Monday, August 31, 2009

Yukata know when to hold 'em...

I'm having a quiet day here, so here comes the second update of the day. Before you start worrying that I'm just sitting around alone every day feeling miserable, let me reassure you that today is the first day I've had completely to myself in quite some time. It's been good to catch up on some housekeeping - I've shaved my head, tidied up a bit, even cracked out the vacuum cleaner. Tatami mats are easier than carpets to hoover. I'm finally becoming a proper adult, what with this and ironing shirts for work.

It's raining heavily outside. Apparently we have a new prime minister, but since I don't watch the news (it's in Japanese) the only way the election has affected me at all is the cars that drive around all day blaring out electioneering messages. To someone who can neither vote nor understand Japanese, this is quite an annoyance.

My left calf is painfully sunburnt from sports day yesterday. Somehow I neglected to suncream this region. In a way I'm glad I did, because it's really vindicated the effort of applying suncream everywhere else. From what I can gather, the Japanese just don't use suncream. I got quite a few funny looks from the kids when I was putting it on. While Asian skin is undoubtedly more robust to sunlight than Caucasian, they can't be completely immune, since I did notice a few pink necks by the end of the day.

Well, that's the scene set so I'll go back to recounting the past. On my second friday in Japan I went to see the fireworks in Yamagata City, with my quasi-supervisor / guardian angel Hosokawa-san. The capital of the prefecture is an Aberdeen-sized city and is about half an hour away from my town by train. The trains here are cheap and efficient, my only complaint being that they inconveniently stop running at around 9pm. Anyway, the Japanese take their fireworks seriously - a staggering number of people were heading for the display, meaning that the final kilometer or so of our taxi ride from the station proceeded at roughly walking pace. When we finally got there, there were big tarpaulins laid out on the ground, taped off into numbered sections. Families would sit on their assigned section (having taken their shoes off at the edge of the tarp, naturally) and eat picnics. For couples there were romantic twin deck-chairs. Coming from the UK, I was stunned that people were obedient enough for this system to work. Nobody attempted to encroach on neighbouring areas, even if they were empty. It was incredible.

We met up with Hosokawa's family, and his wife had prepared a delicious picnic platter, which he and I enjoyed whilst drinking beer and chu-hai (something I would consider to be a girly fruit drink, but is drunk by self-respecting men here, and at 8% alcohol, is substantially stronger than beer) at a frantic pace. Boy, do the Japanese like to drink quickly. I suppose when the trains stop so early you have to really.

The fireworks lasted about two hours. Two hours! After a big opening, there seemed to be a lot of expository commentary going with the middle section. From what I could gather, they were explaining the different kinds of fireworks and demonstrating each one in its own mini-display, so that we could better appreciate the artistry of the finale. I think there might have been something about fireworks representing different prefectures or something as well. The finale was suitably impressive, but Hosokawa was very keen to beat the rush leaving, so we missed the very end, but caught our train.

The following evening was Bon-Odori, the climax of the Bon festival. I met up with my fellow civil servants at the town library and was treated to a snack (an eclectic mix of riceballs, pickled aubergine and cucumber, and spaghetti and pizza, the last of which I went beyond the call of duty on, by eating with chopsticks) and lots of beer. We then donned yukata (light summer kimono) complete with conical straw hats decorated with flowers which we slung across our backs. I felt a bit racist wearing such a hat, but there you go. Suitably attired, we made our way to main street, which was once again closed to traffic and lined with spectators.

We took our place in the parade along with teams of yukata-wearing people representing various other local organisations. Then we danced. I hadn't been instructed on the dancing beforehand, so I just tried to copy the people next to me as best I could. There was a complicated dance involving the hats, a fast but very repetitive one that involved waving your hands around in the air (I fear I did it as if I very much did care), and a slow but intricate one with lots of clapping. Between dances, members of our team would run around pouring beer and supplying pickles in a manner reminiscent of physios attending to injured footballers. Dancing in the heat and humidity was thirsty work, so I drank enthusiastically. Perhaps I was making it thirstier work than it needed to be; people were laughing at me for adopting a bouncy skipping movement in the faster dances, but I liked to think of it as bringing a bit of Scottish dance flavour to proceedings.

I'm not clear or whether it was a competitive event, but we came away with a certificate and a big bottle of something, which people seemed pleased about. I can't imagine that we won - there were teams there that looked like they really knew what they were doing; we looked like a bunch of drunk civil servants. Anyway, spirits were high as we returned to the library for more snacks (they'd been saving the sashimi) and many more drinks. Unable to participate usefully in many conversations, I had a moment of clarity after about an hour and realised I was very drunk, and it was time to get my yukata-wearing ass back home. Good times.


  1. "we looked like a bunch of drunk civil servants."

    Are you a salary-man now then?


  2. I don't think so. I think to be a salaryman you have to work for a corporation, and be planning to spend your whole life working your way up the heirarchy. Also, I don't wear a suit, unless I'm meeting a mayor.

    What's with 'Ersen'?

  3. Ersen is the name on a fake email account I set up to respond to Adam's advert for a flatmate. Now whenever I use google I'm automatically signed in as 'Ersen Petersen'