Thursday, May 6, 2010

Long hot samurai

Happy election day! It's my first day back in the office after Golden Week, a five-day weekend. Unfortunately I had an attack of spontaneous insomnia last night, so apologies if my prose isn't up to its usual standard.

We currently have wide open windows and very few suit jackets being worn, as the temperature is in the mid-twenties (and it's only 9:20am). Within a month we've gone from snow to what would be considered the peak of summer in Scotland. Spring and autumn don't last long around these parts, though I am informed that this is unusual weather even by Yamagata's standards. Climate chaos. An unexpected effect of the warm weather is that it reminds me of when I first arrived – with the olfactory modality in particular having its curious potency in evoking memories. Just by the power of association, I'm finding myself feeling like a jittery n00b all over again. This, combined with the physical discomfort of the warmth, may be what prevented me from sleeping last night.

Anyway, let's cover Golden Week. The weather was beautiful last friday evening, so I took a stroll through Eboshiyama Park, which was at long last filled with sakura. The atmosphere was very pleasant: families, couples, and a big party of Chinese youths (Mandarin sounds very different to Japanese) were all enjoying the petals, the setting sun, and the festival food being sold at various stalls. A group of four girls aged around six came across me, the pluckiest one announcing (in Japanese), “It's an English [language] person!”
“That's right”, I confirmed.
“Where are you from? America?”
“No, Britain.”
She pondered this for a few seconds, then started jumping around excitedly, shrieking “Igirisu! Igirisu!” ('Britain').

I like talking to small children, because a) they're extremely cute and b) they tend to use simple sentence constructions stripped of politeness, so they're easy to understand. The girls continued to orbit me for a while, shouting out any English words they knew, which seemed to be mostly fruits.

Saturday: Yamagata prefecture has three sacred mountains, and I hadn't been to any of them. So, I managed to muster a group of four to take a trip to Hagurosan. This is comfortably the most softcore of the three, requiring no actual hiking to reach the summit, as there are stone steps all the way up – 2446 of them to be precise. The shrine at the top was nothing special, but the walk through the forest in the sunshine was highly enjoyable. Even the car journey there was stunning; the mountains of northern Yamagata put my 'hood to shame. We concluded the day with – what else? - karaoke. I would submit that Like a prayer by Madonna (the old Lady Gaga) is the ultimate karaoke song.

Sunday: I woke up feeling terrible (I had been driving and thus not drinking the previous night), having apparently caught a nasty cold. I seem to have a habit of getting ill or injured during my holidays. Because I could neither taste anything nor face the thought of drinking alcohol, I regretfully turned down Marie's invitation to go for sukiyaki that evening. Instead I rested up, drank lots of C.C. Lemon (“the vitamin C of 210 lemons in every bottle”!) and played Fallout 3 all day.

Monday: This was the climax of the Uesugi festival in Yonezawa, featuring a battle re-enactment at which yours truly was to be one of the warriors. This appointment in the middle of Golden Week was what prevented me from making any more ambitious travel plans. Thankfully I was feeling a good bit better, though still a little suboptimal.

My grasp of Japanese history is so poor that I couldn't even tell you what century the battle we were simulating took place in. The most advanced weaponry on display were some very cumbersome looking guns, if that helps. My battalion comprised about 30 Caucasians (many of whom I'd never seen before – I suspect they came from another prefecture) and a bunch of Chinese kids, forming a kind of elite anachronism squadron. The women among us were of course doubly anachronistic. We were to be bottom-of-the-chain infantry for the antagonist side, i.e. those opposing Uesugi.

Our first task was to suit up in a school gymnasium. Our outfits consisted of a basic white tunic and baggy red pantaloons. On top of this we had armour in the form of heavy material with metal sections sewn onto it. Separate pieces covered our shins, torsos and arms. Our heads were protected by nothing more than a red band with a metal plate over the forehead – you had to be a major or general to qualify for a helmet. We wore tabi on our feet – soft boots with a separation between the first two toes, and then put straw sandals on over the top of them. While my tabi fit nicely, my sandals were a good 5cm shorter than my feet. This situation wasn't helped by the fact that I was attempting to wear them backwards until about lunchtime. Finally, we had the all-important accessories: a fake katana (sword) with sheath, and a yellow flag attached to our backs and extending a good metre above our heads.

Dressed for battle, we walked the ten minutes or so to the riverside park that would be the venue of the skirmish. This turned quite a few heads – as if 30-odd samurai walking down the street wasn't remarkable enough, we were 30-odd predominantly white samurai. As we walked in the blazing sunshine, I realised that I was going to stand out like a sprained opposable digit, as my photochromic lenses meant I was the only samurai with shades. And a ginger goatee.

