Motorway to Roswell

3 05 2009

Nara Path, Nara, 4/27/2009

Or at least, the path back to Albuquerque. Classes at KCJS ended several weeks ago, and after a brief graduation ceremony we were set free to do as we please until we leave or are deported. As I’d like to come back to Japan one day, I’m leaving the day after tomorrow from Narita. I’m currently in Tokyo after a surprisingly strenuous journey through wide swaths of the Kanto and Kansai area, typing from inside a box (a hostel “single” doesn’t mean what you think it does, guys).  As I had to be out of my apartment by the 27th, I decided to make the trip a sight-seeing one and hit a number of different attractions along the way. First up was Nara.

Nara pond 1, Nara, 4/27/2009

I was rather effervescent in my praise of Miyajima, but a few short moments wandering through the temple grounds of Nara was all it took for the old memories from my first trip after my high school graduation to come rushing back. Nara is simply a gorgeous place, a pristine oasis of postcard ready-scenery bubbling out of its urban surroundings.

Nara Pond 2, Nara, 4/27/2009Pagoda, Nara, 4/27/2009Red Tree, Nara, 4/27/2009Todaiji front, Nara, 4/27/2009Nara Path 3, Nara, 4/27/2009

Nara, like Miyajima (or Miyajima, like Nara) is crawling with surprisingly aggressive deer.

Nara, like Miyajima (or Miyajima, like Nara) is crawling with surprisingly aggressive deer.

Sunset, Nara, 4/27/2009

My one regret was not spending more time in Nara, exacerbated by my need to drop off my baggage before going sightseeing. I unfortunately dramatically underestimated just how much weight all the books I’ve purchased in Kyoto would add to my luggage… Hauling around seventy or so pounds of luggage across the Japan has been an exhausting experience, especially since this damn place always seems to put it’s elevators in the most out of way places if it has them at all. The worst of it was at my next stop, Osaka, where the hotel I stayed at had no elevator… and I was on the fourth floor. Fun times. Of course, it was 1400 yen a night.

Taito game station, Osaka, 4/28/2009Tower, Osaka, 4/28/2009Tower 2, Osaka, 4/28/2009Plaza, Osaka, 4/28/2009

The next day I set out for Nagoya, making a pit stop at Ise along the way. Unfortunately, my luggage once again proved to be my anchor, and I only managed to see Geku, the outer shrine of Ise, and completely missed the supposedly amazing ocean-side cliffs.

Geku, Ise, 4/29/2009

The waters were teeming with fish.

The waters were teeming with fish.

There was a wide variety of wildlife at the shrine, including a chicken for a little kid to chase around...

There was a wide variety of wildlife at the shrine, including a chicken for a little kid to chase around...

...and around. This went on for aboout five minutes straight.

...and around. This went on for about five minutes straight.

I passed by a pretty amazing display of flowers on my way back to the station.

I passed by a pretty amazing display of flowers on my way back to the station.

Flowers 2, Ise, 4/29/2009Flowers 3, Ise, 4/29/2009

The train to Nagoya.

The train to Nagoya.

The view from the train...

The view from the train...

...and a passing train.

...and a passing train.

I got to Nagoya late and in an rather amazing coincidence ran into a fellow KCJS student who was leaving the next day, so I didn’t get many pictures. However, when I got to my hotel room, I looked inside the desk and was surprised to see a book exactly in the location where a bible is usually found in American hotels. Surprised that a Japanese hotel would bother to keep such a thing, I flipped the book over and saw this…

Buddha book, Nagoya, 4/29/2009

I again got to my next destination, Kawaguchiko in front of Mt. Fuji, rather late, and after nine hours of trains, I wasn’t in a photographing mood. I also didn’t try to climb Mt. Fuji; apparently, outside the official climbing season from July to August, the mountain’s weather is highly unpredictable and dangerous. As I’ve made it this far in my stay in Japan without being seriously injured, I decided to pass this time, and I was pretty exhausted after hauling my bags around for a few miles on the way to the hostel.

This was as close as I got.

This was as close as I got.

Mt. Fuji 2, Kawaguchiko, 4/30/2009

Kawaguchiko itself. ("-ko" is a suffix for lakes, so it would be Lake Kawaguchi.)

Kawaguchiko itself. ("-ko" is a suffix for lakes, so it would be Lake Kawaguchi.)

And that’s how I finally arrived in Tokyo and started living in a box (made of wood and everything). My time in Japan is quickly dwindling away to nothing, but I end each day so exhausted and my feet hurt enough each time that I mind a little less everyday. Maybe it’s time to come home.

Why is my hostel is Asakusa so easy to find? Landmarks.

Why is my hostel in Asakusa so easy to find? Landmarks.

