Friday, 25 January 2013

Gaijin Tales! The taste of a woman

Kojak: If I could just sign a deal where I just smoke and drink everyday and suffer no consequences, but then I die at 40, I would just do it. 20 years of fun and then die! No problem, it's a good deal for me.
Cough Medicine: Wait, what?
Big Finn: Kojak's going to being an alcoholic and die at 40.
Cough Medicine: (deadpan) That sounds magical.


Me: In Canada by now everybody's in winter jackets, gloves, toques...
Anarchy in the UK: What the hell is a toque?
Me: A toque? It's...well, you know. It's like...a toque! It's a toque! You know,'s like a winter hat.
Anarchy in the UK: Oh, a bobble hat!
Me: You've seriously never heard them called toques...?
Anarchy in the UK: Australzealand, have you ever heard of a toque? Like a hat for winter.
Australzealand: What, you mean like a teacozy?


Insufferable Dumbass: Is it ok if I write “20” in English? Like, Roman numerals?


Insufferable Dumbass: We have four kinds of sauces!
Rude Boy: Well, three. One's just salt.
Insufferable Dumbass: Salt's a kind of sauce.
Rude Boy:
Insufferable Dumbass: We could say we have four types of seasonings.
Rude Boy: Yes, sure, that's better.
Insufferable Dumbass: And sauce is a type of seasoning. Salt is a type of seasoning. So salt is a type of sauce!
Rude Boy: …


Girl who's recently started keeping a turtle: (excited) Every day I change his water, and when I get home I go 'Ahh, you must have been lonely!' so I tap on his glass to wake him up and say hi and he's like (slowly opens eyes, looks pissed off) 'What the fuck do you want?' He's so cute!!


Genmaicha: There aren't that many lesbians in Japan...
Me: I wouldn't be so sure. I mean I don't know, but I would guess that there's as many here as anywhere else.
Genmaicha: Could be...I do have a few lesbian friends.
Me: Really? They're open about it?
Genmaicha: Not to everybody. They mostly hide it except with people they know.
Me: Yeah, that's exactly my point! Lesbians and gay men are everywhere, they just don't talk about it. Especially in Japan. You probably know a lot more than you realise.
Genmaicha: Yeah, you're probably of my friends became a lesbian when she got into an all-girls high school.
Me: Uh, yeah, she was probably always a lesbian and just didn't notice until then.
Genmaicha: No, I think going to that school made her appreciate girls more...before that she was normal.
Me: “Normal?” Watch your words.
Genmaicha: Ah, yeah! I guess to her, being a lesbian IS normal.
Me: …


Rude Boy: What class you just have?
Friend from English Club: Information Something-or-other.
Rude Boy: What'd you study?
Friend: No idea. I didn't really understand it so I just texted under my desk the whole time.
Rude Boy: Ok, so are there any cuties in that class?
Friend: Don't know, I've only been twice.
Rude Boy: We're ten weeks in.
Friend: Yeah.
Rude Boy: I think you might fail.
Friend: I think you might be right.


Head Teacher: But what if a girl you weren't interested in asked you to go somewhere on Christmas, and you said no, and then later she asked if you wanted to eat dinner together? Would you be able to refuse her a second time?
Rude Boy: Hey, even friends can eat dinner together, so I'd be ok with it.
Head Teacher: Even if you knew that what she really wanted was to make some progress with you.
Rude Boy: Well, I'd feel bad...
Head Teacher: So in the end you wouldn't be able to refuse her...interesting. You're very Japanese, Rude Boy-san.
Rude Boy: Haha, yeah, I get that sometimes.
Head Teacher: Although, come to think of it, when I was studying in America all the professors doing research on Japan were a little bit Japanese. And all the Japanese exchange students were really American. I guess in the end, everyone gravitates to the place whose people are the most similar to themselves.


*Cologne has a conversation in German*
*Rude Boy obnoxiously picks a phrase at random and tries to imitate him*
*cue five minutes of pronunciation adjustment*
Rude Boy: Ich habe ein Papagei auf meiner Schulter.
Cologne: Great! That means “I have a parrot on my shoulder.”


No “irasshaimase” as I enter. No acknowledgment as I file past you to grab my one chocolate bar. A solid 60-second wait as you dick around with whatever you're doing that's more important than the customer at the register. Barely being able to hear you as you announce the price without enthusiasm.