We were given a brief walkthrough of what we were expected to do, but this was sufficiently vague and not in English that most of us remained fairly clueless. I ended up right on the front corner of our formation, further boosting my conspicuousness. After that there was a lot of waiting around, during which time a big guy who possessed both considerable knowledge of swordsmanship and a deep fondness for the sound of his own voice discussed tactics with anyone who was prepared to listen. I stayed out of this, reasoning that it was just for fun and any talk of tactics was surely flawed on the grounds that this wasn't real, and as such the best tactic would be simply refusing to acknowledge your own death. Some people – or more accurately, some men – take any kind of simulated warfare way too seriously.

When showtime came, we had to march around and do a warcry for the large audience that had now assembled. There was then a great deal of waiting around as the opposing side did the same. Though I had applied the factor 30 liberally that morning, I was growing concerned for my melanin-deficient skin, so I pioneered a technique for using my own flag to shade my face. At long last, it was finally time to move. Our battalion was to mount a classic Japanese surprise attack by fording a river, so we jogged energetically over the bridge and into position.

More waiting awaited us on the far bank, where some of us were issued with flares tied to sticks (the actual battle happened at night). I've never used a flare before, so I eagerly grabbed one. When the ninjas with headset mics who were directing us (ninja gaidence, as I liked to call them) eventually gave us the command to attack, we struck our flares and I immediately wished I hadn't taken one. It was spewing acrid smoke into my airways, and hot little bits of debris onto my hand. I was terrified that I would set someone's banner ablaze.

Thankfully that didn't happen, as I charged through the thigh-deep river, which was actually very refreshing in the heat. Reaching the battlefield I threw down my flare and drew my katana. We were under strict instructions not to die yet, as we were to retreat after a minute or so of battle. I was glad when the call to retreat came, as running around in armour in the sweltering heat with lungs full of smoke and an immune system full of cold was causing me some problems.

Finally, it was time for everyone to charge into a battle to the death. I don't think I was a very honourable warrior, staying out of head-to-head confrontations as far as possible and favouring sneaky attacks on my foes' backs or legs as they ran past. Perhaps I'd have made a better ninja than a samurai. After a while I came up against a kid with a spear. I managed to get in close and score what I considered to be a lethal blow, but by the time I had engaged him two of his mates had flanked me. Clever boys. I decided it was time for a histrionic death (in which I pleasingly managed to knock off my flag), and viewed the rest of the battle from the perspective of a corpse.

After the battlefield resembled the end of the video to Radiohead's Just, the call went up for everyone to resurrect themselves, to a hearty round of applause. After a final warcry there was a kind of pitch invasion as the audience rushed to have the photos taken with the samurai. Some women rushed up to me shouting “Sunglasses!”, demanding photos and complementing my spirited warcry. Having since seen a video, it seems I was channelling Mel Gibson. By which I mean his depiction of William Wallace; I didn't insult any Jews.

I'm glad I took part in the battle. It was an unforgettable Japanese experience, especially as our unusually cold spring meant that the cherry blossom was still very much in evidence around the park. At one point a strong gust of wind showered everyone in petals, prompting a round of applause directed at nature itself. However, I probably won't do it again next year, due to the inordinate amount of hanging around, and my long-standing issues with any kind of role play. After all, it's a slippery slope to LARPing.

That evening we staged an impromptu hanami party. Still not feeling 100%, I wasn't really in the mood for getting as drunk as many other people were, so I left fairly early. Tuesday was another day of Fallout, though I did leave the house for a tasty Mexican meal and a movie at one of the Yonezawa peeps' places. Yesterday was also fairly lazy; by late afternoon I was so sickened by my own sloth that I jumped in the car and went for an aimless drive into the mountainous hinterland north of my town. It really is beautiful up there; so beautiful, in fact, that I felt like a jerk for not having ventured there sooner.


  1. In the battle re-enactment, do you think Finlay called out the actual word 'Banzai'? Vote now!

  2. Oh, I didn't get any pictures because samurai armour has no pockets to keep a camera in. But other people were on the case.

  3. Sounds fun FinD!!

    And yes, that is the best karaoke song ever, glad Alda did it!

  4. Wow. Did you find it embarrassing, or have you got used to public performance with all the teaching, being foreign, and singing kareoke?

  5. No, I wasn't embarrassed because there were so many of us on the battlefield. Safety in numbers. And I suppose I have got used to having all eyes on me, like you say.