Music I’m Listening to Now: Bruce Springsteen, “Dream Baby Dream”.





River Card

25 04 2009

Flowers 1, Kyoto, 4/22/2009

For our last group class event before our “graduation” ceremony, most of KCJS took a boat down Hozugawa and into Arashiyama. The weather was perfect Spring weather, neither too hot or cold, and occasionally interrupted by an errant cool breeze. A trip down the Hozugawa is hardly a white-knuckle experience, but there was the occasional rapid straight and quick drop off to break up the two hour trip. And to top it all off, KCJS paid the 4,000 yen fee that otherwise would have been a non-starter for me. It was nice, but it wasn’t that nice.

Along the way, we passed a huge field, slightly odd site in an area of the country where space is at a premium. Horticulture is not my specialty, so all I can add is “sure looks pretty, huh?”

Flowers 2Flowers 3

After a brief wait we set out in several boats down river, into the heart of darkness. Or back into Kyoto. You know, whatever.

River 1, Kyoto, 4/22/2009River 2, Kyoto, 4/22/2009

We also passed a wide variety of the local fauna on the way down, from cranes to fish to turtles. We saw two turtles (who I unfortunately couldn’t photograph in time) stacked on top of each other. I’m not sure whether they were having wild turtle sex or that’s just something turtles do in their free time, but it looked difficult.

Crane, Kyoto, 4/22/2009

As the river entered a valley…

River 2, Kyoto, 4/22/2009

…we passed a number of landmarks, from temples to oddly named rocks, such as “Lion Rock” and “Pole in Hole Rock” (which, sadly, I also missed).

River Temple, Kyoto, 4/22/2009

Supposedly the forest in the background is supposed to look like a smiley face. It's hard to see anything, but to all of us it looked much more like a skull.

Supposedly the forest in the background is supposed to look like a smiley face. It's hard to see anything, but to all of us it looked much more like a skull.

Bridge, Kyoto, 4/22/2009

We passed under the same bridge (and maybe same train) we used to get upriver.

We passed under the same bridge (and maybe same train) we used to get upriver.

After four months here, Japan still has plenty left to surprise me. Towards the end of our trip, we saw several boats upriver. Obviously, I was initially concerned about overly ambitious Somali pirates, but it turned out to be overly ambitious Japanese merchants. The boats were in fact mobile, on-river convenience stores, selling everything from cold beer to whole squids. They pulled along side our boat and started hocking their wares.

Merchant 1, Kyoto, 4/22/2009Merchant 2, Kyoto, 4/22/2009

Finally, we reached the end of the river. And found out that KCJS wasn’t paying for our trip back. Ah, well, you can’t have everything, I suppose. This is my last post from Kyoto, my home since January, and one of my last posts in Japan. I have to leave my apartment on Monday, and on May 5th I leave Japan and, thanks to timezone differences, arrive an hour earlier on the same day in L.A., and from there I go to Denver to meet my sister. All of my classes turned out fine, so I’m leaving Kyoto with a relatively clean conscience and even more cleaned out bank account. From here, I’m going to Nara, Osaka, Ise, Nagoya, Mt. Fuji, and Tokyo, taking pictures all the while. Hopefully I’ll be in a situation to make at least a few more posts before I head back to the U.S. To everyone whose taken the time to read this, thank you very much. I really appreciated all the comments, and the knowledge that someone (even if the audience was rather small) wanted to read this kept me going when all I wanted to do was listen to music. I appreciate you spending your time here.

Arashiyama, home of Monkey Mountain. I'm pretty much monkeyed out after Miyajima, however.

Arashiyama, home of Monkey Mountain. I'm pretty much monkeyed out after Miyajima, however.

Music I’m Listening to Now: A.C. Newman, “Submarines of Stockholm”.





Rum Hee

22 04 2009

Shugo Tokumarau is an incredibly skilled Japanese musician (he plays around a hundred instruments, from guitar to piano to musical saw) who makes pop music with a slightly odd bent. A lot of his songs approach a melody at a slightly esoteric angle, but his best make this odd approach infectious. Here’s his newest song, the title track of an EP I’m planning on buying this week, Rum Hee. The song is one of his more direct and triumphant.





Saved By Old Times

16 04 2009

Come with me everyone, back to the 80’s.





Believe E.S.P.

