Tag Archives: culture

Silver Week is Here

Thanks to Japanese law, I have lots of time to be lazy this week.

Monday is Respect for the Aged day. This is the day when everyone is expected to call their grandparents and/or parents and wish them love and respect. It used to move around, but now, thanks to a Happy Monday system designed to increase the number of national holidays, it takes place on the third Monday in September. Wednesday is Autumnal Equinox when everyone is expected to, well, be happy it’s Autumn and not August.

That leaves Tuesday.

Luckily, Japanese law says that when two holidays are separated by only one work day, that work day becomes a “People’s Day” to honor the people who were going to take the day off anyway. That means we are now enjoying a very rare five day weekend in September. This configuration occurs every five to six to 11 years or so. The last one last occurred in 2009 and the next one will occur in 2020.

This configuration is dubbed “Silver Week” in honor of/contrast to Golden Week when four national holidays occur in the same week.

Golden Week is traditionally the time when Japanese sneak away for short trips. If the holidays fall right, they can use a couple paid holidays to get eight days off to party and do some travelling. Because they’ve already done that, it’s hard to sneak away from the office for another week in September. Silver Week thus becomes more of a shopping time.

Oddly, both She Who Must Be Obeyed and I are working this week. She’ll be on her regular schedule and I will work tomorrow as a substitute teacher for a six hour English intensive class.

Starting Monday, I’ll end up babysitting for a few days, but since the weather is suddenly cool and dry, I may take the girls (or perhaps just our youngest depending on our oldest’s schedule) to a movie. Or, we’ll just sit around and do nothing.

The Older She Gets The Less it Matters

Today was our oldest’s final junior high sports day. I managed to avoid half of it and wanted to avoid more.

I’ve written before about school sports days in Japan and the types of people who attend, but it occurs to me as I write this that I don’t think I’ve ever written about our oldest’s sports days.

This is partly because it is, if I’m doing the math correctly, our oldest’s 12th sports day (3 kindergarten, 6 elementary school, and 3 junior high school). This means that by now we’re pretty much sick of seeing lots of people dance and do sports. We’re interested in seeing how our oldest does, but have little interest in the spectacle.

That said, we arrived dutifully at 8:20 a.m. and watched the opening ceremony. I then discovered, to my horror, that our oldest’s first event wouldn’t take place until 10:20 or so. I considered going home, but stayed around taking pictures–I even manged to get a few good ones that I will post somewhere else (long story).

Luckily the crowd at the sports day has traditionally been very laid back. There’s little fighting to get tarp space as most people stand. Today’s crowd seemed larger than usual but they were polite. Even the precious places in the shade were not fought over.

After lunch–which we had at home and not at the sports field–I conferred with She Who Must Be Obeyed and discovered that there’d be nothing to photograph until after 3:00 p.m. I volunteered to stay home and process pictures whilst she went back to the junior high and filmed the dance routines. (These can be interesting, but you have to have exactly the right spot to take pictures of your child and they are usually only in that spot for a few seconds.)

Even after I came back to see the “Giant Jump Rope Competition” our oldest and the rest of the girls were facing away from me. I got a couple good pictures but nothing with our oldest.

I’ll be interested to see what the high school sports days are like. I’ll try to find out how seriously the school and the parents take the sports day. If it’s too serious, our oldest won’t be able to attend that school.

Manners and Fat Men in Diapers Feeling Pain

I spent the morning ruining my knees (again) whilst watching fat men beat the crap out of each other.

Through a former colleague, I was invited to join a very rare tour of Takanohana Beya, the current sumo stable of former Yokozuna Champion Takanohana. The “stable”, in this case, is a three story building where the rikishi live and train.

My former colleague runs a business helping people acquire sumo tickets and has, of late, been attempting to expand by creating closer links with the Sumo Kyokai, the body that manages sumo (for better and for worse). By a mix of persistence and luck, he was granted permission to bring a group of foreigners to watch a practice.

