Monday, July 10, 2017

Buy It Here: Art Supplies

So...this is a post I meant to publish over the last few months, but even though I pretty much had it finished, I never actually got around to hitting the orange button.  Better late than never, right?

You can never have too many art supplies.  When I was in Osaka to make prints at the Kamigata Museum, I visited an art supply store, because of course I visited an art supply store.  The best markers in the world - Copic markers - are made in Japan.  I ended up dropping $100 on art supplies - I bought some new Copics, for half the price they'd cost in the States, watercolor postcards, tracing paper, half-tone screens for adding the grey areas in manga panels, more waterbrushes.  It's possible I went a little crazy, but in my defense, I found more in one small shop there than I can get anywhere in Mongolia.
This only looks like a lot of art supplies...
One thing about being an art teacher is, you never know when you're going to need more.  I do a pretty decent job of ordering, and my school is very generous with the budget, but I either have kids who come up with new ideas for what they want to do, or what I ordered gets worn out faster than I expected, or else I realize that if I had a particular kind of pen it would work better.  So there are options in Ulaanbaatar - you're not going to have to grind your own pigments and mix them Rembrandt style...just be prepared for the fact that the selection is not as wide and may not be as high quality.
The party is actually three doors north of here now.
For example, you won't find Copic markers, which is a shame, but the art store near the State Department Store has Touch markers, which are a comparable Korean brand of alcohol-based markers.  If you walk up the right/east side of the State Department Store, across the street is a yellow sign that says "Art and Antigue."  This was originally where all of the materials were - in the basement.  Now there's a second shop, three doors north (away from the SDS, if you don't speak cardinal directions), which has most of what I'm looking for when I go looking.
Another shop I managed to stumble on (about a year ago when all I wanted to eat, ever, was pho) is the Marie's shop, sort of across and up from the Chinese embassy on Baga Toiruu.  Marie's is a Chinese brand of art supplies - when I lived in Shanghai I wasted an entire day going up and down Fuzhou Lu (I think) looking for stuff, only to later learn that their big store on Xikang Lu was basically my one-stop shopping destination.  The store here has quite a bit to offer as well.  I don't get over there often anymore, thanks to the Pho House moving, but when one of the brats mentioned wanting to work with spray paint for AP last fall, I remembered they had airbrushes, and was able to pick one up for 150,000 tugrugs.
After writing most of this but obviously before I got around to publishing it, I found another art supply store up the street from the State Department store, but on the opposite side of the street. Like many things in Ulaanbaatar, if you keep your eyes open and wander around enough, you'll probably find it.  Keep looking.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The End of All Things

I was sitting in Ulaanbaatar's Chinggis Khaan airport as I began this post.  My flight was scheduled to leave in an hour and ten minutes, and I was completely shattered.

It's been five years since my last leaving.  I remember thinking at the time that things seemed to go remarkably easy.  Maybe it was because I accepted the job with the American School of Ulaanbaatar in early March.  Knowing where I was going made it easier to accept the fact that I wouldn't be in Shanghai.  Also, the fact that I kind of hated Shanghai...

Mongolia, on the other hand, I loved.  I didn't expect to be there five years, but ASU supported me and my students were the best.  About a month ago I found myself asking why the hell I gave up my job.  I was paid well, had friends, loved my work - but I just HAD to go looking for something else.  >le sigh<

A few days later, I got up early on a Saturday morning to try and get a grip on my packing.  My own personal procrastinatrix showed up to crack the whip only after our fine arts banquet, graduation, the end of year camp were looming (I probably should have backed down and let a few things go this year...but that just wouldn't be me).  But during my morning look at the interwebs my delusions of productivity smashed to pieces when I saw a job posting for an art teacher at a school in Yokohama (if you've been paying attention, you've noticed I never mentioned the name of my former school up to this point.  This is where the new school becomes It Which Must Not Be Named and it's okay to reference the old one).  Instead of spending my morning packing and cleaning, I put together a cover letter and sent off my documents and prayed.  The answer to my prayer came that evening in the form of a facebook message from a guy I knew my first year at ASU whom I wasn't very close to, so at first I was a little pissy about being offered help, but eventually I told myself not to be a bitch and replied, thanking him for the offer but that unless he knew someone at School X, I didn't know that there was much he could do for me.

"Believe it or not, I do," he replied, and after three interviews and some cost-benefit analysis I accepted the job.
Now, over the last six months I have told myself many, MANY times, "You need to clean your apartment."  Because I did.  I never actually fully cleaned the damn thing, which made dealing with the detritus accumulated over the course of five years much harder to deal with, but since we can only manipulate time going forward, my options were limited.

