Archive for July, 2005
I’ve always found the concept of Renaissance fairs in America strange at best. There’s something wrong with the whole idea of middle aged bankers walking around in aluminium siding and saying things like “Have at ye foul knave”.
However, when the opportunity to take part in the Japanese equivalent arose, I jumped at it.
Yorii is a small town some 80km north of Tokyo. It’s so small, the majority of people living in Tokyo are unaware of its existence. Indeed, a surprisingly high number of people living in Yorii are unaware of its existence as well.
However, once a year Yorii hosts the wonderful Hojo festival. Being Yorii’s resident Gaijin, I was invited to take part. Not only that, but I was to become a Daimyo.
The Hojos were one of the famous clans in Japan during the turbulent sengoku jidai period. In one decisive battle, they rowed up the Arakawa river and lay siege to Yorii’s Hachigata castle, completely destroying it. So, every year the people of Yorii recreate their glorious defeat.
The day starts early as a few hundred people, including myself, get changed into samurai gear in the town gymnasium.
In the modern day equivalent of clans, each samurai team is sponsored by a company and has the company’s flag. So, we represented the City Hall, while we marched behind the post office’s warriors.
Now I’m sure many of you think that this sounds pretty cool. Well in response, I now present ten reasons why it sucks to be a samurai.
1. The shoes - Forget your Nike airs. Samaurai shoes are made from woven hessian, rather like an old door mat. They are bound to your feet with hessian ropes, so they rub like a bastard in between your big and second toes. I also understand that chiropetory was an imprecise science in feudal Japan.
Added to the uncomfortable nature, when it rains (as it did yesterday), these shoes have a life expectancy of around 3.7 seconds. I would have no problems finding my way home because I left a Hansle and Gretle style trail of hessian, from the moment I stepped outside.
2. The armour - That stuff gets heavy. It looks ok and feels ok when you fist put it on. After about an hour it’s the equivalent of carrying say, the new volkswagon beetle on your shoulders.
3. The walking - As anyone who has been to Japan will know, the whole bloody country is made of hills. Add this to the shoe and armour factor and you’re in for a whole lot of fun.
4. The Daimyo – Ok, so you’re a samurai. Your honour is totally dependent on serving your fuedal lord or Daimyo. If he is dead you are Ronin and without honour.
The thing is, when you are pouring your lifeblood on the ground, this guy gets to sit on a horse and watch the whole thing. Doesn’t lift a finger to help. Bloody bastard!
5. The whole suicide thing – When you first put your armour on, you will notice there is a conspicuous area around the stomach where there is no protection. ‘Nuff said.
6. The flag – Each suit of armour has a holder on the back where you can put a flag. This will display your house emblem so enemy archers can single you out easier. The great thing about the flag is that it sticks up behind you and gets caught on every tree you pass. Additionally, when you talk to your Samurai buddy, who also has a flag, the two will become entangled and take you five minutes to separate.
7. The sword – Sure they look cool and they were supposed to be the best in the world, but they can be a real pain in the arse. Damn thing keeps getting caught on stuff when you are walking. You can’t sit down without taking it out of your belt. Because it’s curved, it only goes in the scabbard one way and it’s too long to draw out in one go unless you practice for 10 years. I found my self more likely to cut my own nose off that to attack an enemy.
8. The speeches – Dunno if this is part of a real samurai’s life, but it really sucks having to stand and look noble while 20 middle aged men make long, pompous, boring speeches.
9. The language – You’d have to know Japanese to be a real samurai and that could take ages!
10. Those bloody villagers - So, after you and your six buddies save the village, the bastards go off and have a bloody rice planting festival and completely ignore you. Added to that, you don’t even get the girl! Ingrates!
Until next time stay cynical,
The Cynical Traveller
Last week I subjected you to the many subtle complexities of the Japanese text book and the joy that can be derived from teaching it.
Now, my reader(s) may deduce from this that I don’t particularly enjoy my job; far from it. How could any person fail to be inspired by working in such an architecturally inspiring edifice as a Japanese Junior High school?