Here, asshole. Break 10,000.


Science & Technology class went on a field trip to the Miyako Ecology Centre in southern Kyouto. I realised once I got there that I'd already been, in high school, when me and Guy from Philadelphia went on kougaigakushuu every Friday. It's not bad. The place is itself a model of an energy-conserving building, in addition to being a kind of kid's museum, which is a fun concept. The staff were basically the cast of Orange Days. At the end the guy asked if we had any questions and I said I didn't, but that was a lie. Why did you take this job? What qualifications are required? Do you enjoy it? Do you have a girlfriend? If so, what's she like? If not, are you looking? If so, what kind of girl are you looking for? If not, why not? I always wonder these things about people.


Korean girl trying marzipan for the first time: It's...the taste of a woman.


Rude Boy: I mean I seriously never thought I'd ever be on the jukujo team...
Brighteyes: I thought you were just on the “women” team.


Cologne: I'm so tired...when we get home I'm going straight to bed. I'm not even going to drink a beer.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013


Formal class time wrapped up yesterday, and for us that meant our final exam in Reading Comprehension. As I've mentioned, reading and writing is my greatness weakness by far, so I think it's safe to say that I maybe didn't do so well. Or at least, I definitely didn't do so well on the recognition. The actual comprehension component, in which we were made to read a simplified news story and then report back on its content, might have been ok, because I know how to dress up my answers while still being honest. My kanji knowledge may be lacking, but my test-taking skills are tops.

Everybody else in the house then immediately celebrated their impending two months of freedom, but I had one more day before I was done. The examination period is stretched out over almost three weeks, so naturally I had two exams on the same fucking day. Fortunately we were given our Nihon Shisoushi questions in advance, so I was adequately prepared. The first essay required us to pick one among ten or so topics, of which I meandered through several. I started with Hounen, and then quite reasonably contrasted him with his disciple Shinran. These two are kind of the Plato and Aristotle of Japanese philosophy, in that they were master and student, the student is somewhat better-regarded in modern times, and they're about as fundamental as you can get. I then added a brief discussion of their differing views on nenbutsu, which was yet another topic entirely, and finished with a discussion of egoism as a basis for ethics, which existed up to Hounen but was mostly abolished with the rise of Shinran, and which, also, was never at any point discussed in this class, even once.

The second essay was on the Juugyuuzu, a series of ten pictures depicting a person's metaphorical journey from layman to master of Buddhist wisdom. At this point I was running slightly behind, because, if you can believe this, the exam was only an hour long. Before now I don't think I've ever in my life sat an exam that was less than three hours, and to make things worse there was no clock in the room, making proper time apportionment a bit of a challenge. I ended up just listing off each of the pictures (from memory!) and explaining what I supposed their deeper meaning to be. Then the chime sounded, so my conclusion ended on quite a lame note, coming off as something like “and then he went back and shared his new wisdom...with...uh, people.”

It's one thing to fail, but it's quite another to think that you could have done better, and I'm happy to report that I have no regrets. Even better, I don't feel that the content would have been substantially different had I written it in English; it would have been more eloquent, and better organized, and wouldn't look like it was written my a ten-year-old, but I didn't feel like I was leaving out anything significant because I didn't know how to express it. Besides, Philosophy claims this teacher is happy if we ryuugakusei can just write something halfway coherent, so it should be good.

Really though, it's amazing how living abroad can make you feel like a superhero. You can get pumped from accomplishing mammoth tasks like riding a bus, or buying something from a store. Today I located a classroom, interpreted a seating plan, figured out some instructions, and wrote an exam!! As did 200 other people!!

My Kyouto Culture Discussion exam was much less successful, mainly because it was multiple choice, and thus asked far more of my reading abilities than they could give. Many of the questions were kind of stupid and unfair as well, like “what station is closest to this landmark?” and “of the following four temples and shrines, name the one that is slightly more significant.” There was even one which read, “One class, I brought in two objects to show you. What were they?” Which I guess is sort of a curveball for those afflicted by chronic absenteeism or narcolepsy. It's also the only question that I'm 100% sure I got right, so I'm not complaining. Mostly it was a matter of the standard techniques of elimination, great concentration of common denominators, and picking B if all else fails (it doesn't matter what letter you blindly guess, as long as all your blind guesses are all the same – if the correct answers are evenly spread out over all letters, and they never are, but if they are, then you're statistically hedging your bets.) Who cares, I don't think I'm not sure I'm even getting credit for this class anyway.

