Autumn festival, and an unexpected invitation


Today was the second day of Autumn festival celebrations, which includes lots of yelling, dragging floats around town, and something that could probably be considered singing.

It’s been really fun to see the floats in various states of construction.  I pass three different spots where they’ve been built on my way to and from work.  I was on my way to work the first day the workers gathered down the block from Hachimangu to start work on one of the floats. I passed them on my bike, and half the men stared, tired and bored.  Then one of them, dressed all in brown with very short hair and a generous gut, raised his arm and called, “Ohaiyoooo!” (good morning!).  I felt my face relax as I broke into an easy smile, and twisted around to shout “Ohaiyo!” back and wave to him.  Several of the workers laughed and waved.  It was such a nice way to break the tension of being observed as an anomaly in a small city in one of the most homogeneous countries in the world.

I resolved to ride the very short distance to Hachimangu shrine, where the festivities were centered, and partake in whatever overpriced food they had, take some photos (my camera died in record time, and I forgot my phone, lol, fail), then wander down the street to see what I could see before heading to the electronics store to find a mic I could use with my laptop so I could finally Skype with my family back home now that I FINALLY had internet.

I tried takoyaki (delicious, but the tako part [octopus chunks] was overcooked and really tough), enjoyed watching people mill around with their families, occasionally in festival garb or yukata.  It’s nice to know that kids are weird and hilarious no matter where you go.

I Facetimed my dad to show him the festival, but realized it was close to 11pm in LA, and hung up before it rang twice.  He called right back, and I flipped the camera around to show him what I was seeing: two young women in yukata among dozens of stands selling food and games.  He really enjoyed it.  He said he and mom got my letter: a real tear-jerker that starts innocuously, then moves abruptly into thanking my parents for my education, for encouraging me to study something as frivolous as art history and philosophy, my dad for watching Star Trek with me, and my mom for being an amazing female role model.  Naturally, he said mom cried, and thanked me a few times.  I was in the middle of a noisy festival, so it wasn’t really the place to talk about it, but I’m glad they got it and that mom cried, haha.  I sound like a terrible daughter, but I love them, and I think that letter made them feel loved.  So.  Mission accomplished.

I went back to my apartment to grab my phone, took a few photos at Hachimangu, then wandered down the street.  I stopped when I heard singing.  I saw a group of people who clearly worked on the festival (bright green robes) drinking heavily and taking turns singing.  I pulled over and took a few photos from across the narrow street.  A man standing at the open doorway waved me and a few other onlookers over.  I crossed the street, parked my bike, and ventured a bit closer.  Next thing I knew, there were a dozen people smiling at me and seemingly yelling at me to come in and join them.  I felt a gentle hand on my elbow steer me briskly inside.  I bowed deeply and accepted a seat at a table covered in sushi, edamame and beer.  “Bee-ya, ok?  Japanese bee-ya, ok?”  “Hai!” I replied, and someone handed me a cold can of Asahi.  They all shouted kampai and slammed glasses into my can before laughing and taking turns encouraging me to drink.

Everyone wanted to know where I was from and how long I would stay.  Did I like Morioka?  “Hai!  Morioka-wa dai tsuki!”  A roar of approval went up and everyone demanded that I take a drink.  At some point someone stood, and the (clearly drunk) gentleman who had ushered me into the room indicated that I should film what was about to happen.  The man who had been sitting next to me stood, lifted a mostly closed fan into the air, and began to sing.  The others chatted softly, joined in or replied as they were expected to, with strong, easy voices, and cheered loudly when he finished.  This happened a few times, and each time it was made clear to me in the friendliest way possible that I was expected to film it.

They asked what I thought of the festival: very nice!  More drinking.  One of them stood up, ran to the back room, and came back with one of the green jackets some of them wore.  He dropped it on my shoulders, pushed me out of my chair and handed his phone to another man so he could take photos.  I put the robe on, he fixed the collar, and we posed together, fan in hand.  I was then shoved out of the room to observe a parade of men on horseback, one of which was an archer.  I took photos and received strange looks from each rider, probably because I was still wearing the green robe, but was clearly a foreigner.  “Sugoi!” I smiled at my hosts.  They invited me to stay, but I still needed to get a mic, and had to get going.  I returned the robe and fan, and said thank you to everyone whose eye I could catch.  A few of them left before me, and were very kind in their goodbyes.  My drunk friend handed me three stickers with kanji on them: seals for attracting money.  I thanked him seriously and bowed low.  We shared a laugh and shook hands.  On my way out, I was stopped gently by a woman who had also chatted with me, and introduced to a very elderly man who had been sitting next to a woman about the same age by the door, quietly observing the festivities and singing along when the occasion called.  “Boss of festival,” she said.  “You should meet.”  I bowed and said, “Hajimemashite” while he smiled and shook my hand.