Take my Junior High school, which is obviously inspired by the art deco constructions of William Van Allen;
whereas my elementary school is more influenced by the baroque designs of Filippo Brunelleschi;
and my old high school is almost Byzantine in its complexity.
Things improve little when you actually move inside the building. Take for example, the staffroom.
Now here is my desk, which I’m sure you’ll agree, is one that any self respecting bachelor would be proud of. The draws are full of expired candy and 3 week old bread. The filing system is woefully inadequate, bordering on non-existent. In fact, the whole design had been derived to enable me to do the least amount of work in any given time frame.
Unfortunately, when I changed schools I was forced to leave my business card collection behind. This is rather a shame because after two years it was standing at around 30cm high. 90% of the cards were from the same travel agent (“it’s okay mate, I know your phone number by now”).
However, there’s a rather conspicuous absence from my desk, which singles it out as belonging to the foreigner: the absence of cuteness. A quick glance around the staff room reveals the following:
• The woman on my left has a giant plastic frog on her desk, which is covered in stickers of a pigeon playing tennis.
• The 48 year old man on my right has a group of photos of his dog dressed up in bows and ribbons.
• The hard-arse PE teacher directly across from me has a Mickey Mouse coffee mug.
• The woman behind me has a mobile phone dressed up as a mouse.
• The man next to her has a 6 inch Winnie the Pooh that walks and shoots laser beams from its eyes (not really, but damn that would be cool).
Of course, no school day would be complete without the gastronomic delights of kyushoku; the school lunch. Generally kyushoku resembles the stuff that I have to empty from my sink after cleaning 2 weeks worth of dishes.
Let’s run through a typical week’s menu:
Monday – Rice, a “hamburger” that even mad cows would reject as unfit for human consumption.
Tuesday – Rice, a tofu / mince combination that looks like vomit but doesn’t taste quite as nice, a frozen plum that could be used as an offensive weapon in a pinch.
Wednesday – I’ll let this one speak for its self (only because I have no idea what to call it, and indeed, no wish to recall it).
Thursday – Rice, some kind of mixed vegetable stew (I only recognised one of the vegetables, I’m pretty sure the others were concocted in some mad scientist’s lab)
Friday – Curried rice (ooh, curry flavour. Viva variety!), a frozen mandarin, the leftovers from a liposuction biohazard bag.
The amazing thing is that the kids actually seem to enjoy the school lunches! We had a vote on whether to continue with school lunches and something like 90% of the students said “yes”. I can only attribute this to some kind of gastro intestinal self flagellation.
However, as I write this, Summer holidays are about to begin. So, I’ll be waving goodbye to Japan, and saying hello to Thailand and Peru. Sure, the water may not be drinkable in these countries, but I’m sure if they had a choice the locals wouldn’t vote for it to continue that way.
The Cynical Traveller
Believe it or not, my life isn’t just one big travel romp. Unfortunately, in between destinations, I am occasionally forced to do what could generously be described as “work”.
For those of you who haven’t managed to guess, I am an English teacher. Basically, 90% of native English speakers living in Japan are English teachers and the other 10% are ex-English teachers.
And what a fantastic job it is; intellectually stimulating and rewarding.
To give you some example of the subtlety and nuance involved in teaching English in Japan, take this example from the first year “Sunshine” text book.
Fortunately those 4 years of university are not going to waste.
Yuki is the main character who appears throughout the “Sunshine” textbooks. We follow her life, dreams, hopes and aspirations through her “Sunshine” world.
So, when Yuki says, “This is a pen”, obviously we must read deeper into her meaning and see the metaphorical allegories hidden within the subtext.
Others characters in the “Sunshine” first grade book include:
A blonde, Canadian girl, living in Japan, Lisa isn’t the brightest of cookies. For example, despite the fact that she lives in Japan and goes to a Japanese school, she still finds it necessary to engage in the following conversation…
As well as an unhealthy obsession with China, Lisa also displays a lamentable knowledge of geography and recognisable landmarks.