Next week I have my Foreign Policy exam, in which I will make insightful observations about Japan's relationship with South Korea with respect to comfort women, Takeshima, and the future of the Korean War. And then I'll be free until April, with no responsibilities and no money to spend. Something tells me I'll be getting a lot of studying, writing, and walking done.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Brush with a jukujo

There's a small Chinese restaurant less than five minutes' walk from the dorm. It's small in that wonderfully Japanese way, frequented mostly by neighbourhood locals and less spacious than most public bathrooms, with about ten seats and even fewer menu items. I can only assume that it survives on the patronage of its regulars, because I don't think I've ever seen more than two or three people in there at the same time before.

Tonight, though, the place is comparatively bouncing. Cologne and I take our seats at the bar, squeezed between a couple of lonely twenty-somethings, who sit silently, as if contemplating all their life's mistakes. I wave to a group of guys from our university, sitting at the corner table.

My reading's gotten better since I was here last. I order the tonkatsu teishoku. Cologne just picks something at random. “If I try something new, then I'll know what it is for next time!” he reasons happily. It turns out to be gyouza nabe. We watch TV while we wait. The water tastes off. There's a twenty-year-old photo of the owner pasted to the back wall.

I hear a woman come in with two small children in tow. I steal a glance over my shoulder, and – oh my god. Now, I catch a lot of flack for my taste in women, but this is a MILF if there ever was one. Normally I don't do the whole jukujo fact I usually say that 28 is probably my upper limit...but I think, in that moment, all you guys who rave about them may well have gained a convert. This is the kind of woman I want in my bed. This is the kind of woman I want raising my children, and I don't even want children.

For a moment, I can't take my eyes off her. Then her husband comes in with their oldest daughter and I quickly avert may attention. The stragglers sit at the bar, a few seats down from myself.

Our food arrives and, shortly after, so does Philosophy, come to grab some takeout. A group of young guys come in after him, see that every seat is taken, and wait just inside the door. Philosophy and I chat about what a tasty and convenient little restaurant this is, and then I point out the siren seated immediately beside us. From where he's standing, he has a perfect angle to drink her all in. I watch him look her up and down. He cracks a smile. He doesn't often go for what I go for. But she's won him over. The chair on Cologne's other side opens up and he takes a load off. The two of them chat in German.

A voice jostles the atmosphere: “Hey, what the fuck are you looking at?”

It's the father – the jukujo's man. He looks about ready to stab one of the young guys standing by the door.

“I'm...not looking.”

This has the opposite of the desired effect. In a few swift strides he's right up in the young guy's grill, spewing a stream of obscenities in his most castigating old man growl. He's by no means large, but he's 90% muscle. I start to watch, but then I catch myself. I have no desire to convince him that I'm the next problem he needs to solve.

“What university do you go to?” he demands. The lady behind the counter's gone to take out the garbage or something. The boys don't answer, which is just as well, because it's not like he was going to do anything useful with the information. That's the thing about testosterone-fuelled bullshit that's always gotten to me the most: Pointless questions. What's your name? Where you from? You think you're tough? I picture my strategy if he does zero in on me. I'll just stare him in the face, pretend not to understand Japanese, and not back down. As long as I don't move he won't do anything.

Now he's going on in that way of speaking where Japanese men lose the ability to use vowels and tack korrrrra onto the end of every sentence, which they think is extremely intimidating but really just makes them sound like they never graduated junior high school. I can't understand a goddamn word he's saying. Eventually his target talks him down and he stalks back to his chair, where he resumes his verbal assault.

At this point the old lady bustles back in and immediately tries to defuse the situation.

Ara, is something the matter?” she asks.
“It's those punks waiting over there!” the crazy guy yells.
“Ah, I'm so terribly sorry, do you think I could have you wait outside?” she asks, to which they're happy to comply.
“Fucking cocky bastards!”
“I'll have you not talk like that, yes, thank you.”

The source of his ire has been removed but he just can't contain himself. In under a minute he's stormed out to continue the argument, slurring idle threats. I lean over to confer with Philosophy, whose listening is better than mine.

“He thought they were staring at him?”
“Yeah, he was like 'my daughter can't eat with you looking at her like that!' Which, you know.”
“Right, she must feel very reassured now that her father is trying to pick a fistfight with a bunch of strangers.”

