Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Enjoying a white Christmas here in Pittsburgh, and thinking of all our friends and relatives all over the world. Here's hoping you have a great holiday!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Back in Pittsburgh: Or, Delta Culture Shock

Nana and I arrived in Pittsburgh yesterday afternoon, just in time to celebrate my 27th birthday (!) with some Carbonara's.

The short, 24-hour trip went off pretty much without a hitch, though in retrospect that jet-lagged jog through the Detroit airport was probably unnecessary. But, man! was that Delta flight from Tokyo to Detroit a shock! It's been a while since Nana and I flew on a plane with an American cabin crew, and thus a long time since we've seen a flight attendant yell at (literally: yell at) a passenger.

Also, Delta, seriously: does anyone still run 12-hour flights without in-seat video?

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the level of service rivalled perennial European punching-bag Ryanair--without, of course, the cut-rate fares.

But still, none of these minor annoyances add up to anything like our worst travel day: you can read Nana's account of that fiasco on our old blog.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Before we go home . . . home comes to us!

Nana and I are headed back to the US tomorrow, which means that (yet again) I'll be spending my birthday on an intercontinental flight. It may be miserable, but hey! at least it'll be long.

Today, though, we've had a visit from Nana's dad, who has been in Tokyo on business this week. Lots of fun, though the weather hasn't exactly cooperated--these have been the two ickiest days yet. Here are a few shots from his visit.

First, at the school.

Then, looking beatific (and backlit) in our tatami room.

And finally, goofing off on the jetty at Momochi Beach (with Fukuoka Tower in the background).

With that, Nana and I are off to the US for a couple weeks. Have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Go Go Geisha

Last Saturday Justin and I had the chance to use some free school tickets to go see a geisha dance performance downtown at the Hakata Theater. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to take photographs during the performance, so you'll have to settle for my descriptions.

Before we get started, one amusing tidbit about geisha dance and the Hakata Theater: the performance went from 11 AM to about 1 PM, and you were allowed to eat bento lunchboxes in your theater seat. Japanese people must just be more tidy eaters than Americans.

The stage and sets were elaborate and wonderful. One dance had a huge, brightly-colored multi-story house set which started out as just one story but then rose from the stage. Above the stage, there were strings of cherry blossom petals, or their nonunion theatrical equivalents, which sprinkled lightly down on the dancers like pink snow. Very graceful and beautiful.

My favorite part was the geisha costumes, although "costumes" may not be the correct term for geisha apparel. (When Justin's mother asked Justin's aunt Jen, who was living in Hong Kong, if she was going to go out for Chinese food, the aunt responded dryly, "Here, we just call it food." Geisha probably feel the same way about their clothes.) In fact, this section will be plagued by linguistic perplexity, as I also still don't know if the plural of "kimono" is "kimono" or "kimonos." Even Wikipedia won't take a clear side. Perhaps I should just go with "kimoni"?

Although you can buy them in cheaper modern synthetics like rayon, the holy grail of kimono fabric has always been silk. A single kimono can cost, I have read, over $10,000 USD, and a full kit (including the obi, or belt, and the underlayers) can pass $20,000. This is because of the quantity and quality of the fabric involved and the necessity of hand-stitching. No geisha would be caught dead in rayon, so what we saw was the real deal. The geisha can own the kimono herself, or wear one that belongs to her geisha house. If you've read Memoirs of a Geisha, this may all be sounding familiar; it appears to be one of the few facts that people think the author got right. (Not that I care: I liked it anyway.)

Dancing in a full outfit which weighs up to 40 pounds is quite the task, and probably explains why geisha dance looks like it's being done in slow motion. Now, I've done Taekwondo, and everybody's most hated exercise was doing the forms and kicking techniques in slow motion, because it's just excruciating. Doing things fast is much easier than doing them slow. And the women all scuttle around the stage with their legs half bent, an motion so trying that it made Justin's knee hurt just to look at it. Even an untrained goober like me could notice and appreciate the attention to detail of geisha dancing - the precise timing and angle of a head tilt, the movement of the eyes, the slight turn of the arm that sent a ripple down a long sleeve.

