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Displaying items by tag: Japan

Sunday, 01 January 2012

Memoirs of a Koshimoto

February 18th

SAM 0369      Samurai swordfights, strutting Geishas and the Seven Gods of Fortune were images conjured up when I first read that Sakura, the Japanese town where I lived and taught English, would hold its twelfth annual Jidai Matsuri: Festival of the Ages. The advertisement appeared and zipped by in the local English language newsletter for about thirty seconds and I gave it no more thought, as the clock rolled over to 2:00 pm and I was due for my next lesson.
      The students, Yukie and Kanako, were two lively retired ladies with a high English level from years of working in the tourism industry.  Incidentally Kanako brought along a Japanese newspaper bearing the same advertisement for the Jidai Matsuri.  She regaled me with tales of festivals past and asked if I would be joining the parade. 
      Letting out a high pitched laugh, I was baffled by her question.  For someone with her speaking ability, linguistic error was an unlikely explanation. 
      “Our other teacher Molly wore the princess costume.” gushed Yukie.
      “Oh really?”  I replied, my curiosity piqued.  A princess in a parade?  In Japan?  I certainly never got to play a Japanese princess in my native Canada.  It seemed that one of my predecessors had pulled it off, so why not?
      However as I inquired further, the crushing blow was delivered.  Although anyone was able to participate, you needed the lined pockets of a princess to pay the costume rental fee.  Donning the princess crown and kimono would set you back 40,000 yen (approximately $500 US).
      Molly must have been on a much higher salary than me if she were able to pay the dosh for the posh princess outfit.  The other -- cheaper -- choices consisted of a servant and lady-in-waiting, but these were still out of reach for me.  I sighed and let my mind wander back to mingling with the spectator commoners on the day in question.
February 25th

    Yukie and Kanako were determined not to let my royal hopes fade.  Yukie contacted someone on the organizing committee and learned that the year Molly joined she received a 50% discount on the costume rental for being a foreigner.  I did a double-take as normally that price discrimination worked the other way around. 

      Yukie urged me to get in touch with her contact, Mrs. Suzuki, to confirm the discount.  The princess price was still a bit hefty, but with some scrimping and saving the lady-in-waiting, or Koshimoto in Japanese, was within reach.
      I emailed my application that night in English.  The deadline was February 28th.
March 8th

      No reply…  Unable to contact the planning committee myself owing to my lack of Japanese speaking skills -- reserved for ordering food or directing taxi drivers -- I had to wait until class with Yukie and Kanako.
March 11th

      Yukie and Kanako told me Mrs. Suzuki had not received my application.  Their assumption was someone had seen my English email and simply deleted it.  Fair play; had some strange email in a foreign language come across my inbox it would have befallen the same fate. 
      “Send it again.” Yukie said. 
      “Won’t it be the same problem?” I pondered.  In the past two weeks my Japanese certainly hadn’t improved enough to properly fill in the blanks. 
    “English will be fine,” Yukie assured me, “I will tell Mrs. Suzuki to watch for it.”

    This time it went through.  The next morning I received a totally illegible email.  By illegible I mean it was written in Japanese, oddly enough.  I took it to work for translation.  I learned I was accepted, and now needed to wait until the end of March for further information.

March 31st 

      No information received.
April 1st

      Both Yukie and Kanako were absent.  Since the event was on the 25th of this month, waiting until their next class on the 8th and asking them to inquire about the AWOL information on my behalf was no problem.
April 5th

      Hurrah!  A big green courier envelope arrived at my apartment bearing the details.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  Until it hit me that it was of course, all in Japanese.  I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.  A lot of kanji (the complicated Chinese characters adopted into Japanese language). 
      Plugging through, I managed to decipher the amount of money wanted (I was pleased to see the 50% discount), the bank details to pay the fee and a deadline of April 9th. 
      I also saw a time:  8:30 am.  And possibly a place?  So, I knew when to be there, but where was there?  The only thing I could understand were the diagrams requiring my head measurements.  So I measured my poor head as it came to grips with my illiteracy.

April 8th

      I brought the multitude of papers and head measurements to Yukie and Kanako’s class.  Thankfully they were both present this week.  Kanako whipped out her mobile phone, dialed the festival committee and imparted my measurements while getting detailed directions to the venue. 
      She even offered to show me personally, but I didn’t want to further impose on her and was reasonably certain of the location: an historic Feudal Lord’s home called Hotta-tei. 
April 18th

      T-minus one week until the big event.  Not wanting to be the weak link holding up the large procession of Japanese characters from bygone eras, I wandered up to the Hotta-tei to confirm the way.  When I informed the other students we all became quite excited.  All set, apart from this scratchy feeling I had in my throat.
April 24th

    Grrr.  Scratchy feeling became full blown cold.

April 25th – Parade Day!

    No improvement in cold symptoms.  However, apart from the sizeable sum of yen I parted with on costume rental, it was an opportunity that I reasoned I couldn’t afford to lose to a common cold.  I fought back with the following:  Kakonto, a hot liquid Chinese medicine students swear by, Dayquil, Otrivin, herbal cough syrup, and a throat lozenge.

    By the time the friendly greeter bowed to me at the Hotta-tei, the medicines were thankfully in full effect.  I was ushered to the tatami mat-covered changing area and easily located my costume; it was the only one labeled in English.

