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 escapades...me. 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.