were indeed Shamisen. I mentioned how I had always wanted one, and I wanted to learn how to play it. He then walked towards the shelf, forcing all of us to do a dance so he could work his way around us without stepping on anything. To my surprise he began to unwrap the instrument, at which point I felt bad. I thought maybe he was thinking that I was prepared to buy it right there, perhaps I spoke incorrectly and made it seem like I'd be buying one. But no, he took it off the shelf, walked back to where we were standing and began to tune it. He asked if I'd ever seen one played before. I mentioned that we came from California and close to LA. Over there sometimes you could occasionally seen someone playing one, especially during Nisei Week, which is the annual Japanese Festival they hold there. He strummed it a bit and then paused before asking if I wanted to learn how to play. I said yes, because I thought he meant more like the future, one of those "one day" type statements. But we clarified it, and it turns out, he was willing to show me right then and there, how to play free of charge. It didn't take too much thinking on my part before I agreed, very excitedly. He said he would go grab his really quickly and for us to have a seat. We did.

He came back with his, which he said was the same model as the model I was then holding. It was the cheapest one they sell there, but still a very nice Shamisen. All I could think was "cheapest?!" when he said that, but I should've known better from being a violin and guitar player myself. Instruments, especially quality ones, cost a pretty penny. He then proceeded to tune his own, and afterwards showed me a bit of the basics, as far as how to hold it, and how to strum it properly. It was way cool to say the least and I still amazed it even happened at all. Eventually he performed a song for us, something that resembled the season, and the sounds of the insects. He showed us which parts were meant to imitate certain sounds before and after he played. It was great. He also played "Sakura," which even in America is pretty famous as a Japanese Folk song. If you don't think you know check it out on youtube. I'd love to learn that one.

So after a bit more talking, it seems that he's willing to teach us whenever we're able to go down there, for about an hour each week. If I heard him correctly, he said that if we practice and still very much like it, he'd be willing to offer a discount on the Shamisen. I think I'm clever enough to know that it's kind of a tactic to sell one of those instruments. He means no harm, let me clear that up right away! He said that there's no pressure to buy one at all, even if we practice for a while with him. But even knowing that he's trying to get us more interested in it by helping us play one, I'd still buy it. There is no gimmick at work here. If I had the extra money, I would definitely buy one.
I instantly wanted one
We exchanged contact information later on, and we'll see him again this weekend.

We did manage to go to Takashimaya by the way, and there wasn't much there that I required. There were some interesting food places in the downstairs area, which only served to make me very hungry. We left there and went searching for a Daiso (hundred yen shop) that we heard was in the area. While there we met an elementary school girl who was blown away by the fact that we could speak Japanese. We mentioned that Mitsuko was an ALT, and asked if at her school there was anyone helping teach English. She mentioned two names but they weren't anyone we or the other ALTs have heard of. In all likelihood they might not be a part of the JET program because all ALTs seem to know all ALTs. In any case, she was a very smart girl for a 6th grader, and I felt bad when she said that the people working at her school speak English too fast and she can't understand them. Boo. We chatted with her for a bit with her and gave her our address before parting. We mentioned that if she ever wanted to work on practicing English she could always write us. She was excited about that and said that she would send us a Nengajou (New Year's Card), haha.

Afterwards we walked back to the station, and towards the small AEON where the Indian Curry was. Much to our surprise, we found two ALTs that we've become friends with, Alex and Charlotte. Alex is actually not a surprise, that guy is always there. He recommended the place to me, so I must say thank you. It's pretty good, I have to admit. We had a good dinner, and a good chat.

It was a long day that had interesting surprises in it.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Nightmare Fuel

I do have quite a bit of new stuff to talk about and I'll get around to posting about it in the upcoming days as things have started to wind down a bit. I want to take this opportunity however to post about something that happened last week or so. I was doing a bit of cooking (as is the norm while Mitsuko is out working) and I noticed a few baby spiders on the wall near an outlet. I'm not a fan of spiders, first and foremost, so this was ever so slightly bothersome. I squished them with some tissue paper and was about to go on my way when I noticed that another one crawled from under the frame of the outlet. I squished that one as well, and then in what felt like a scene directly out of Arachnophobia I pushed on the outlet and to my utter dismay four more spiders came crawling up scattering in various directions. I backed off quickly and traced their patterns from a distance to notice that even more were on the wall in other places. In that moment I was literally Jeff Daniels and half expected them to come down on my head, crawl in through the sink, and appear from other disturbing places that occupy the realm of nightmares. For the next few days we continually found and killed them in various rooms hanging about on the walls. I haven't seen any for a few days now, so I think we're in the clear. I'm assuming that perhaps a nest hatched inside the walls somewhere and we just had a surge of babies running amok. Somehow if that were truly the case, that would make it worse, wouldn't it?

