Friday, November 5, 2010

Dancing in the disco, bunka to bunka

(Are the Sultans of Ping FC a bit obscure? Perhaps. But if there was any justice in the world Where's me jumper? would be a lot better known.)

Alright, let's bash out a post to flush the unsavoury image of my pasty buttocks off the front page.

I had a day off today, and I spent it quite productively. I took the car to the garage to get the tyres changed for winter, which necessitated cleaning out a whole summer's worth of empty Pocari Sweat bottles and ice coffee cans. I then finalised the route for the 70km bike ride myself and a bunch of other ALTs are going on tomorrow, and labouriously programmed the 34 waypoints into the Archos. Then food shopping, then ironing (lord of the weekend, Graham), then a spot of light tidying to bring my house up to the level of 'shithole'. I uncharacteristically cooked dinner, and now I'm blogging. All day I have resisted the temptation to play either Dead Rising or Super Crate Box, the latter being a dangerously addictive old-school arcade platformer (it's free, check it out). Not bad, huh?

The reason I had today off is that wednesday was Bunka no hi (Culture Day), a public holiday during which I was at a school culture festival. The school I was at this time last year just went for a straightforward chorus competition, but my current school is a bit more gung-ho about everything, so they put on a two day cultural spectacular.

The first day, we got to choose one of 16 cultural activities to try our hand at, which we would then demonstrate in front of the school. The curious thing about this is that they couldn't be anything too mainstream, like judo or taiko drumming, because there are after school clubs for those things already. So here is what a list of 16 second-string Japanese cultural pursuits looks like, in order of ascending weirdness:
  • Karate. When a Westerner thinks of Japanese martial arts, this is probably the first one that springs to mind. But for some reason it isn't taught at school. I think maybe it's not seen as being quite as noble as the ones that end in -dou, which means 'way': juudou (judo) is the 'gentle way', kendou (kendo) is the way of the sword, and kyuudou is the way of the bow. Or maybe karate is just less suited to competition, I'm not sure.
  • Baking cookies. I'm not sure how this slipped in, since it's basically just home ec. If my kanji skills are to be trusted, I think their angle was that the cookies were made using local produce. Weak.
  • Making decorative lamps. And this is just craft and design! These two were on the end of the list, leading me to believe that some making up the numbers was going on.
  • Patchwork quilt making.
  • Pastel painting.
  • Tanka. This is a 31-syllable poetry format, and it seems not to have caught on in the way its 17-syllable cousin has. It's perhaps the Nicola Roberts to haiku's Cheryl Cole.
  • Chigirigami. Japanese collage, made by both cutting and tearing paper to create different textures.
  • Social dancing. Some Western influence here; it looked to be fairly upbeat but chaste sort of ballroom dancing.
  • Tea ceremony (sadou - way of the tea. Seriously!). I still consider tea ceremony to be deeply weird, but it's a weirdness that I've become accustomed to, like toilet slippers or not having central heating. So I'm going mid-table with it.
  • Korean language lessons. Korea is en vogue in Japan (I mean the South, obviously). Korean food, Korean TV dramas, and K-pop are all pretty big. They even have a word - kanryuu - to refer to the influx of Korean pop culture into Japan. But as an English teacher, I'm not entirely happy with this activity. If they want to talk to Koreans, they should concentrate on learning English - by all accounts the levels of English in S. Korea put Japan to shame.
  • Sign language. The kids 'sang' a song in sign language, which seemed like an odd thing to do, since the set of people who can enjoy both the music and the lyrics will be very small indeed.
  • Christmas wreath making. This is weird only because it's the start of November.
  • Collaborative giant kite-making.
  • Hip-hop dancing. As I've observed a couple of times, hip-hop dancing is strangely popular here. Sadly, it seems to be more 'urban' street dancing than honest-to-goodness backspins, six-step, popping and locking breakdancing. I was astonished that one of my fellow teachers had such supafly moves, but I think he went too ambitious with his choreography as most of the kids seemed to have no idea what to do.
  • Hyakuninisshu. (literally: 100 people, one poem) This is a fast-reactions card game where someone chants a poem, and you must slap your hand down on the card representing that poem. It's a bit like snap, in the same way that a Ferrari is a bit like my Wagon R.
  • Tree protecting. Around this time of year, everyone erects plank-and-rope structures over their ornate trees and bushes to protect them from the weight of the forthcoming snow. This is all very well, but I never really considered it a cultural activity.
I chose karate, figuring that something physical would present the fewest language problems. The class consisted of an intimidating sensei, 20-odd boys, one girl, and me. Of course, I ended up partnered with the girl. Thrusting one's fist towards the face of a 14 year old girl goes against all one's instincts as a teacher, and indeed as a decent human being. It actually turned out that she was the only student with any prior karate experience, and thus was the star pupil and capable of evading my moves with ease.