I wonder if we should do something, but I also know nothing's going to come of it. The whole time, nobody in the entire store has so much as shifted in their chairs, or, really, given any indication that Mr Yakuza Wannabe has disturbed their meals or, in fact, done anything even slightly out of the ordinary. We pay up and leave.

They're having it out in the middle of the road as we jaywalk home. His wife comes out and I get my first glimpse of her full-on. She really is heavenly. She's wearing a pleasant smile that says, “I really don't want to deal with this shit, but let's see if I can't act all coquettishly innocent and Yamato Nadeshiko our way out of this.” Although to me, it says, “Get over here, Rude Boy, and bend me over the table right inside the store, because I need a real man who can satisfy me.”

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Day in the life

January 15th, 2013


The screech of my phone's alarm jerks me awake. I stayed up past 5 am rushing through the last of the leftover homework for today. Easily avoidable and my own stupid fault, but I did get everything finished. No time to shower, but at least I'm not in danger of missing my exam. Thank fuck for that.

Cologne has taken to kicking my bed as hard as he can when he knows I have to be up. Actually, it is quite effective and helpful. Today it's my turn. It's nice how roommates help each other out.

The sky is overcast, the air uncharacteristically crisp. It puts me in a good mood. I'm amidst a gradual migration towards the school, like a Japanese Exodus, except only ten minutes long, and people are going to class instead of fleeing Ramses II. I see that I have enough time to go the long way, which means I get to take the escalator, which means I get to appreciate the hot girls riding it.


Of the other six students in my class, only Hecate has beat me to class. We barely acknowledge each other as I enter and I go stare out the window. All told, Hecate is one of my closer foreign friends.

Today is Grammar. Although I already know the majority of the patterns we're being taught, I actually find this class the most helpful, as it focusses on usage. Conversation is fun, but a joke, and Listening Comprehension is just meh for everybody. My kanji deficiencies make Reading Comprehension a battle at best, but at least I'm improving.


For our group, both Grammar and Conversation are taught by the head Japanese teacher, a woman in her early 30's. As always, she arrives almost exactly as the chime sounds. Unfortunately her contract was not renewed, which is nonsensical and stupid, as all students from every level agree that she's the best by far. Arzenchia arrives several minutes late, prompting a tongue-lashing before the exams are distributed.

I haven't studied at all, but I'm not nervous. As I work through the exam, I'm finding it's so easy that I actually go back and read the instructions just to make sure I haven't misunderstood something. I finish the hour-long exam in just over half an hour, so presumably I did either very well or very poorly.


Huh. Ordinarily I'd be spending all day on campus, but today I guess I've got some free time. I rush home to shower. The weather is all like, “Maybe I'm gonna snow, maybe I'm gonna rain. Haven't decided. We'll see how I feel.” A city truck is parked in the road, blocking an entire lane of traffic. Cones are laid out in case the workers milling around aren't enough of a clue, and one guy's job is to direct cars around the truck, in case they aren't sure whether they're supposed to just drive into the back of it or what.


I run into a guy from English Club. Actually, he kind of annoys the shit out of me. We make plans to hang out.


I've arrived at 日本思想史 or “History of Japanese Thought,” my legit class for the day, because Philosophy major. I never realised just how much of Japanese intellectualism was influenced by Buddhism, but of course it makes total sense that religion would inform philosophy. Right, Descartes?

Philosophy and Hikikmori Girl are always ten to twenty minutes late. The teacher, at least five. A sternly comedic academic, his Japanese is easy to follow, but his lectures range from concrete and example-filled to incomprehensibly abstract. He isn't afraid to exude a little teacherly intimidation when he starts to get pissed off, but he'll also sometimes, for example, scold an inattentive student and then start laughing. Once, he stopped in the middle of the lecture to gravely announce that we would now hold a small, impromptu rock-paper-scissors tournament to determine who would read the next section of the text. He's equal parts serious and silly as the situation demands.

He studied in Germany in his own college days, an experience from which he often draws examples. As a helpful side-effect, it means that he is well aware of our unique needs, which is helpful. He will also sometimes reference us three when making a comparison to support the point he's making, though he has the unnerving habit of doing so without looking at us.