But, and I hate to say this, being difficult did not make it interesting. Maybe I would have liked it more if I could have understood the narrative, which was being sung by other geisha accompanying the dancers on traditional instruments. Since I couldn't follow the story, my personal enjoyment was limited to the moments of particular visual appeal, like a semi-sheer kimono sleeve whirling through a stage light, or a hem setting cherry blossom petals swirling across the stage. Oh, and I really enjoyed watching the black-clad ninja stage hands, who would scurry in from off stage like Wimbledon ball boys carrying props or helping with costume changes, and then zip back off into the wings. I probably wasn't supposed to be watching them, though.

Overall verdict: I really, really respect geisha dancers as artists and as athletes, but geisha dancing is not for me. I posit that football : sumo :: ballet : geisha dance. And seeing as I've genuinely enjoyed consecutive seasons of lousy DI-AA football yet can't face the Nutcracker after eleven months off, I think we could have predicted this result.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Christmastime in Canal City

Canal City Hakata is probably Fukuoka's most famous mall: it's a big, labyrinthine construction with outdoor promenades and a big spherical performance space that looks like something out of Dr. Robotnik's lab. We wrote about the place in a post back in August.

For various reasons (which include a sweater vest and a co-worker who plays piano in the Hyatt on the weekends), we've been down to Canal City a few times the last couple weeks. They've really decked the place out for the Christmas season, which is purely a commercial holiday here in Japan (any excuse to shop), in stark contrast to the almost entirely religious celebration we saw in Korea.

Anyway, here are some shots from a very festive Canal City.

Nana eats a hard-earned brownie & ice cream crepe in front of . . . I don't know, some kind of snow palace bridge maze? (Did I mention that Canal City has an ornamental canal running through it?)
Cleaning up after glitter rained down on the Dr. Robotnik stage.
At regular intervals, this pool of water erupts into a fountain show synchronized to holiday music. "Sleigh Ride" seems to be a favorite here: we hear it EVERYWHERE.
We never did figure out what was in this strange mushroom hut, which was also suspended over the water.
A video of an odd little musical display set up at one of the two minor stages at either end of the mall:

In related news, we're into the final push before Christmas break (!), so don't be surprised if you don't hear much from us this week.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sumo Sugoi

(Sugoi is the Japanese word for "Wow!" I will conquer this language, one semi-useful word every few weeks!)

Sumo is probably one of the first things that comes to mind for a Westerner thinking about Japan, but all I really knew about it was that the men were really large, and that Freakonomics had a chapter about sumo match-fixing. So when we had the chance to attend a honbasho, or major sumo tournament, right here in Fukuoka, we went to become culturally enlightened. I didn't expect that I would really like it -but I actually had a great time. Sumo is a lot of fun!

First, some background. In sumo, wrestlers move up in rank based on their performance in major tournaments, of which their are six per year. Three happen in Tokyo, one in Osaka, one in Nagoya, and one here in Fukuoka. The ultimate goal of every sumo wrestler, or rikishi, is to be granted the title of yokozuna ("horizontal rope," from the rank belt a yokozuna can wear), and the minimum requirement is generally to win two of these tournaments in a row.

Some things about yokozuna I did not know:

-there can be an unlimited number at any given time (right now there is just one, the Mongolian Hakuho) and there can even be no yokozuna at all
- there have been four foreign yokozuna: two Americans (Akebono, from Hawaii, and Makuuchi, from American Samoa), and two Mongolians, Asashoryu and Hakuho.
- yokozuna is a title for life, and cannot be lost. The yokozuna is expected to retire when he can no longer compete at a top level.
- yokozuna do not have to be that huge: the man we saw, Hakuho, is 6'4 and 340, which means you have at least four guys his size or bigger on a D-1 offensive line. Akebono, however, wrestled at 6'8 and 517. Good NIGHT, that's a large man. And there are no weight classes, so any rikishi might find himself faced with a man that size at any point.

