Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Taiko Taiko, Unde?

If anybody gets both the musical reference AND the meaning of the title of this post, I will buy you some kimchi while I'm in South Korea (which will actually be tomorrow. Booyah!)

Anyway: Taiko. The basic translation is "drum" in Japanese, but the art of the thing is a bit different then wailing out on your set in an impromptu drum-solo in front of ten thousand screaming fans. The drums are big, heavy, and expensive, and the actual performance smacks of an unholy union between a marching band and overzealous dough kneading. The above is my first interaction with taiko, which took place roughly a month after my arrival in Japan. As you can see, my hair was still recovering from my cosplay dye-job, though my face is regardlessly twisted in fearsome concentration. It's a miracle my focused stare didn't cause the tips of my obachi (taiko drumsticks) to explode into flame.

Maybe a few weeks after this first encounter, I had a friend introduce me to another taiko group, and thus began my tutelage under the motley crew of Hagakure Taiko. The three guys above are some of the veteran members of the group. It's worth noting that while we do get paid to do performances, it's not a way to make a living. Most if not all of the money goes to transportation, maintaining the drums, buying new equipment and throwing sweet-ass parties for us on random occasions. For me, it's pretty much volunteer work, but even that is kind of a perk as I recently learned that they usually charge people something like forty dollars a month for training. Foreigner card for the win!

Here I am in my natural element, ie posing like a moron. I was even lucky enough to have the whole uniform and my obachi provided to me for free. I do technically pay something like one dollar every time I go into practice, but that's a pittance compared to how much I've received from these guys.
This is Nao, the best player on the group. Japanese people have the tendency to take some kind of activity and practice the hell out of it until they've mastered it, and for him taiko is that activity. He routinely starts our performances with a three or so minute solo on the odaiko, or the "big drum". He is also one of the younger members of the group, clocking in right around 30, and we have a consistently ridiculous rapport involving his broken English and my broken Japanese.

I actually have a LOT of taiko pictures, and I think I'll post more at a later time, or maybe I'll just open up a public internet album... but for now, I leave you with this - Taiko Performance! I'm the guy in the back playing the big drum. This was at a smaller festival where we played around half an hour of music. This song is a staple of taiko groups everywhere, though every group has a little variation on it. Sorry the video is kind of iffy quality, but a friend took it unprompted and her camera is kind of eehhhh. I plan on giving my new camera to a friend at a later performance and requesting a longer filming...but we'll see what we get.

Anyway, that's it for today. Peace.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Shazam! The Glorious Return!

Does anybody still read this thing anymore?

I'm back. AGAIN. No new excuses (read: ninja abduction beyond my control!), but here I am anyway to tease you all with a random post. I do get the urge to expand on this sorry little snippet of my life in Japan more than you'd think, but by the time I sit at the computer, I realize that there are at least 10 new awesome videos on Youtube that I need to see. Oh, and that's right, my weekly webcomics have updated. What about that anime I downloaded the other night? Hmm speaking of anime, I should study more kanji...

... and that's one chapter in the thrilling novella of my ability to do everything but write in this damn journal.

Anyway, I have some steam, I'm going on before the coal engine is full of cinder and ash. A word of warning - get ready for a bunch of random stuff stringed together. The theme of this post is: Stuff I just thought of that I want to write about.
Clearly the one thing that most deserves my attention right at this juncture is a bag of Cheetos
and my Nintendo DS. The good thing about this picture is that the bag of Cheetos is actually from America, sent by Jeff's family and put in my care to be consumed at a later time. The Cheetos will therefore taste like (brace yourself) Cheetos, and not sponges soaked in melted cheddar. The bad thing about this picture is that it's not a bag of Cheetos from Japan, for if it was, you would see that the labeling actually says the flavor is "Hella Cheesy". I wish I were making it up, and I will try and get a picture of it later if they still sell Toys R Us.

The FUN thing about this picture is that this is my typhoon survival kit. "But Brett!" you exclaim, coming out of your clam-chowder-induced coma and wasting what will only be seconds of consciousness on a silly observation: "I thought it was still rainy season, and that typhoons won't come for a few more weeks!" Well, right you are! Which is why I'm kinda confused, too. I've actually already sat through one typhoon, and found myself underwhelmed. Things DID get crazy, yes, but if holing myself up in my apartment for a few hours to play games augured cataclysmic natural disasters, my dinky little prefecture would not only be hundreds of miles under the ocean, but STILL on fire despite the millions of tons of water on top of it.

No straggling - NEXT PICTURE...s.

You'll see what has me so confused/disgusted/HUNGRY in a few more pictures. I wanted to take a little break for an Ichiban Group ROLL CALL. First up Possibly the most glorious thing about Ichiban Group is the lack of a group leader. Whereas in most awesome giant-robot fighting forces there is a clear main character, we each bring our skills to the table, sit as equals, and then renew a long-running battle to assert ourselves as the the true captain of Ichiban Group. It's important now to mention that "ichiban" means "number one", and being number one of the number one Group is an honor humanity has dreamed of since first throwing burning sticks at animals to keep them from our food. Seriously.