Li is a Chinese devil, cunningly disguised as a small boy. Of course the Chinese don’t have the great fashion sense of the Japanese, and so Li is unflatteringly dressed throughout in a brown or blue cardigan and purple slacks. For some reason, he also has no eyeballs to speak of, just a pair of raised arches.
However, the writers have failed to realize the full potential of Li’s ethnicity. Where are the examples of Li working in a Japanese car factory for a pittance, protesting outside Yasakuni shrine or being berated as a thief and drug addict by Tokyo Governor, Ishihara?
Andy is the, quite frankly, alarming looking token black man. There does not exist a picture of Andy without eyebrows furrowed, exuding menace. Look at the results when he tries to buy a train ticket.
Mr Brown is an American Assistant English teacher. He basically has the same job as me, although he seems to enjoy it a lot more (indeed, perhaps a bit too much).
It’s with the introduction of Mr Brown that the textbook becomes rather invidious. You see, Mr Brown appears to have landed the perfect school, full of perfect students, when we all know in reality this school doesn’t exist.
Let’s compare this scene from Mr Brown’s school….
…with an alternative scene from a real school.
And that picture, ladies and gentlemen, pretty much sums up what teaching English in Japan is all about.
Well, that and the phrase “I’m fine, thank you. And you?”
Next week, we’ll have a look at the modern architectural marvel that is: the Japanese Junior High School.
Until then, stay cynical.
The Cynical Traveller
Of all the things I thought I’d never go to in Japan, a J-pop concert would have been quite high on the list. In fact, I have a list of things I’d rather do with my time, but unfortunately my web provider only has 2 gig of storage space. Suffice to say that “attending a J-pop concert” falls somewhere between “running naked through an abattoir” and “watching an ‘I love Lucy’ marathon”.
However, I received a desperate request from one of my friends. He was being dragged to a J-pop concert by his girlfriend and needed someone to pick on it with.
Obviously, when he was trying to think of someone cynical, my name sprang to mind.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t smart enough to take my camera, so all today’s pictures are examples of J-pop covers. For example:
The concert was in an outside ampitheatre in Ueno Park. Now, normally Ueno park is a favourite hangout for homeless people in Tokyo, yet on this day it was eerily empty. It kind of reminded me of those disaster movies, where the animals can sense the oncoming horror, and desert the area.
The “band” we watched were called Clannbonn, or Kuranbon, or possible Crampon. Strangely enough I don’t have one of their CDs to reference, nor do I have any intention of buying one.
The “Clan”, as their deranged fans probably call them, consisted of a female singer/keyboardist, a bassist and a drummer. The “concert” consisted of squeaky vocals at high decibels.
There was one saving grace however. As we entered the arena, we were each given a fun sized party bag. For the next two and a half hours, this bag was the only thing that saved my sanity.
Each bag contained:
• Promotional flyers for the band’s album (i.e. a warning on what to avoid)
• A pack of tissues (for stuffing in your ears)
• A small tub of detergent (for rubbing in your eyes as penitence for attending)
• A bubble blower (just so the band isn’t the only thing that blows)
• A plastic clapper (presumably for people going to a decent event afterwards)
It really is amazing how interesting a humdrum activity like blowing bubbles can become when faced with the alternative of actually listening. For the next 2 hours, my friend and I continually produced massive bubbles, with the aim of landing them in the sound equipment and hopefully shorting it out.
Of course, you’re not a real band in Japan unless one of your songs has appeared in a commercial. The biggest bands get to advertise cars and electronic equipment. I’m not sure what Clannbonn’s song advertised, but judging from the standard of the music on offer, it was probably hemorrhoid cream or something.
Thinking things couldn’t get much worse, I was once again proved wrong.
I want you to think of the most annoying tunes you possibly can. Now think of those same tunes being played through a mobile phone speaker. It suddenly got a lot worse, didn’t it?
Well, in a truly Japanese moment, Clannbonn invited the crowd to call a number and their mobile phones played along with the music.
This proved too much for me, and I was forced to produce my i-pod in an attempt to placate my ears. Let me tell you, I did not sleep well that night.
As always, stay cynical.
The Cynical Traveller