Now he's going on and on about Dougen. I struggle with the handouts for this class, on account of I can't fucking read them. I don't even have the energy to try to follow along with the readings today, so I just listen.


Another long break now, so I make spaghetti, chat with Anarchy in the UK, and then contort myself into the confines of the common room couch and catch up on some sleep. If I go to my bed I'll sleep too deeply, and either miss my next class or interrupt my REMs, which will actually make me more tired.


Eyes open. Well, my class started three minutes ago, but fuck it. I take my sweet time getting ready and making my way over, taking the escalator once again.


Science & Technology, baby. The one 18 roped me into. Passing this class requires little more than a pulse. The teacher is a middle-aged Scottish guy with a ponytail who dresses like a hippy. Today I just have to describe a TED talk, which I watched shortly before writing a 1000-word essay in literally five minutes and then sleeping.


Released into the wild. Early, again. Hamburg and I stop at the on-campus Family Mart, where we run into a friend of his. She's damn cute but I quickly deduce that she's taken. Unprompted, she starts telling me that I should get a girlfriend, and trying to give me advice on how to do it. Uh, thanks.

At the dorm, they meet up with some guy from France or Borneo or something, who lived here a semester ago and was very popular with Korean girls. Myself, I've got another class.


Of the 11 (!) classes I took this semester, Japanese Literature may be my favourite. Today we are not only handing in an essay and a journal of notes we took on each reading, but also doing a presentation on a Japanese literary work of our choice. I deliver a flawless five-minute dissertation on Sei Shounagon, every word of it straight off the top of my head. It feels fucking badass. Not that I sucked at it before, but VP'ing Japanese Club back in the day taught me how to talk on my feet, that's for sure. Finally we have a brief exam. So you can see now why I only slept two hours.


I wait for the bus with one of my friends from Literature and History. Consider asking if she wants to get some food, but I'm too tired.


Home. Finally. Hamburg and his buddies are still lingering around the dormitory lobby bullshitting about the old days. I head upstairs to spend my evening dicking around on the Internet, as I spend every evening.


...which brings us to the present moment. Time for some sleep, 'cause the exams don't stop.

Monday, 14 January 2013


So everybody has the day off because it's Seijinshiki. All the Japanese kids who turned 20 sometime between now and this same day last year are now recognized by the law as real live grown-ups, and they get a whole festival to seal the deal. They will wear the fanciest of kimonos, attend a morning ceremony, run around in kimono-clad crowds, and, in the evening, probably have a night out with their families, where they will pretend to be trying alcohol for the first time.

The official tradition is actually less than a hundred years old, yet, but the “20” comes from the daimyo days, when that was pretty much the halfway point. Which is a bit of a morbid thing to celebrate having reached, actually. When her own seijinshiki came, back in the 90s, the booming economy meant that it was customary to gift your child with either a new car or a kimono, which commands about the same price if you do it up right. (Fun fact: In her university days, it was also common for girls to have several boyfriends, based on the commodities they offered: One gave you rides, one bought your meals, one was interesting...) But at the time, she didn't especially want either of those things, and wasn't feeling like an adult yet in any case, so she decided that at 30 she'd start doing all the “proper” things like developing her career and finding a husband, although she hasn't married just yet. Then she paused.

“ parents are kind of worried about that.”

Speaking of seasonal stuff, for reasons that escape me strawberries are in high demand right now. I'd thought it was only a Christmas thing, but the convenience stores have been flooded with all manner of variants on strawberry chocolate, sweets, breads, ice creams, and beverages, and I have no idea why. But if it means a strawberry Kit-Kat is coming down the pipes, I can't complain.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Escaping the Foreigner Bubble (if you're so inclined)

Before I got distracted by New Year's nonsense, I was on a roll with three loosely related posts. Despite my best efforts, I got sucked into the Foreigner Bubble at first, and it took some time and a lot of effort to make my way out. Although I've barely been riding the progress train long enough to get a seat, I think I can share some strategies, if you yourself are currently sharing in my frustration. I'll be straight with you, this is probably all obvious, but it's also the closest I will ever write to a “five things you should know before you come to Japan,” so let's go.

1. Accept that, to some degree, being trapped in the Foreigner Bubble is inevitable

I may have come off as anti-foreigner earlier, and I'm sorry about that, because I'm not hating on foreigners. I'm hating on stupidity. In fact, foreign companionship can even be desirable. You may crave it, you may require it for your sanity. But even if you choose to actively avoid it, you'd be foolish to ostracize yourself on principle. All that'll do is cut you off from a host of opportunities you might have enjoyed.