This is kind of exactly the kind of experience I hoped to have here, similar to the one I had the soba noodle shop just down the street weeks prior.  Who were these people?  Why did they invite me to join them?  What were they talking about?  Why were they so comfortable bringing a foreigner into their private celebration, and communicating in a language none of them had mastered?  Meanwhile, my bike stood unlocked outside, my bottle of jasmine tea nestled next to the front wheel, awaiting my return to a slightly less bizarre environment.

My day already thoroughly made, I walked on until I hit a sandal store that usually looked closed.  I chatted with the owner while she showed me sandals my size for a few minutes, then mounted up and rode to Odori street, where I was chastised for not going on foot.  The street was shut down for the impending parade, and sure enough, as I exited Dotour with a small mocha, I could hear it approaching.  I wandered a few blocks until I was next to it and got some photos.  I was invited to step in front of the parade to get a shot of the ornately dressed women at the front by one of the dozens of men in charge of crowd control.  I thanked him, snapped a few shots, and jumped out of the way so he woudn’t get in trouble.  I stood and enjoyed the drums and clothing for a while before he approached me and abruptly started explaining the meaning of the float.

Each season was represented, and four aspects as well: the pine branches on the top held blinking lights, and represented the “celestial.”  Humans were represented by the man posed next to an ox on the front of the float.  Next was stone, then the ocean.  Different flowers also represented different seasons (sakura for spring, of course, but the rest I didn’t catch).  Silver balls stuck out the sides to represent water splashing away from the float.  He paused, then said, “These clothes are old fireman clothes.”  “Eeeh!  Honto-niiiii?!” I gave my best shocked Japanese reply.  I couldn’t believe all these men were dressed up as Edo-era firemen to direct the parade route.  So cool!  He was nice enough to pose with one of his friends for a photo.

I fuzzy-logicked my way to the electronics store and picked up a mic (which doesn’t work without an additional power supply piece, wtf), then headed home, but got caught up in the parade on the way.  So loud!  All that singing and drumming!  “Aya-re-are-are-are!”  Endlessly, for the whole route with frequent stops to sing.  I saw some of the drummers swapping out, but even so, how do they all maintain their energy?  Such stamina.  And a bunch of them can’t be older than 13.

I slowly made my way home, and was shocked to feel how cold it had become.  I went home to change into something warmer and catch the end of the festivities in case something else happened, but I deflated in the warm comfort of my apartment.  I took out the trash, did some dishes, and made tsukemen for dinner.  Tomorrow promises archery on horseback at Hachimangu shrine!

Agatha Christie, a shy violet, and the Autumn Festival: Akimatsuri


When I asked about favorite books today, one of the students said she likes Edo-era historical fiction, and Agatha Christie (Murder on the Orient Express tops her list: “You should read!” she said).

I’ve seen ads for a movie, Hot Road, and it looks like a romantic tradgedy of sorts. I’m interested in hearing more about it, but of course the only person I know who has seen it is a crushinly shy young girl who goes minutes in total silence rather than speaking, but she’s improving. She draws oden (winter food), then says it’s konyaku, and struggles to explain what that is. I wonder if I put too much pressure on her. I turn the conversation to sports:
Do you play sports in school?
In PE?
What do you play?
Soft tennis.
Soft tennis?
Why soft?
Ball is… soft.
Really? Why is the ball soft?
Soft tennis ball is… [looks up a word in the dictionary: injury]

Akimatsuri- the autumn festival, the reason the locals are building these fantastic floats I ride by on my way to and from work.

Kintsukuroi, a better diet, and false advertising


One of my students mentioned something amazing today: one of her friends practices kintsukuroi, the repair of ceramics with precious materials, usually gold.

This is a perfect example of a difference between Japanese and western culture. Kintsukuroi serves to highlight the history (and flaws) of a piece rather than attempting to cover them up. Moreover, it allows a damaged cup or bowl to continue to be used instead of pointlessly throwing away an otherwise valuable piece. The results are, of course, incredibly beautiful, and leave the piece more valuable than it was before the damage was done.  The concept of use and reuse is a philosophy that’s still deeply ingrained in the culture here in Japan. Their obsessive organization of how they throw their trash away is a less attractive, but equally impressive example.

The two women in this class also mentioned Ohasama Winery, and they also offer to take me there with them some time. It’s an hour away by car.
They randomly ask me what I’m having for dinner, and they both chastize me when I say tsukemen.
“Vegetables!” they both yell at me.
Somehow this word comes up: tsukidewanai- a gentle version of dislike.