    Getting into the costume,  however, was not so easy.  Thankfully an efficient attendant came along to wrap me with the first layer of the traditional kimono and bumped me out to the wig and make up area.  The wig master then appeared.  His thick stature was suitable for a sumo ring, and came with a hairstyle to match.  He began to fit my top-notted wig, decorated in mustard colored combs and tinkly silver decorations, with the serious expression and precision of a neurosurgeon.

    Despite the requested head measurements, the wig was far too roomy.  Perhaps erring on the side of caution to ensure it would fit over my big foreign head.  Thankfully there was a backup, set aside to be the finishing touch.

SAM 0376    Time for the intense china-doll-style make up.  But before I was called to the makeup chair, attendants bustled four teenage boys in ahead of me.  So instead I observed these fresh faced youth being transformed into old men with bald caps and flowing beards like Harry Potter wizards.

    When the petite, smiling makeup artist finally waved me forward, I was pleasantly surprised to hear her welcome me in English.

      “Part of Seven Gods of Fortune.” She nodded in the direction of the bearded youths.  As she deftly transformed my western face into one typical of Japanese women approximately two hundred years ago, she wished to chat with me in English.  I did so with minimal facial movement for fear my make up would resemble Alice Cooper’s. 

    Once my face was passable as historic Japanese royalty, the entire process had taken nearly two hours.  Morning routines in Edo times must have been quite the ritual, I thought, as I was fitted into the outer layer kimono along with its large obi belt (there was room to hide my out-of-place modern-day decongestant), tabi socks and traditional sandals.  Which were about two sizes too small. 

      The icing on the cake was the wig, which I was told to test by moving my head.  But not too much.  From that moment I knew headstands were out of the question. 
      The wig master gestured for me to move outside.  Haruka, the one English speaker on the committee, met me there and designated herself as my go-to girl.  “You can have your lunch over there, and we start walking in one hour. I will be walking with you if you need anything. Enjoy.”
      I grabbed one of the provided bento boxes with tuna filled rice balls and sat next to two smoking Samurais.  Did real Samurais smoke cigarettes?
      I was hoping for someone to take a photo of me upon realizing I had no idea what I looked like.  My problem was soon solved, as paparazzi of eager Japanese shutterbugs surrounded me, cameras clicking and flashes flashing.  To add to the Hollywood effect, a local television crew shuffled up and began interviewing me in rapid fire Japanese.  The make-up had the desired effect; my only foreign giveaway was my bumbling language skills.
      The adornment continued as we paraded our way through the centuries old streets of Sakura.  Haruka kept her word, additionally offering green tea bottles en route.  Spectators debated the big question of whether I was foreign or not, calling out to me in Japanese for the answer.  Sets of drums dotted the street-facing shops, with people of all ages singing, drumming and making merry under the sunny skies.  Numerous stops were made for the Meiji-era soldiers to re-create gun fights, and the Samurais to show off their swordsmanship.  My students came out of the woodwork brandishing cameras, waving enthusiastically.SAM 0381
    As we rounded the last parade route corner, a special seating section awaited parade participants for archery demonstrations, singing groups and speeches from local politicians.  Given my complicated clothing and boxed-in location I realized the possible conundrum should the need for a washroom arise.

    After our return to Hotta-tei, the day ended with a closing ceremony and exchanging phone numbers with Haruka.  The excitement of this enchanting day had filled me with energy, but the nagging cold once again made its presence known.  The prospect of scrubbing layers of oily white make up off my face with only cold water was most unappealing, so I resolved to leave it until I was home.

    Just one problem; I needed to stop at my local supermarket.  I’d have forgotten about my modern era jeans and sandals juxtaposed with the striking Edo-era face if it weren’t for the check-out clerk laughing so hard she could barely ring through my provisions.

©Andrea Oikawa

SAM 0370

Published in interchange
Monday, 03 May 2010

In Search of Wasabi

What is that pale green stuff coming out of tubes or situated in tiny mounds next to sashimi?  It’s got as much to do with real wasabi as going to a tanning salon has to do with a day at the beach.  Still, you get the point from dabbing raw fish into it— it accentuates the flavors, provides contrast with texture, and gives hints of bitterness that play with the sweetness of the sashimi. But the wasabi we get here is horseradish dyed green.  Horseradish has plenty of flavor and tastes good, but it’s not wasabi. 

Published in in good taste
Sunday, 28 September 2008

Incognito Contest Nov-Dec 2008

I am standing at the southwestern tip of a country located on an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. I am in the city that lies perilously close to this monstrous volcano, which showers the local inhabitants with a light ash almost every afternoon.

Published in incognito

Hiwatari Matsuri, or Fire Walking Festival is held at Mount Takao, Japan.  The event is dedicated to the Tengu, or mountain spirit and is for purification and renewal.  Monks light a massive bonfire and then douse it with water until the flames are quelled.  They then throw people's prayers, which are written on wood tablets, into the fire.  Just before the monk's cross the fire, they flagellate themselves with bamboo in boiling water.  Then, two by two the monks cross the burning hot coals.  To finish the festival, all the onlookers line up and walk the coals, now substantially cooler, and receive a blessing from the head monks.  With a final prayer to the mountain spirits, the monks head back into the mountains from which they came.

Published in indigenous
Saturday, 25 August 2007

Incognito Contest Sept-Oct 2007

At this sacred place, visitors from around the world inscribe their wishes and prayers on small wooden tablets, which are hung on hooks under a large tree in its inner courtyard. Shinto monks from the nearby temple convey the wishes to the gods while they chant and say their daily prayers. At the start of the New Year, the tablets are burned in order to symbolically “release” the prayers to the gods and the heavens, where it is believed they are granted.

Published in incognito

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