More to the point, you probably need to learn to live with it either way, because you'll likely never escape it entirely. The sooner you come to terms with that, the less you'll come off as a standoffish tit.

2. Learn the language. In fact, learn the local hougen

It's called being a gracious guest. Lots of people speak English to varying degrees, but they shouldn't always have to. What's more, you'll be necessarily limiting the types of Japanese people you can meet as well as how meaningful your interactions will be. Try not to be shy about using it, either. At a bar or on campus and spot somebody who looks cool? Well, march over and strike up a conversation.

In fact, I'm going to take it one step further and suggest that you also learn the local dialect. For one thing, it's really really really really fun, but it has practical merit too. It not only demonstrates a strong attachment to the country and its culture, but ties you to the particular place you're living in, even when you venture elsewhere. It sets you apart from the Extended Spring Breakers. Just don't do this until you've mastered basic hyoujungo, or you'll piss people off. But when it's incorporated naturally into your personal rhythm, it's very effective. If Japanese is the secret handshake, your hougen is the spectacular super-special secret handshake.

If you have the misfortune of living in the Kantou area, there is no hougen to learn. Hahaha! That must suck for you.

3. Take her light

Be prepared that your transformation into Social Butterfly Alpha Gaijin Million+ Friends IRL is going to take time and work. You're going to run up against walls. Some people in your new group may even purposely ignore you or give you the runaround. Remind yourself that you're a cultural outsider and chrono-spatial newcomer, and just keep chipping away. Don't get worked up if things don't go your way to start, or progress at the speed you'd prefer.

4. Get over yourself

I might catch flack for this...

So, Japanese people staring. Honestly? I think it's our own fault. You frequent forums, browse blogs, and view videos mentioning this phenomenon, and when you get here, omg, they were totally right! Guys? Guys. Trust me, you are not that interesting. And when it does happen, remember that people rubberneck traffic accidents too. Let's stop complaining that ever since we tattooed an exploding dick on our face, people won't stop staring.

Also, by the way, sometimes people look at each other.

Extrapolating, drop your presuppositions and lose your sense of entitlement. Don't deny your past experiences, but try not to let them colour your current ones unduly. I've heard that Japanese girls are prudes; I've heard that Japanese girls are sluts. Both of them more times than I can count. Disparities in perspective should indicate a deeper truth. Try to get at it.

And by all means trade on your foreigner status – we all do it – but don't treat it like the keys to the VIP lounge. Show what else you've got that makes you special, and be prepared to put the work in if you're looking for lasting friendships; just because your uncle got you an interview doesn't mean you won't get fired if you suck. Respect is earned, and it's a two-way street. Enough metaphors yet?

5. Do everything

Make proper use of your time a philosophy of life. I don't just mean in terms of time management, although that certainly is important, but rather that if you're only going to be here for a short time, you don't want to be sitting on the plane and wishing you'd seen or done more. And if you're in it for the long haul, well, that's your motivation right there.

My point is, don't be dismissive. Seize every opportunity that hits your desk, even if you don't feel like you want to. There's something to be learned from every experience, no matter what it is. If a cultural event seems like it's going to be boring, go anyway and plan to just enjoy the crowd. Doing a slideshow on your home country is a lot of work, but maybe you'll meet some people there and end up expanding your social circle. And maybe you politely demurred when you got invited to the Celtic flutes show because that ain't your scene, but what you don't know is that after an hour everybody got cold and ended up going to this awesome new bar downtown, and you'd have loved it, and also if you'd gone you'd have gotten laid.

Trivia night, karaoke, hanami, shrine visits, bukatsu, community events, matsuri. Take any invitation. Put yourself out there. And if the opportunities aren't rolling in, create some. Ring somebody up and start making plans. Above all, keep trying, because you might hit your head a few times, but you can get in the door.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Annual shrine visit

There are a couple of other Japanese New Year's traditions which I neglected to relate in my last post, but my good buddy Shiga has since brought me up to speed. One is the consumption of osechi, a collection of a bunch of different snacks, decoratively arranged and often quite colourful. Picking up a less elaborate package from a convenience store is popular among we young singletons, but Shiga, who still lives at home, got some from his mom. He also informed me of the existence of holiday grab-bags, ranging from a few hundred yen on up to 3000 or more, filled with a mystery assortment of toys and other goofy items. If you buy one and get something you'd hoped for, it is a day of triumph, but if you find it filled with naught but less desirable possibilities, the weight of your misfortune is crushing. Or so I had it described to me.