The next member of Ichiban Group is one Jeff Bailey, whose name has been unedited so that I don't have to try and remember a pseudonym every time he wanders haphazardly into a story on this blog. He hails from Florida, where they ride alligators to school or drink Gatorade or play football or something. I don't really know, I mostly phase him out. What I DO know is that he happens to be wearing a white shirt, and so you might see the resemblance between us. Even if you can't, most Japanese do - in fact we pretty much are the same person as far as they're concerned. This gets us involved in an uncanny number of escalating evil-twin incidents, where we invade each other's home towns and commit wanton acts of Americanism under the guise of the true resident. Unfortunately we lost track of who lives where along the way, and now we just act like we escaped from the circus wherever we go. On that note, I have to work on getting those business cards that claim I have diplomatic immunity...

The third member of our triumvirate is the venerable Nirav Mehta. He calls New Jersey his home when he is not out shocking Japanese people with his ridiculous drinking tolerance/penchant for alcohol and nearly running old women over with his motorcycle. His other super power involves having ridiculously large feet. Where size 13s may only turn a few heads in the States, it's cause for national concern in Japan, as size 13 1/2 is the cutoff for enormous city-eating monsters like Godzilla and Gamera. If
Nirav has the bad fortune of stubbing his toe and having his foot swell up some day, he will be considered fair game by the Japan Self-Defense Force, who will then have license to fire an obscene volley of missiles at him. Jeff and I continue to pray for that day.

The previous three pictures of us are possibly the blandest ones I have stocked in my colossal photo archives... but they were selected with a special purpose, as they were all taken just before the next picture was taken. Look, and be amazed!
This is a mud skipper, or in Japanese, mutsugorou. It is Saga's mascot, which should give you an idea of what a hole in the ground Saga can be sometimes. Sitting next to the fish is some sliced up raddish, and closer to the camera, the mud skipper's sliced up body. As for the mud skipper... it is STILL. ALIVE.

It was regularly opening its mouth and gasping for air, its slimy eyes probing us vindictively as we did what we had come to do - eat it. When I was setting up to take this picture, the owner of the restaurant came over and grabbed the little guy, trying to perch him up on top of the sliced radish for his big close-up. We watched in mute horror as he gasped pathetically a few times before falling onto his side on the plate, so which the shop owner said something along the lines of "Well you did your best."

To be completely, damningly honest, it didn't taste half bad. Nothing spectacular, mind you, but considering this is a creature that spends its life flapping around in the mud, the results could've been much worse. Also bear in mind that this is sashimi - raw fish. After we polished off the meat, the owner came and took what was left of the mud skipper to fry it up and let us finish the job. Great experience...and also a place I'll be taking any visitors I have from America! Don't all buy your tickets at once, now~!

Well, that's that. Normally I muse over these posts a little more, edit, tweak, etc, but I have long forgotten what it's like to just post and immediately enjoy the fruits of said post, so I'm going to publish this. Kudos to whoever manages to read it first, and wish me well in the impending typhoon.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Dragon Boat: The Half-Year-Old Post

I've been so negligent of my journal that I'm lucky Journal Services hasn't come out of the woodwork to give my site to a foster-blogger, somebody that will feed it more than a bucket of fish-heads every third fortnight. Am I bad blogger? Yeah, but that fact was established ages ago for anybody unlucky enough to be my friend on Livejournal (hell, even my Facebook account is gathering more dust than my Gamecube [which must have a lot of dust for those of you not in the know]). Still, I haven't totally abandoned it... just let it air out a little, right?


I actually had a pretty good idea of something recent to put in here, but wow, 6 months in Japan. It certainly doesn't seem like 6 months. I'd probably be able to establish a more tangible sense of the passing time if I had updated this thing consistently, which is what this ridiculously roundabout introduction is trying to lead into - the best moments of Japan '06! ...or at least a few of them, one at a time.

Behold, the majestic Dragonboat! A few people at the actual event told me the race originated in Japan when a Buddhist monk came over from China and for some reason had to win a boat race to keep practicing his religion, or to preach it, or something. Wikipedia says this theory is totally bunk, and I'm much more inclined to believe this fairly reliable internet source over whatever I heard earlier. The First Dragonboat theory doesn't hold water (hyuk hyuk hyuk), but just go with whatever puts your mind at ease.

Anyway, I had signed up for this dragonboat race over a month in advance, and it was some of my first contact with people I would be getting to know a lot better as the year went on. I had very little idea of how it would work or what would be involved, but that's par for the course as far as Japan is concerned.

"But Brett!", you say in an overly surprised way that just makes you look silly. "Are you sure that's in Japan? The picture is chockful of foreigners!" Astute observation, reader - you'll be awarded a gold star! It's in the mail.

That would be because this boat is the official GAIJIN POWER boat. Or at least one of two. We were able to fill up two entire teams with foreigners (and our Japanese coordinator, who filled his boat with all the biggest foreigners in an attempt to steal all the glory. AND the flag I made. Isn't it nice?... and brown?). Saga's foreigners apparently did the same thing last year, and actually placed in the top 10 out of 30-some teams, and that with little to no training. We thought this year we'd be a shoe-in with a wider selection and more practice. Or at least, that was the plan.