We sat in the nosebleed section, which nevertheless costs over $30 a ticket. And, ironically for a sport involving men the size of Akebono, the chairs are so tiny that Justin and I could not fit side-by-side without one of us sitting forward or putting an arm around the other.

These flat seating areas are much more comfortable, but at the starting price of 9,200 yen, or over a hundred bucks at these exchange rates, I will go with the tiny chairs. The fact that so many are empty doesn't really mean much: a tournament begins fairly early in the day (maybe 9 or so; I don't remember) and goes until 6 PM. So these fans might have been and gone by the time we got there around 4:30.

This picture shows the wrestling area:

The sandy-colored area, made of clay, is called the dohyo. There is a raised ring on the clay, which represents the "in" area. A rikishi wrestler has to either shove the other guy out of the ring or cause any part of his opponent's body other than the feet to touch the ground.

Above the dohyo is a roof to represent a Shinto shrine (the sumo salt-throwing that happens before matches is a Shinto purification ritual). The tassels represent the four seasons, and the dohjo is oriented east-west, with those serving as the sumo equivalents of "the blue corner" (i.e. "Wrestling as the east yokozuna - Hakuho!")

And the equivalent of the ring girls: sponsor banner boys.

And now what you've been waiting for... actual wrestling!

Matches don't have to start right away. The wrestlers line up on and try to intimidate each other, and then break apart and walk around for a bit. There used to be no time limit on how long they could go before starting the match, but now they have a three-minute play clock. This can seem a bit dull, but you have to think of it the way you think of the time in football before the ball is snapped: it's time for strategy, time for giving signals to your opponent and trying to out-think the signals he's giving you back, and time to build dramatic tension for the audience. And since I'm constantly annoyed by people who say football is boring because of the time when "nothing happens," just because they can't perceive the things that are happening, I am trying to reserve judgment on sumo pauses until I can learn to appreciate them.

Matches, like downs, go quickly:

Now, how cool is that?

The last match of the day was between the yokozuna Hakuho and the ozeki, or second-rank, rikishi Kaio (the wrestling names, by the way, are noms de sumo, and not the real birth names of the rikishi). My shoddy Japanese was just good enough for me to catch the word Fukuoka and deduce from the cheering that Kaio is a local boy - which Wikipedia confirms. He's apparently had a rough few last tournaments, and has been an ozeki longer than all but one other wrestler without retiring or being promoted to yokozuna. He was tied with Hakuho at 11-1 (a tournament is fifteen matches) on the day we were there, so that was a big-deal fight. The crowd was firmly on his side - as a sentimental favorite, hometown boy, and possibly also because he's the only Japanese ozeki at the moment so he might represent the only national hope for a Japanese yokozuna. (the other three are Mongolian, Bulgarian, and Estonian - the Estonian, Baruto, was also very popular at this honbasho.) Much clapping and cheers of "Ganbatte (Let's go!) Kaio!" ensued. Unfortunately for Kaio, he lost a hard-fought match, which lasted a surprisingly long time.

According to Wikipedia, Hakuho ultimately won the tournament with a record of 14-1, his fifth honbasho tournament victory in a row, and Kaio finished at 12-3.

I had a great time despite the tiny chairs. I hope there's more sumo in my future!

Thanksgiving Dinner

To help us homesick expats celebrate the holiday in style, the FIS school culture committee organized a special Thanksgiving dinner at the Hilton. Nana and I weren't really sure what we'd be eating, but we had our hopes up for some traditional Thanksgiving fare.