That said, the most important ritual of all is, of course, the New Year's shrine visit. Shiga, Security and I got in a couple of visits of this type, preceding a karaoke session but following lunch at a place called 先通入ル, uh, “sakitsuunyuuru,” maybe? Somebody with better kanji knowledge than I would have to tell you. Anyway, this place, found in a department building on the corner of Shijou and Kawaramachi, serves spaghetti made with Kyouto vegetables (supplemented with your usual Kyouto beverages and confectionaries). Kind of a strangely specific theme for a restaurant, but it was pretty all right.

That's me on the right, positioning my chopsticks using my other hand, like some kind of simpleton.
We first stopped at a smaller shrine, about as wide as a doorway and directly off the Shijou sidewalk. Shiga was ecstatic to find that all of us happened to have a five-yen coin on us, which was apparently quite fortuitous due to “goen” sounding similar to a phrase for “good luck.” Characteristically, he prayed for a girlfriend. Not much one for prayer and feeling the crowd of old ladies behind me growing by the second, I couldn't think of anything to ask for. But if I'm lucky, maybe whatever kami I was supposed to be praying to will take my five-yen coin, get a gist for my general emotions and sort things out for me, like the officials at the Immigration Office when you've gotten your papers mostly right but still a little out of whack.

From there we proceeded to Yasuka Jinja, the largest and most auspicious shrine in central Kyouto. The crowds going to and from it were so thick they occasionally held up traffic, oblivious pedestrians chattering away as they thronged agonizingly across the street. On-site, it was like a small matsuri, except with ten times the usual amount of people. The crowds in front of the main prayer-place were so thick that people were flinging coins over the heads of those in front of them and offering a sort of prayer by distance, holding the same relation to their prayer as a puppeteer does to a marionette. Shiga prayed for a girlfriend again. This time I just went with the first thing that occurred to me and wished to improve my Japanese. Only later did I realise I should have prayed for something that actually requires a bit of luck: Getting into Japanese grad school! By then it was too late, though. I'm not very good at this.

To compound my worries, I only used one yen in the transaction. Would the kami be satisfied with such a paltry offering? Well, going by the people around me (when in Rome and all that), one yen should do just fine. In fact I've never seen anything go in there that was bigger than a ten. So the question of the day is, does the limited amounts of money used represent a tacit admission that it's all just for show? If your sister was sick and you wanted a supernatural being to help you out with that, wouldn't you be thrusting 10,000-yen bills in its face, rather than a near-worthless coin? Either the significance of the coin is not tied to its monetary value – which is totally possible – or nobody wants to “waste” money on something they know is perfunctory.

The Japanese have what seems like more than their fair share of superstitions, but in reality the majority that I've met are pure atheists or close to it. Japanese people live their lives amidst a mixture of Buddhist doctrine and Shinto ritual (“Birth rites at a Shinto shrine, wedding at a Christian church, funeral rites at a Buddhist temple,” as they say) while, it seems to me, not actually believing in any of it. Not that I'm going around striking up theological chats, but I've never had any Japanese person, besides the very very very occasional practicing Christian, tell me that they believed in anything other than that death is the end, and when I asked the extremely callous and probably misinformed question, “Do people really believe that Buddha is going to save them?” I got the answer, “Sure, a few people.” When I followed up with a question on the faith rate among young people, I got the answer that maybe some girls pray and seriously believe it, so draw from that what you will. Maybe ultimately the true purpose of religion in Japan is simply to derive a little comfort out of a harsh world, which you could then argue is the real purpose of all religion, but I'm not going anywhere near that one.

Some slightly more formalized prayers. At least two-thirds are relationship-related.
There was also a little fortune-telling booth run by some miko, those red-and-white-wearing shrine maidens that I know you've seen somewhere, don't even tell me you haven't. You shake up a bamboo canister until a rod falls out, pay 200 yen, tell the miko what number you got, and receive the corresponding slip of paper. In this case, there was a “general” prediction and a “love” prediction, with Shiga leaping upon the love canister and forbidding Security from taking just the general one. She already has a boyfriend, but upon inquiring I learned that the prediction can tell you if they will get married, or fight a lot, or, as I suggested, break up (and start dating Shiga?). Shiga was disappointed to find that he has almost no chance whatsoever of landing a girl this year, although if somehow he does the relationship is slated to progress quite nicely.