Although some stables open practices to outsiders (for a small fee) it’s very rare for foreigners to be granted this honor as there are lots of rules 1) no video 2) no flash photography 3) no cellphones 4) no talking 5) no visible tattoos and 6) don’t point the bottoms of your feet at the ring. We were going into their home and possibly interrupting their job so they only wanted people present who would not disrupt things.

Because of all these rules, and because a major tournament starts next week (meaning this was an important practice), my former colleague invited me along because he thought he’d have at least one adult in the room. (He really, really should read this blog before thinking things like that.)

After we arrived we got to see a few stages of practice over about 90 minutes. First there were some practice matches where the winner kept accepting new challengers and then Takanohana Oyakata (elder) arrived and began watching and, on occasion, directing the practice.

Takanohana (blue kimono) sips tea and watches a practice match.

Takanohana (in the center wearing the blue, flowered kimono) sips tea and watches a warm up match.

The warm up matches were followed by continuous attack practice in which one young rikishi (wrestler) pushed another across the ring whilst the other resisted being pushed. At some point, the younger rikishi being pushed was replaced by the highest level rikishi in the stable. At that point it got intense. If a pusher fails to get the other out, the rikishi being pushed forces the pushers head down and forces him to walk in a squat. (Sometimes, if they go in too high, they grab the pusher around the neck and sling him around until he falls.) There’s then a ritual where the rikishi being pushed throws the pusher down and they start over. I don’t know how many rounds this is supposed to go, but several young rikishi were reduced to grunts and wails by the end and could barely stand up. This was intense to see.

When they were finished, they then had to go off to the side and do leg practice.

Eventually, the practice moved to leg work. Some rikishi stretched whilst others hopped around the ring twice, then turned around and hopped around it twice in the other direction.

You are probably not this flexible. The blurs in the back are hopping around.

You are probably not this flexible. The blurs in the back are hopping around in a low pose.

After the practice there was a break and we got to see a demonstration of how the wrestler’s top knots are prepared by an expert hair stylist.

Smoothing the wrestler's hair. This usually takes place up stairs.

Smoothing the wrestler’s hair. This usually takes place up stairs.

Cleaning the wrestler's hair and spreading the wax.

Cleaning the wrestler’s hair and spreading the wax. The wax has a scent that is supposed to attract women.

After the hair styling demonstration we got a chance to eat Chanko Stew prepared by the younger wrestlers. We were eating the same food the wrestlers were eating upstairs and could even get seconds.

The stew was good, but salty, which is what you’d expect from men who’d just spent 90 minutes sweating and crying.

It was all much more interesting than I was expecting and I think all 15 or so guests were well behaved and my former colleague will have a chance to get invited back.

In the end I realized that although they can keep the weight, I wish I was that flexible.

That Which Must Not Be Answered

The other day She Who Must Be Obeyed walked into my home office (aka The Temple of Half-Finished Projects) and asked “Do you want to see a bunch of high school girls?”

My first reaction was a silent “It’s a trap!” followed by a quick scroll through my file of standard responses to traps “You look great.” “It looks beautiful.” “You look beautiful in everything.” “No, they make you look too sexy.” “I’m sorry, did you say something? Wow, your butt looks great in those jeans!”

Unfortunately none of the standard responses seemed suitable to the situation.

Then I realized I might be walking into a different trap. One of the things the Japanese do that sets foreigners on edge is ask questions that seem like traps. The classic example is:

Japanese Person: Are you doing anything this weekend?
Foreign Person: No, I’m just hanging out doing nothing until pay day.
Japanese Person: Do you want to help us set up for sports day this weekend?
Foreign Person: I’m sorry did you say something? Wow, your butt looks great in those jeans!

To the Western mind we’ve been set up and walked into a clever trap. Now that I’ve confided in you and given away any chance of saying I’m busy, you ask me if I want to do something. Damn you, trappy and clever Japanese person.

In truth, the Japanese person is doing the opposite. To their way of thinking, they are being courteous. They don’t want you to feel obligated to do something, especially if you are already doing something. If you’re not doing anything, then they offer you something to do. (I hope that makes sense.) (I also hope you realize it doesn’t make the situation that much less infuriating even if it does make sense.)