13 04 2009

Statue, Ishikiri, 4/11/2009

On Saturday after a night misspent at an all you can drink/eat ramen restaurant, I got up extra early, took the train to Kyoto Station, and accompanied a portion of my Japanese religion class to Ishikiri, the fortune telling capital of Japan. Ishikiri is an excellent example of the fluid nature of religion in Japan. A famous study conducted in Japan found that more people claimed that they were followers of a religion, such as Shintoism or Buddhism, than there were people in the country by almost a factor of two. Religion in Japan is simply not a fixed entity as it is in the West; it’s entirely normal, for example, to have a Shinto birth ceremony, a Western, Christian wedding, and a Buddhist death ceremony. Also prevalent are folk religions, communal belief systems based on local values and superstitions. Fortune telling in Ishikiri is similar to it’s mysticism derived relatives in other parts of the world, but it is perhaps lent an air of authenticity by it’s propinquity to the common tradition at temples and shrines of the omikuji, a sort of fortune that comes on a piece of paper and has a wide variety of outcomes, from very good to very bad luck.

Fortune Teller, Ishikiri, 4/11/2009

Much like Japanese religious life, fortune telling can be a hodgepodge of various traditions, such as the above store, which is based equally in native Japanese nature worship, Buddhism, mysticism, and even Jewish Kabbalah. The character 占 is the character for fortune telling. There was a panoply of methods available in Ishikiri, from the obvious, such as readings by palm and crystal ball, to the more esoteric, such as tongue reading to determine your health (complete with a chart of forty different tongues to compare).

The seers of Ishikiri also do not express the slightest reservation about the commercial aspect of their services, as evinced by this chart relating price to the accuracy of their predictions. They range from 3,000 yen for a sure thing to 1,000 yen for a decent guess. Other services, such a Feng Shui techniques to adjust the directions of your home (I didn't entirely understand this) and lucky names for your future children can run into the tens of thousands of yen, or hundreds of dollars.

The seers of Ishikiri also do not express the slightest reservation about the commercial aspect of their services, as evinced by this chart relating price to the accuracy of their predictions. They range from 3,000 yen for a sure thing to 1,000 yen for a decent guess. Other services, such a Feng Shui techniques to adjust the directions of your home (I didn't entirely understand this) and lucky names for your future children can run into the tens of thousands of yen, or hundreds of dollars.

A similarly synthetic religious tradition can be found at Ishikiri Shrine, the major tourist attraction in the area. As our professor explained, the original Ishikiri Shrine burned down hundreds of years ago and all records of it’s traditions were lost. Now, all of the shrines ceremonies are of the pinchbeck variety, without the least velleity of truth to them. Ishikiri’s “tradition” is essentially a folk religion in and of itself, based on invented ceremonies that have been lent legitimacy after the fact.

Legitimate or not, Ishikiri Shrine is a popular place.

Legitimate or not, Ishikiri Shrine is a popular place.

One such tradition is based on two stones in the middle of the grounds of the shrine. “Legend” says that if you walk around the outside of the two stones one hundred times your wish will be granted. I passed on that.

Ishikiri stone, Ishikiri, 4/11/2009

Wandering around the grounds, I saw what at first I thought were some colored ropes…

Cranes, , Ishikiri, 4/11/2009

Until I realized they were thousands and thousands of paper cranes. Thinking about how long they must have all taken makes my head hurt.

Cranes 2, Ishikiri, 4/11/2009

On my way back to Kyoto, I stopped in Osaka and paid a visit to a few stores in order to find the actual comic my project for my translation class was based on. After a bit of foot work, I managed to track down and buy most of the author’s work for a pittance (Americans get killed on the price increases in importing this stuff). I have to admit it was odd to hold something I had grown so use to seeing online in my hands. I also finally saw the damn kanji I couldn’t read in the scans due to blurring and the author’s handwriting. Goddamn 普通 and 誘う.

I got back to Kyoto around nine and completely exhausted, but remembered to snap a picture of Kyoto Tower before wandering zombie-like back to my apartment.

Kyoto Tower, Kyoto, 4/11/2009

Music I’m Listening to Now: Peter, Bjorn, and John: “Last Night”.

Bonus! Sort-of Engrish:

Bag 1, Ishikiri, 4/11/2009Bag 2, Ishikiri, 4/11/2009





Forget The Flowers

9 04 2009

Hanami, Kyoto, 4/8/2009

I imagine you’re all sick of sakura by now, but the cherry blossom season is a major part of the year in Japan. One of the most common activities is hanami, or flower viewing. Basically you take a meal and a bit of alcohol and sit around, admiring the trees and realizing that the blossoms will soon be gone, taken by birds and the wind, pondering the transience of existence. This all makes much more sense after you’ve been drinking.

The temperature jumped up about fifteen degrees over the weekend.

The temperature jumped up about fifteen degrees over the weekend.