It was kind of fun - there is something satisfying about punching the air and grunting - but I don't think martial arts are for me. Like so much in Japan, they are all about protocol and rules, which isn't really what I look for in a leisure activity. I really like that I've had a grand total of two snowboard lessons, and just figured the rest out for myself, having a lot of fun in the process; there isn't really a wrong way to snowboard. There are most definitely many wrong ways to do karate, judo, or kendo.

In the afternoon I got to witness an impressive example of the Japanese obsession with manufacturing spurious harmony and consensus, as all 350-odd students were assembled in the gym to collaboratively compose a new ouen chant. The first line ended up being 'Akachuu damashii!', the first word being a contraction of the school's name and damashii meaning soul or spirit, as in Katamari Damashii (lit. 'clump spirit'), to give the game its proper Japanese spelling. (It's proper proper Japanese spelling, 塊魂, is a kind of visual rhyme, as you can see.) When the time came to compose the melody, I was very tempted to see whether I could get away with suggesting the Katamari Damacy theme.

The second day of the festival was a choral competition very much in the same vein as the one I experienced last year, though it took place in a local concert hall rather than the school gym. Once again, I was very impressed by the standard of singing, not to mention piano playing - how does every class have a least a couple of accomplished pianists? (I said pianists.) The 70-strong PTA choir, complete with pianist, violinist and saxophonist, also blew my mind. But a whole day of sitting in small, uncomfortable seat, watching kids sing did get a bit tiresome after a while. A welcome change of pace came in the form of a display by the taiko drumming team. I'm still amazed by taiko. I took some photos which I'll probably put on flickr, but in the interests of data protection, whenever I have photos that show students' faces I make them private. So much as I disapprove of "social" "networking", if you want to see them, become my flickr friend!

In other news, my 5 kilos of rice that I planted and harvested just got delivered. Score!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bad no-pants

I've never really been a big fan of Halloween, or indeed of fancy dress more generally. This attitude would appear to set me apart from most of the ALT community. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I resent putting any serious time - or more importantly, money - into crafting and/or purchasing a costume which will only be used once, and indeed will only be funny for approximately ten minutes.

Of course, one can simply avoid fancy dress parties. This is what I did for last year's big ALT Halloween party, but this year I felt like being more sociable. I considered some kind of Braveheart effort using my kilt, but that just seemed a bit lame, like science or medicine students going with some weak lab-coat based shtick. If I'm going to do something, I don't like to do it half-assedly. Go large or go home.

So, how could I make an impact without too much expenditure or effort? As the lazy and uninspired so often do, I decided to go for shock value. Cross-dressing is an obvious shock tactic, and as my fondness for Lady Gaga is well known to everyone who has ever been to karaoke with me, it seemed appropriate to take a leaf out of her impressive book of sartorial mentalness. Unfortunately, most of her outfits are elaborate to say the least, which was exactly what I was trying to avoid. Then, I remembered the brief portion of her turgid Telephone video where she appears dressed only in police tape. Cheap, easy, and it represents a potent combo of transvestism and near-nudity. Shock and awe!