I got another coffee house class, where we all just sit around and chat with just a couple of women today. Their English is very high-level, and they’re fascinating people. One had recently come from a ballet lesson. The other does gymnastics. I said, “Sugoi!” (amazing), and they asked if I speak Japanese. As usual, I replied in the negative: “Nihongo-ga dekimasen.”
Their eyes pop out a little. “That’s Japanese!” They blurted out, and we all laughed. The class was good, both women are very clever.

Old names, horses, and Doctor-san


During one of today’s classes, the upcoming holiday came up: Tuesday, the 23rd will be Respect for the Elderly Day. “I’m senile,” declared a male student, suddenly.

This weekend’s festival is to celebrate Morioka Castle taking leadership over the neighboring 23 towns (including my neighborhood, Chabatake, and my school’s, Osawakawara) about 300 years ago, with the Nambu han (clan) at the top.

Old names for Morioka:
Hanayacho (many flowershop town)
Kajicho (swordsmith town)
One student mentioned that her hometown’s old name is “ginger selling place.”

They discussed horseback archery, and chattered in Japanese until someone said “hospital,” and everyone laughed. There was a “ritual” that involves horseback archery at Hachimangu shrine on Tuesday, but I doubt I’ll be able to attend.

Doctor-san’s lesson began at 6pm, and this is what I learned:
-Alexis Carrel, a 1894 Nobel Prize winner for inventing how to cut a vein and rejoin it using a 3-point method (assistant holds 2 points while the doctor sews the seams between the two points, which is then repeated twice more).
Types of transplants, in order of success:
-Autotransplantation- self to self
-Homotransplantation- human to human
-Heterotransplantation- animal to human
A Russian doctor transplanted a dog’s head to another dog’s chest, and the head survived for “several days.” Yikes.

Doctor-san said, “Rabbit is more conventional experiment. More gentle, not violent.” Double yikes.

A little song and dance


One of my female students went to a choir recital for a young family member, and apparently had an unexpectedly awesome time:
“My niece… 2 years old. At her school, everybody singing, but just her… dancing! So funny. I watch DVD over and over.

Another female student in the same class went to a high school reunion (maybe her 50th), and then mumbled something in Japanese, making the other students laugh. I look around with a bemused expression, and they conference and flip through dictionaries to translate whatever it was she said into English for my benefit. One of them finally blurts out, “First love!” I was shocked, and apparently it showed, and set the students laughing again.

My student said, “First love… ah… didn’t come.” everyone let out an exasperated noise. We all commiserated. The student to my left then turned to me, paused, thought for a moment, and said, “Can I ask a personal question?” Naturally I said yes, and she asked when had my first love.

I surprised myself by saying Eugene Kang, a Korean boy who was in my grade in elementary school. I guess he was the first guy I had a crush on. I remember thinking of him as a talented artist; by age 12, he could draw better than anyone else in our grade. When I asked him how he drew so well, and he replied tartly: “You think of the line, and then you put it there.” Pretty useless advice, but its simplicity was beautiful. Initiate childhood crush, which developed into a kind of love, I suppose. I wonder about him now and then. Facebook says he married a Korean woman, and she made a couple little people with him.

Cats, a bat, and an alcoholic sweet


During a private lesson with a middle schooler, I learn that she watches a TV drama after school called GDO.
I ask her about her pets: she has a cat.
“Any pets before the cat?”
“Dog… cat… talking bat.”
“A bat?!”
“No… Really?! A bat.”
“Um… bad.”
“…A bird?”
She has had one dog in the past named Malon because its birthday was 9/24, in autumn (?).
Are cats or dogs better, I asked. “Cats.” Why? “Because cat is… only eat cat food. Dog eat dog food, and meat and… fish.”
Later, in a class with three adult women, we discuss favorite things:
“Curry and cake.”
“Reimen and… ramen.”
“Unagi and chocolate.” What kind? “Truffle, black [dark], with brandy inside.” This last type is only available when the weather starts to get cold: October-April.
Sade- “At night, listening, I feel… relax.”
When I asked, “What do you do in your free time?” I received the best single answer I might ever hear in a classroom, or any room for that matter: “Pet cats.”

My coworkers continue to be the best


This afternoon, I headed to the electronics store with two coworkers (Nabuko-san and Hiroko-san) to get an internet plan for my apartment. Before getting into her car, Nabuko-san turned to me with big eyes and a serious face, and said, “My car smells bad!”
“So desu ka?” (Oh yeah?) I fumbled, unsure how to react.

“Mmm!” She affirmed, and then intoned, “I stepped on a very stinky worm by mistake.” I burst out laughing loudly on the street next to her car. “Very strong smell,” she bemoaned, almost to herself, with a small sneer, eyes downcast. She is simply the best.


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