It was just creepy watching them pour out of there

Thursday, September 27, 2012

September Pictures Galore!

A view from the train as we ride into Yonago

The bus we take to get to the big department store

It just felt like that bus would take you to the "bad" part of town

Some things we found at a store called Village Vanguard

Tottori Ramen! This is the gyoza set

Awww, he doesn't look happy at all to be at McDonald's does? (there is also another one across the street if you look carefully)

You can plug your phone directly into the photo printer here

30 yen a picture is a bit much, but it's cool and fast

The inside of the train we ride to get back home

A moth that landed on us, in the train

A scraggy (from pokemon) doll that doubles as a headphone holder

Making tonkatsu

The finished product with miso!

This night we went for BLTs (mine had egg in it)

Working on making a letter box out of a used box (I didn't get a picture of what it looked like from the start)

More Progress

The English Board for the kids at the Jr. High School

Look how tiny!

This is where Mitsuko "parks" her bike

Prime parking no?

Our new pet: Mr. Frog

A bread truck that comes once in a while, they call it Peter Pan here (pan is the word for bread in Japanese)

The house just past that black car is ours

From that previous picture, looking further down the road

Looking towards where I was standing earlier (that's the bank/ATM on the right hand side)

Our train station (takes about a minute and a half to walk to)

More views of the town

Moving down the road more

That's the post office

Apparently this is a clinic

Better view of the post office

An even better view of it

This is at the Jr. High School looking at out at their field. That building on the right has a computer room at the end of the hall, and that is where we usually practiced with the students for the English Speaking Contest

From that spot, turning the other direction

Standing back a bit further looking towards the field

Making Miso Soup!

A little round of Hangman with the kids after a long day of practice

Miso soup, it was delicious

The kindergarten lesson plan

A close up of the board when I was helping Souhei

There was a little bit more to the right

From left to right: Souhei, Mitsuko, Shunpei, Shouta, and Fukada-Sensei

The whole board in full view

Birthday card

Fish on sale at the checkstand at our local shop

Mayonnaise in a bag, in a bottle

An electronic store where we shopped for a fan and a printer (only bought the fan here though)

Cool car we saw on the way out

Sounds like a place you don't want your car to be

I had no idea why this one was so expensive (printer)

Mos Burger. The best burger in Japan

Have a look at the menu

This is a Double Cheese Mos Burger (cost 470 yen)

The wrapper after I finished because why not

Fancy cups

Some fun English on things in the 100 yen shop

More Engrish

Halloween Photospot?

They sure know about Halloween here. This is better than most places in America as far as style goes

They'll make it fit

This cutely named shop had expensive trinkets in varying degrees of uselessness

I'm noticing a pattern in the naming conventions here. . .

Star Wars chopsticks. [Insert force joke here]

Star Wars Hanafuda cards! I'd buy those


The same glass Chess Set that Mitsuko has. How random is that?

As opposed to the boxes that cannot be put into a color box

I don't even know what's going on here

It took me a while to notice it was JINdiana

Space Invader ice cube trays!

Ice cube trays for every man

ABC-Mart, they sell shoes

Fun clocks

I really liked this one

Some manga just sitting about at a book store called Miraiya. Yes, that one at the top left is just casually sitting here

My birthday cake that Keiko-san bought for me

The fancy printer we bought, it was only in Japanese but we managed to set it up and get it working. Really nice printer

Even though the Sports Festival was canceled due to rain, we still had the drinking party at 12pm

Another shot of the tables before even turned up

All the ladies in our area preparing food. Men sat down and read papers. Pretty patriarchal place still.

Our train station, and the name of our area: Ebi

Visiting another ALT, named Tom. This is Higashiyamakoen

More shots of the train station where we got off at

Too many chances for cool pictures

See! There's English, even if you couldn't speak or read Japanese, you'd make it somehow

More shots of the station

A waiting area, that red box is where you get a stub that proves you got on at so-and-so stop for when you eventually pay

A shot from the top of the stairs look out at the town and the rest of the tracks

Looking back down

More cool shots

Sorry, I found this place fascinating as far as picture taking was concerned

A little waterway just beyond the station

Vending machines!

Not sure how to pronounce that one

The first Mountain Dew, Pepsi, and 7up I've seen in Japan

BOSS coffee. Rainbow Mountain Blend. For the real men

The dinner I made earlier

Fried rice with shimeji mushrooms, a bit of egg, and green onions

And shiyosaba, salted mackerel. A delicious dinner