The party was on saturday, so after work on friday I went and bought some tape. Of course, I couldn't get police tape, so I settled for some that said 'under construction' in Japanese and 'NO ENTER' in Engrish. Armed with a few screengrabs from Youtube, I initially tried to faithfully reproduce her costume. It quickly became apparent that this would not be feasible, for two reasons:
  • Despite considerable speculation to the contrary, Ms Gaga, being a woman, lacks bulky external genitalia to conceal.
  • In a music video, one need only worry about protecting one's modesty from one angle, and for seconds at a time. In the interests of basic decency, by costume would have to be a little more comprehensive and durable.
I went back to the hardware shop for some yellow duct tape, and started again, this time constructing essentially a skimpy pair of briefs from the duct tape (sticky side out, obviously), which would serve as the foundation (chassis?) of my costume. This worked better than I expected - if nothing else, my PhD did a lot for my duct tape-fu. After that, it was a simple matter of coiling some tape around one leg and running some up around my neck and a couple of times over my chest. Another piece wrapped around my head and covering one eye (with my glasses on over the top) completed the ensemble.

On saturday I had a look around the shops for very dark red lipstick, but all I could find was a multitude of barely distinguishable crimsons, scarelts and vermillions. I guess the goth market isn't very lucrative in Yamagata. To be honest, I didn't look all that hard. I felt rather conspicuous being a white male in a Japanese cosmetics aisle, and the constant barrage of chirpy "Irasshaimase!"s (Welcome / How can I help you?) wasn't helping matters. Empty-handed, I went over to Alda's, who - after a fit of stunned giggles - sorted me out with heavy black eye makeup and some slightly inaccurate red lipstick. Dad, I imagine you're very proud right now.

Once Alda put the finishing touches on her gypsy costume, and I put some clothes on over the top of my tape, we set off on the long drive, stopping to pick up Wonder Woman and a swan. When the average density of your social circle is on the order of 0.1 per sq km, you think nothing of driving two hours for a party. I was sipping whisky at quite a rate on the way there (Alda was driving), but nothing could really prepare me for the embarrassment of walking in.

An entire room full of people looking at you is disconcerting at the best of times. When you are wearing nothing but yellow tape and makeup, it really takes mortification to a new level. This might sound weird, but I think having one eye covered made it considerably worse; being bereft of depth perception and a large part of your visual surround makes one feel vulnerable on quite a primal level.

I gradually realised that at least 80% of the room had no idea what I was supposed to be; evidently, not everyone is as ardent a follower of Gaga as me. I began to wonder whether I had made a massive error of judgement. Sure, Halloween is supposed to be about the frightening and grotesque, but perhaps a pale, flabby nerd in lipstick and no actual clothes is creepy in all the wrong ways. I took to showing everyone the screengrabs on my Archos in desperate bid to contextualise my outfit.

But, I'd come this far, so I had no choice but to tough it out. It really wasn't so bad, especially once I had a few more drinks. Actually, I'd been in a situation like this before, when Joy had offered Tim and I all the white Russians we could drink if we worked as drinks waiters at a party of hers wearing only Speedos and bow ties. Although on that occasion, I could at least take refuge in it being someone else's idea. Anyway, on both occasions, people generally asked me whether I was cold (answer: yes) and hilariously told me that I had balls.

There were various fairly ad-hoc prizes given out for costumes, and I won 'best overall package', in yet another genital-based witticism. There were some actually very impressive costumes on display; my favourites included:
  • An uncannily accurate likeness of The Dude.
  • Kancho-man, a superhero based on the Japanese schoolboy prank of sneaking up behind someone and thrusting your index fingers in the direction of their back passage. I am happy to report that unlike many of my colleagues, I have still never experienced this at school. However, covered as it was by only a length of tape, my derriere was a very soft target for Kancho-man. Which is ironic, when you consider that I was the only person explicitly prohibiting entry to my person.
  • A couple who came as two halves of a torii (Shinto archway). The slightly nauseating cuteness of this was more than offset by their excellent execution; they called themselves Torii Odori ('torii dance') and did a little upright, bobbing jig together.
Final paragraph change of subject: You may have noticed from my Flickr stream that I had a rather more successful day of exploring abandoned tourist attractions the weekend before last. Impressive though it was, I never got round to blogging about it, partly because I though back-to-back posts about haikyo would be a little monotonous, and partly because I got the gloriously dumb zombie hack 'em up Dead Rising 2 for my PS3 last week.