Security refused to show us her results, but I didn't even try. Truthfully, I was afraid that if I gave a pull and didn't get anything good, I'd get depressed. On the other hand, when this happened at the Nomikai That Shall Not Be Named, which I mentioned before, a girl from my Foreign Policy told me that I should just ignore any bad predictions. In that case, should I also ignore any good predictions I get? No, those are ok to believe! In that case, is it ok if I go ahead and regard the whole practice as fucking meaningless? “It's Japanese style!” I consider her a good friend of mine, but (ergo?) she's also a bit of a whitewashed weirdo, so again, draw your own conclusions. Although admittedly these were fortune cookie-style predictions offered on the sheaves of paper our chopsticks came in, but I think it's still exemplary of the overall uranai attitude. Maybe.

We topped off our visit with some mochi, which, if you don't know, is rice that's been pulverized into a sticky paste with a giant hammer. That's kind of cool, right?

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

"Happy New Year!"

Teramachi is one of those roads that looks like an indoor shopping mall but is actually open air. These are fun little places because they have the most discordant combination of buildings and architecture imaginable, like a seven-story cineplex next to a mom-and-pop restaurant, or an izakaya that appears to be inside another building. There's also a small, but dignified, partially enclosed Shinto shrine, and at 11 pm on December 31st a small crowd had assembled to pray, one of a few typically Japanese activities that take place around this time.

Japan enjoys an explosion of drinking parties just before and just after the New Year, owing to a phenomenon known as bounenkai and shinnenkai. At the bounenkai, we get together to forget all the terrible things that happened to us last year, I guess by drinking so hard that we damage our long-term memory. And then a few weeks later, the shinnenkai represent another set of shindigs in the hopes that we will naturally attract luck and success to ourselves, you know, by starting the year off right.

Ever the cultural explorer, in the spirit of this local custom I held a little last-minute bounenkai of my own, getting plastered on the bank of the Kamogawa. It was extremely classy. Thus equipped, I melted back into the crowd, and unlike what happened last time, I managed not to get angsty about it. Instead I was just baffled by all the white faces.

Kyouto is a pretty touristy place to begin with, no doubt seeing the highest volume of foreign visitors after Toukyou. But the last few days have been just unreal. They're swarming all over town! Makes me feel territorial. Lately they've even begun to venture as deeply as Kiyamachi, which I'd always assumed to be a bit of enclave away from unwanted visitors, what with its slight seediness and immediate proximity to brighter, more inviting streets. It would seem that in their numbers, they have grown bolder.

I can't imagine what would draw so many people here in the Christmas-New Year's period. I mean, I'd expect your average family of four to prefer a more relaxed time at home. And yet here they are. Naturally, anytime a group draws near I try to assume the air of a local. That's right, I live here, in fact I'm on my way to go do important stuff. What of it?

They've even hired a white guy at Zaza's. He greeted me with, holy shit, “How's it going?” Fuckin' Americans, talk to me like they know me. Like always, of course, I ignored him, except this time I was also annoyed about it. Presumptuous prick.

But as vexing as all that is, none of it really matters. What's important is that I was astride my very favourite street in that magical moment, repeated a number of times in accordance with differently synced clocks. A handful of guys, a huge group of girls, and, best of all, an adorable couple all fired their exultations down Kiyamachi, and alone though I was I couldn't help but feel that we were all sharing in something spectacular, however small. Better yet, the foreigners had all disappeared by then, so my self-identity as exotic other was allowed to persist another night.

I stopped in at Yoshinoya, arriving at the same time as three hot girls. One of them caught my eye and I flashed her my most dashing smile as we all sat down. Minutes later, my hand slipped and my bowl disgorged a flood of miso shiiru all over the countertop, my phone, and myself. Another couple of guys showed up, and we began to chat. The more aggressive of the two tried to see if any of the three girls would take me home. Shockingly, there were no takers.

On the other hand, they bought me a beer. Not the first time I've taken advantage of the senpai-kouhai system, and it won't be the last. Love it. Sometimes you just have to lean back and laugh.