In the case of She Who Must Be Obeyed’s question I had to decide if it somehow involved our oldest who will be attending high school next year–she’s a 9th grader which, in Japan, is junior high school–or if it would somehow involve the reading group SWMBO volunteers with, which occasionally reads at schools. If I wasn’t careful, I could be turning down the chance to help her out with something.

Or, she could be walking me into a clever trap.

I opted for the latter and said “Of course not” and then added “unless it’s really, really necessary and I totally won’t take a camera.”

It turns out it did involve our daughter, who is visiting possible high schools. She Who Must Be Obeyed, I suspect, didn’t want to play escort and was trying to get me to do it. In the end, our oldest went with her friend and both of us got to stay home.

The funny part is that if I’d gone, I’d probably have had to take a camera.

The Festival of the Dead

I spent part of the day visiting dead people in the forest, which is kind of odd since most them are already in the house.

Today I joined the in-laws and She Who Must Be Obeyed to celebrate Obon, or the Festival of the Dead. Obon is an ancient Bhuddist tradition that’s been celebrated in Japan for 500 years. Over time it has grown into a traditional family reunion time which isn’t that unusual–including departed ancestors, though, is a little unusual, at least to someone from the West.

We drove about five minutes away to a small, old cemetery in the woods. My father-in-law and mother-in-law cleaned the family tombstone, put fresh flowers and lit candles and incense. Several tombstones representing other families had already been visited and had fresh flowers and lit candles.

After the cleaning we said a short prayer and then departed.

Every house I’ve visited in Japan also has a shrine where the ashes of the departed are held for a while before being deposited in the family plot.  Portraits of ancestors are kept nearby. One ancient tradition is that during Obon the spirits of the ancestors return to the shrines to take part in the reunion which is why the shrines always have a cup of sake and, in some cases, a box of sweets and a pack of cigarettes. (Whatever you may or may not believe, I think it’s awesome the spirits of the dead expect booze and smokes when they visit.)

Other than that, there’s not many other traditions in Obon (well, there are the crowded trains and highways but that happens before and after the reunion, not during).

The cemetery. She Who Must Be Obeyed's family shrine is above the concrete slab on the left.

The cemetery. She Who Must Be Obeyed’s family shrine is above the concrete slab on the left.

This was my second visit to the family memorial as it is also a tradition to introduce new family members to the spirits of the ancestors. Both our girls were taken to the shrine, too.

To this day I feel lucky that no ancestral spirits at either shrine started yelling “NOOOO! NOOOO! NOOOO!” while the building shook and a more sinister voice said, in English “GET OUUUUT!”

The walls did start bleeding, though, but that may have more to do with humidity this time of year.

Note: Edited August 16, 2015 to provide clarity about the remains and the shrines in the house.

This Zone is Dead for Now

If I liked baseball, I might actually have something to watch other than English detectives.

The end of football season (the violent chess US version) and the end of the college basketball season marks the start of a dead zone for me. Until the start of football season (and by that I mean the real season, not the useless pre-season) there is no sport worth tracking down and nothing worth keeping track of.  Instead of sports I’ve started watching A Touch of Frost, which is annoying in its own way (but that’s another post).

I’m not a big fan of professional basketball as I don’t like the way they limit the defenses and encourage endless scoring. This makes it just a series of wind sprints ending with baskets or a rebound. Also, pro-basketball doesn’t have that March Madness energy. Not fun at all.

Also, as I’ve mentioned before, to me baseball is little more than a bunch of people standing in a field watching a couple guys play catch. This is especially true in Japan where it is the only sport on television right now. The major networks in Japan all share broadcast rights meaning baseball is on TV every night and often preempts the few things I might still watch on TV.

There are exceptions to this: Any time there’s a major figure skating competition it will be shown on Japanese TV as will any major marathon in Japan or marathon relay. There are also a few interesting things shown on TV: major golf tournaments like the Masters’  and the US Open (these are mostly fun to watch to see the leaders choke on the last day). We also get to see international volleyball competitions, international soccer matches and any tennis event where Kei Nishikori is doing well.