And we weren't disappointed! We had a private room at the Hilton buffet stocked with turkey, stuffing, potatoes, pumpkin soup, and cranberry sauce.
The only thing missing was a good old-fashioned pumpkin pie: we had to settle for an odd pumpkin tart and some pumpkin pudding.
In addition to our private buffet, we also had free range over the main buffet, which included mostly Japanese or pan-Asian dishes, as well as enormous piles of crab legs.
It took a little bit of work to get that melted butter (in Japan, they serve crab legs with ponzu sauce), but according to Nana the result was well worth it. I, in the meantime, spent most of my stomach capacity on the old-fashioned Thanksgiving fare, which was delicious (but, it must be said, not quite like Grandma used to make), and on red meat, which can be hard to come by in this town.

Edited to add: Go team Crab!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving from the Senseitions!

Celebrated Thanksgiving in style tonight: at best of the local Indian restaurants, with a handful of co-workers. (Alas, my crummy cell-phone photo didn't work out.) Then on Saturday we have a Thanksgiving dinner at the Hilton. Still not sure what's on the menu, though I will say I would kill for some turkey and some pumpkin pie right about now.

Anyway, if we can't be home for Thanksgiving, I guess this is the next best thing. It's certainly hard to be away from home again for what might just be my favorite holiday . . . but our FIS buddies do help make this place feel a little more like home!

All our love to you readers out there--here's hoping you have a great holiday.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Fall Foliage and a Giant Buddha

Thanks to yet another mid-week Japanese holiday, Nana and I just dozed our way through a much-needed four-day weekend. But we didn't spend the whole weekend catching up on work and sleep: instead, on Sunday morning, we joined a few co-workers for a half-day trip to Kidonanzoinmae, a little hamlet up in the hills famous for its huge reclining Buddha.

The Buddha was surrounded by little statues, each with a different posture and facial expression . . .
. . . as well as what appear to be urns, each marked with a day of the year.
I wish I could tell you more about the ritual significance of these things, but most of the tourist information at Nanzoin was in Japanese. Though running the temple's website through Google Translate does reveal at least a little bit about the site: the statue was built in honor of some sacred relics the temple received as gifts from Buddhist communities in Nepal and Burma.

Luckily, although there was little English to be found, the gentlemen below were well versed in the universal language of expats abroad, aka Repeated Emphatic Gesturing, and were able to explain to us (and co-worker/neighbor Dayle) how to say a Buddhist prayer.
Nana lights a votive candle.
Nana sticks some incense (joss sticks) in a vessel full of sand.
Apparently, the key ingredients in Buddhist prayers are candle-wax burns and second-hand incense smoke.

The Buddha wasn't the town's only attraction, though: it's just part of a complex of temples and shrines strewn across a mountainside--and connected by a network of trails and caves. There wasn't really any signage in English, so I can't really do anything but let the pictures speak for themselves. Enjoy!

 This tunnel was full of incense smoke from a small shrine cut into the wall.
 Most of the hillside was covered with sugi, or Japanese cedar, the national tree of Japan.
The Japanese really have a thing for turtles. You can find a turtle pond in almost any Japanese temple.
 We weren't sure if this guy was real at first. He was really still, and his legs were sticking our at such an unnatural angle. (Yes, the big one is fake.)
 Fall colors on the hillside.
 Looks like they dress some of their statues up for the winter.
 Part of the temple complex was a kind of elaborate garden built on the hillside, with streams and waterfalls and bridges. It was almost like a temple playground--very beautiful, and lots of fun to explore.
This is what a Japanese-style temple looks like when it's new. Eventually, that fresh wood will weather to a grayish brown.
 This guy seems to be on fire for some reason.
Many of the little statues had these donation buckets in front of them. Anyone have any idea what they're for?
 More statues bundled up for the winter.
 This little shrine was tucked away in a little grotto at the top of the complex. That's a waterfall in the background, and there's a very small cave to the left you can walk through, with a chain to help you climb out the top.
 A shot of the shrine complex.
 On our way out, Nana rubs Buddha's belly for good luck. You can see he's worn a little thin there.
 One of the entrances to the temple/shrine complex. That's a gingko tree--I love the brilliant shade of yellow they turn in the fall.