The larger part of the day was spent milling around. With so many other competitors, we had to wait through heat after heat of other racers before our chance. It was a nice chance to learn a bit more than just everybody's name with sometimes surprising results. It turns out one of the Chinese girls on our team went to school in Colorado. High school in Colorado. CHERRY CREEK High School in Colorado. The odds of us meeting in those conditions is pretty ridiculous, and though you would think that would result in a lifelong bond of ghost-story filled sleepovers and I Love Lucy-esque shenanigans, I'm not sure if I've even so much as seen her again since the races. Ah well - ce'st la vive.

When the first team went, we thought it would be a piece of cake for both boats to hit top 5. Not only did the gaijin boat get off to a wicked fast start, but they beat the other boats with probably more than a minute's lead - COMPLETELY ridiculous given the fact that it probably took no more than 10 minutes to run the entire course. The catch? All the other boats had smacked into each other at the turn, meaning the gaijin boat's lead was juuuust a wee bit skewed. Oh well - victory was victory.

I was actually on the second gaijin boat, Team Rakko (or sea otter. The first boat [and the one I made the flag for] was Team Tanuki, or raccoon dog). Most of you know that I'm not exactly a huge guy - while I'm tall, I favor the distance-runner's build over the football mass so many foreigners are famous for. Thus, I was relegated to the task of the rudder, which I did not mind in the least. There's a lot of pressure for you to not totally screw up the steering, but it's about 1/10th as strenuous as the rower position. And when the person with dragonboat experience says "hey, you have a good rudder's build," by God you work that rudder like it was making sneakers for you at 5 cents an hour.

Our race was a bit trickier. Our start was not quite as dominant, and actually left us fairly even with another boat. However, it turns out I'm a total bastard when steering a boat in a race, and I cut off the other boat like you would not believe. Seriously - after the race all of our rowers were remarking on how amazing it was that "the wind" had blown us directly in front of the other boat, which would have otherwise overtaken us. Hooray cutthroat dragonboatmanship!

The dashing vixen on the right is Elisabeth, one of the main coordinators of the whole dragonboat affair and Rakko boat's captain/drummer. It is unlikely the Kasekawa has seen a more waterworthy tamer of waves - the hurricane determination of a saltworn seadog is writ across her face in lines colder and deeper than the Mariana Trench. That guy on the left is Jonathan. It is not altogether uncommon for him to paddle. When the fancy strikes him. And that's just two of our motley crew!

Though this was early in my Japan stay, I was beginning to detect the "hey everybody drink beer" mentality that has been the undercurrent of every single gathering I've been to since. This made things more interesting as a few of the teams went off the deep end even if the boats were nestled safely in the shallows. During one race, the drummer dropped the back of his pants down to his knees and mooned the teams (none moreso than his own) as they rode across the finish line. A gallant display of dragonboatsmanship (MAN I love that word) that made me proud.

Although both of our teams went on to get defeated in later heats, the real highlight of the event actually happened when there was no racing to be had. An impromptu rainstorm left all the teams huddling under their various tarps and tends. The gaijin tent in particular was so jam-packed that sitting was not an option, and being right on the edge of our little refugee squatter's party let me watch as the dirt-covered ground underwent the obvious transition to mud-covered ground. As one patch of dirt in particular became more muddy, I began to think...which, when I'm idle, is a dangerous thing.

SLIP AND SLLIIDDEE! While this picture picture basically shows the upright, tool-crafting, fire-making brigade of hooligans we evolved into, the shot I'd REALLY like to show you is the bright eyed monkey who started these ill-advised The rain didn't seem to be letting up, nobody was walking in it, and who knew how long it would be until we were racing. Before even I knew what was going on, my shirt was hung over a rail under the tent and I was skidding fifteen feet on my chest through a thin patch of mud.

Emphasis on thin - I ALSO don't have pictures of this, but WOW did it hurt. It turns out that this isn't the Smooth Jiffy mud, this is Peanuts-N-Rocks Crunchy Jiffy mud. The first slide left me with a sore, red chest and bruised hip bones (too...damn...skinny...). The second slide (which seemed like a good idea) sheered some of this irritated skin away, and definitely did a number on the hips. The third slide (which seemed like a terrible idea, but wow can drunken Japanese people be persistent) left me feeling a little less sorry for all the poor people who thought that sliding through mud on your stomach looked like too much fun to pass up. They would cruise on the rock gauntlet once, realize how stupid it was, and give up. My three-peat actually left me bleeding a bit, although it was hard to tell through the caked rocks and mud that decided to hang out on my chest. Good times!

As muddy as we all got, the only reasonable thing thing was to leap into the river. This, too, was repeated three times, one time marked by me and another JET colliding dramatically in mid-air, another time by someone landing ON me, and the third by the new addition of a slew of Japanese people who decided to join us. This would prove to be the climax of our shenanigans that day: both of our teams lost, the rain let up but the weather remained dreary, and I got a bit of a sunburn. The nice thing about posting so late - I'm that much further from our defeat, and that much closer to sweet, sweet revenge.