Unfortunately, those aren’t as common as I’d like. Eventually, though, football and college basketball seasons start again.

Until then, I’ll keep watching A Touch of Frost and try to forget the lead character is named Jack Frost and is played by Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses.

Noodles and Beer in the Afternoon

A friend and former colleague is back in Japan and because I was at work on a Saturday (long story) he came back to the school and I showed him all the new toys that had arrived since he’d left. We then went for a beer and a bowl of ramen soup.

One of my relatives once scoffed at the idea of an eight dollar bowl of soup. I told her she was missing out. She remained skeptical even when I pointed out it was only eight dollars because of the exchange rate.

Part of the problem is that ramen soup, in the USA at least, is sustenance for graduate students. In 1995, while I was at Ole MIss, I vaguely remember the price being a dollar for a pack of five. A quick check of some websites tells me that’s what the price is now. This means, oddly, that ramen is one of the few foods to go down in price relative to inflation. (The inflation adjusted price should have been $1.54 for a pack of five.)

This notion of cheap graduate student food is also true in Japan, the difference is it’s also food for workers with short lunch breaks.

The other difference is that if you spend a little more, you get well made ramen, even at a national chain. My friend and I went to a chain that is quite typical of ramen chains. You buy tickets for what you want from a vending machine near the door and then one of the staff fetch the tickets and start preparing your order. This way employees never touch the money and the store has a good sense of what sells and what doesn’t.

A lot of this is designed to get you in feed you and then usher you out as quickly as possible. My friend and I, however, did not do that as the other good thing about most ramen restaurant chains is they sell beer from the moment they open until they close.

We bought ramen, gyoza and a beer and then got confused when we actually had the choice of bottle for draft (we chose draft). We both spiced up the ramen with garlic greens mixed with red pepper sauce and destroyed the ramen, as people are supposed to, as quickly as possible. We then sat around catching up for a couple hours hogging the only real table in the restaurant.

Oddly, we only had one beer each, at least until we visited a grocery store and my friend bought a canned whiskey drink and walked back to the station with me.


Cute Fashion and the Fashionably Cute

Although they are very interested in looks and fashion and branded goods, the Japanese don’t seem to have an interest in beauty pageants.

Instead they’ve found a way to connect annoying cuteness with fashion and high-tech consumerism in something called Tokyo Girls Collection.

Tokyo Girls Collection is a fashion show and concert held in a large arena and is open to the public as well as journalists and buyers for stores. The models usually have a girl next door appeal and many are singers and actresses representing fashion companies and magazines and not professional runway models. Most appear to have eaten at least once in the last year.

The thing that makes the show interesting, even as it’s featured endlessly on the news for two days, is not only the spectacle of it but the shocking ordinariness of it all. This isn’t a Paris fashion show steeped in pomposity, false sophistication and the tragically trendy where the clothes being shown will never actually be worn–the fashion equivalent of concept cars–it’s ordinary looking people (albeit annoyingly cute ordinary people) wearing clothes that can be purchased at the show.

In fact, part of the spectacle is the droves of young women trying to watch the show whilst simultaneously working their smartphones to try to buy the clothes and accessories they’re seeing on the runway. In some cases the clothes can be picked up at the show; in other cases they are shipped to the buyer. Every year the news features a handful of young women who’ve both succeeded and failed to acquire what they were hoping to acquire. There are also interviews with women who’ve traveled several hours to be there.

The show has been popular enough over the past 10 years to spawn several rival shows–including a Tokyo Boys Collection–and has even been sent off to Beijing and the USA. It’s also grown in size and spectacle with more bands and more brands.

Eventually, I predict, it will simply become a concert and people will forget about the clothes.

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Beer

One of the things I think a lot of people don’t get about government goodies is that although something doesn’t have a price, it always has a cost. You only think you’re getting it for free. This is also true of free beer.

One of the advantages of being a foreigner in Japan is that, even in this area, people will invite you to their blue tarps during Hanami and offer you a beer. If you’re lucky the only cost is 20 questions and a chance to practice your Japanese while they practice their English. Then, if you’re smart, you run to a beer machine or a convenience store and replace the beer you just drank after a short “oh, you didn’t have to do that” ritual.