I’m nearly done with the KCJS program, and now I’m beginning to reflect on the program, prompted in part by a letter I received from a former Japanese teacher asking me to recount my experiences in Japan. My main dilemma is that it’s hard for me to separate the program from being in Japan; did I have fun here because or in spite of KCJS? I’m not entirely sure, but I did appreciate the many efforts KCJS made to try and get people involved and give us all something to do. Some of their attempts (such as the community invovlement project) were annoying as hell, but I came to appreciate them over time. Unfortunately, the classes outside of those for Japanese language are a mixed bag. I really enjoyed my translation course, but Japanese religion was nightmarishly boring. It was like some seperate, hellish dimension where every hour in the real world was an enternity for everyone listening for the umpteenth time about how religion was “domesticated” in the Tokugawa era. Seriously, we had like forty goddamn classes on that topic.

And now, music. The new Neko Case, Middle Cyclone, continues to be awesome. Here’s a video for “People Got a Lotta Nerve”.

Japanese game shows continue to amaze me, especially this one. Don’t they have laws against this sort of thing?

Music I’m Listening to Now: “Rosewood, Wax, Voltz + Glitter”, Red Red Meat. I actually payed for this cd on iTunes  (thanks for the gift certificate, Molly and Chris). The former band Tim Rutili, of Califone fame, has a much more emphasis an distorted guitars and dirty blues, but you can definitely see the roots of Califone’s gothic Americana, especially in the ballads, such as closing track “There’s Always Tomorrow”. Here’s one of the highlights of the record, “Chain, Chain, Chain”:





Spring Hall Convert

5 04 2009

Street outside Kyodai and Yoshida Jinja, Kyoto, 4/1/2009

After my last post discussing the virtues of Kyoto in Spring, the city has had several weeks of alternately cold and rainy weather, with the occasional sunny, warm day only a brief respite. With April, however, it seems that Spring is finally settling in. The temperature is rising, the sun is shining late into the day, and the sakura are practically exploding off their branches, turning even mundane streets into picturesque locales. Above is the street I take everyday to get to my apartment.

The beginning of April also marks the start of the new school year in Japan, and with it comes club recruitment. Clubs are highly important in Japanese schools, often providing the main source of socialization during a student’s school years, and are especially central in Japanese colleges, where the work load is much smaller compared to previous levels of education. It’s not unusual to find students who devote much more of their time and effort to their club than to their scholastic pursuits, and consequently club recruitment is a large and important process. The variety of clubs offered is staggering, with options stretching from cheerleading to kendo to tennis to anime to basketball. When all are out making their pitch, you get some interesting mixes…

Club Recruitment 1, Kyoto, 4/1/2009

Cheerleading and cosplay, together at last.

Cheerleading and cosplay, together at last.

Club Recruitment 3, Kyoto, 4/1/2009

I recently went on a field trip to Eiga Mura, or Movie Village, with my translation class. Eiga Mura is a theme park devoted to Japanese movies, specifically period pieces chronicling the adventures of various samurai, geisha, and ninjas; essentially a Japanese Universal Studios. It’s a bit of a tourist trap, but it was pretty entertaining when I didn’t have to pay for it. We saw a new translation machine that some engineers are working on in conjunction with Eiga Mura. When you speak into the machine it checks a database based on information taken from the internet and returns an appropriate response. Or should. While I was impressed with it’s ability to handle set phrases and simple sentences, the machine has some big problems with consonants and longer phrases and words. When I tried saying “extraordinary” it translated it as an “l” with a period after it. Not quite. It also has no ability to handle slang, and accents are a challenge. For it’s purported objective (an aid for tourists) it’s probably sufficient, but anyone who wants to have an actual conversation is going to have to stick with learning the language for now.

I didn’t take too many pictures as our time was limited, but I had a pretty good time, and saw a rather entertaining show based on a  spell-casting warrior and his incompetent assistant versus and evil lord and his wife. It was as expected over-the-top and goofy, but done with such heart it’s impossible not to enjoy it. The sentai exhibit (sentai is basically a genre for masked fighters for justice) was a powerful blast of nostalgia for anyone who ever watched Power Rangers.

A few villains from the various series.

A few villains from the various series.

Every red ranger...

Every red ranger...

...ever. There was a couple dozen more after this too.

...ever. There was a couple dozen more after this too.

The best thing about these sorts of shows and the many others they inspired, from mecha shows to magical girl anime are the many hilarious lines they have about courage, including “The Earth doesn’t need your mechanization! What it needs is OUR BURNING COURAGE!”, “Have you forgotten, Mamoru? Victory goes to…THOSE WITH COURAGE!”, “If I’m the devil, then I’ll use hell’s ways to make you listen”, “I’ll make the impossible possible”, and “You don’t need probability when you’ve got guts!” Awesome.

Music I’m Listening to Now: “Herring Bone”, Department of Eagles