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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!)