If you’re not lucky, or an introvert not good at making long term conversation in another language and/or not good at making graceful exits, you may pay a higher cost when you end up trapped. On two occasions, I’ve been trapped. Both actually happened in the same day.

First, when I was still in Nou-machi, the town festival (more on that in another post) fell on a Saturday which meant a lot of people were suddenly able to attend. As soon as I arrived, I ran into my former boss who had secured a prime location. He immediately ordered me to sit down and drink. I stayed a while and every time I was about to try to leave I was handed another beer. Eventually, other friends arrived from other towns and I was able to exit.

(For the record: I probably out-stayed my welcome by quite a long time but I’ve never been good at reading “your time is up, get the hell out” signals in any language.)

After that I pointed my friends in the right direction for beer and refreshments and then got ordered to sit by a group of people I knew. They also started handing me beer. I ended up stuck there for a while until I managed to escape.

Keep in mind, part of the reason I liked attending the festival was it gave me a chance to play with camera gear and take lots of pictures. Being trapped, even with free beer means I’m stuck in one location and can’t just break out a tripod and camera when I’m supposed to be being sociable. It also means I can’t enjoy the food you have to pay for. Most of the free beer entrapments provide free snacks, but I’d rather head to the food stands.

The stuff there has a price but little cost.

I rather be here. The food stands at Takada Park in Joetsu. It's famous for its night Hanami.

I rather be here. The food stands at Takada Park in Joetsu. It’s famous for its night Hanami.

Viewing Flowers Through Beer-Colored Glasses

A lot of people are about to celebrate spring by getting really drunk.

The arrival of spring in Japan means the cherry blossom trees are about to bloom and the Japanese will get drunk and stupid for at least one night during Hanami, or the flower viewing festival.

I think this festival is so important because it marks the first day the Japanese can have a party outside without freezing. That said, it is still kind of an odd festival.

The truth is the plum blossoms have been blooming for a while and they are much more impressive than the cherry blossoms, most of which are old and are more of a pale pink that a vibrant pink. However, most years the weather is too cold for people to properly enjoy partying outside, especially when it’s only plum blossoms.

This is what it looks like from under the tree.

Cherry blossoms from a couple years ago. Cool, but kind of pale.

Also, a lot of events happen at once at the end of March: graduations, teacher transfers, company employee transfers and the end of the fiscal year. Everyone’s tired, has cabin fever and is ready to party.

This also leads to a form of competition. Young employees are sent to the most popular party spots (Ueno Park, Shinjuku park and Naka-Meguro) and told to claim a plot of land for their company. The weapon of choice for this claim is a blue tarp. The young employees then work shifts, including spending the night in the park, to keep the prime spot of land claimed.

Some people camp out for a week at time and neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor rival companies will keep them from their appointed plot. (Something like that.)

At the same time the Japanese news is filled with official forecasts of when the leaves will be in full bloom. The forecasts include color charts depicting the current level of bloom and the full bloom day in various cities. Forecasters can get in trouble if they are wrong.

Reporters are sent out the parks to interview earlier partiers and commiserate with the campers as the young reporters probably were the campers the year before.

Once the party starts, it’s basically a 24 hour drunken picnic. Thousands of people assemble on the tarps and thousands more walk around with drinks in hand. Places like Naka-Meguro (a river walk) are so crowded all you can do is walk (don’t stop, it’s too dangerous to stop) and photographers will nearly come to blows trying to get the best angles.

At that point the tabloid magazines send out their reporters and photographers to capture the revelry and as much debauchery as possible. Back after I moved to Tokyo, a group of us managed to find a spot in Ueno Park along with tens of thousands of other people. We were then invited to join another group.

At some point a tabloid photographer started stalking us, mostly to get pictures of drunken foreigners and, especially drunken foreign women. That tabloid shut down soon after that party, but there might accidentally be a picture of me out there.

Luckily, it will be pretty boring.

More cherry blossoms. Still kind of pale, though.

More cherry blossoms. Still kind of pale, though.