I left Shanghai after moving about three times.  My first year I lived in an apartment right next to the school, and moved about 5 minutes by bike away for my second, onto Laohongxing Lu.  My realtor negotiated with my landlord to let me out of my lease early, and so a few weeks before I was scheduled to leave Shanghai, I had to move out of my apartment.  This turned out to be the practice round for leaving the country, since I wasn't bringing all my crap to my friend Meen's, who was letting me take advantage of a spare room, and the momentum really did help me get ready for the big bad goodbye.

Moving out of the teachers' apartments never actually crossed my mind during the last five years.  While they weren't super-deluxe high-rises, and my view left much to be desired (because who wants to look out their window at work everyday???) there was plenty of room and I was comfortable.  I was never too cold, it was a quick walk to work, and I felt secure surrounded by my colleagues, even the more eccentric ones, of which we had a few.

Admittedly there were more than a few times when I wished I were on the side of the building that wasn't directly across the parking lot from where one of these eccentrics would practice his sad sax every evening, and perhaps because I spent so much time going between the two, there were times when I used the wrong key.  But when I needed to run home at lunch for a coke (or occasionally at the beginning of a class because I promised to bring a kid my markers or some other supply for their project) it was hellaconvenient.  Nonetheless, the inertia of a life lived well in one spot was hard to break, and I was still dealing with tic tac shit the morning I flew out.  (If you're wondering what it looked like when my apartment wasn't empty...this was wrtiten in my first year, so it wasn't anywhere near as full, but it gives you the idea).
A wise woman (named Engrish) once told me, on my very first ger camp, that Mongolia gets under your skin and makes you fall in love with it, and it was true.  It's a beautiful country with wide open skies, but I think more than anything it's the people that make it the place that it is.  My frantic packing and cleaning over the last week was broken up with goodbyes - one last brunch at Blondie's, a final massage with Five, dinner with a family I'd known since the first year, and being driven to the airport by my principal. 

That aside, though, if you've been with me for these last five years, you've probably noticed that even though this blog is supposed to be about traveling there is an endless string of references to my students, and the hardest part of leaving has been leaving them.  The end of the last day of school was brutal, a massive attack as they stopped in, teary-eyed, for a final hug as I promised that I was coming back, that I'd see them in next year's musical.  And then there were my brats.  The original, "accept no substitutes," kids who have been with me since day one organized a farewell dinner for Time Lady and I, and came to the airport to say goodbye two days later.  It's been a long road since we first sat in the teeny-tiny classroom that was mine that first year.  Many of them are gone - studying in the US or England - and they've had their challenges along the way, but I'm proud of them and wouldn't trade the pain of saying goodbye for anything in the world, because it's a testament to how much it meant.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Last Ger Standing

So last fall I wrote about revisiting Tsenkher Hot Spring with Engrish and Five, and how it was one of those things I wanted to do again before I left.  I imagined going on several more ger camps before my last flight out, but after our dogsledding weekend it never happened.  Once we started working on the musical, it seemed like time sped up, and wrecked me in all sorts of ways.
I would have liked to camp one last time with Engrish and Five, but my actual last ger camp, as it turned out, was a pretty kickass substitute.  One of my colleagues decided that the end-of-school activities for our middle schoolers should be camping trips, and since this was a thing, I volunteered pretty quickly to accompany my nerds out to Gun Galuut, a nature preserve that I hadn't yet visited...mostly because I'm not a fan of "tenting" and the only ger camp - Steppe Nomads - is pretty pricey.  Fortunately, the previously mentioned colleague has a Mongolian wife whose family runs it, so they gave us a great price.

So I was going to a new place with a great group of kids, and my fellow chaperones were four of my favorite colleagues (albeit obvs neither Five nor Engrish, who actually would have come if she weren't so busy).  So far, it was a pretty sweet set-up.  Bonus: I got to see the Chinggis Colossus one last time along the way.
Now, lest you are a new reader, or else have forgotten exactly what camping in the wilds of Mongolia is like, here's a little breakdown: you drive way the hell out into the middle of nowhere, on roads that back home we would optimistically classify as "B-Grade", to stay in a tent made of felt, and possibly burn dried animal poop for warmth in the cold, cold night.   This time we had wood fires, but that didn't keep me from telling the kids on the way out that their first task would be to collect dung for their fire for the night, and suggest that if they didn't want to touch it, they could turn a plastic bag inside out.  LOL
If I've said it once, I've said it a million times: whoever said getting there was half the fun ought to be dragged out into the street and shot.  The Voice and I were in the bus with most of the boys,  and they were pretty quiet.  The chaperones in the bus with most of the girls, on the other hand...they suffered.  And then we went off-roading in school buses - always a fun time, especially when your intended route takes you under train tracks, but the clearance isn't high enough for a school bus.  We had to try three underpasses before we were able to break on through to the other side.  Luckily nobody got carsick, and we'd stopped for snacks and the bathroom along the way.  In the end, our supposedly 2-hour ride ended up being over 4, but we got there in the end.
Once we got the kids assigned to their gers and the buses unpacked, we went on a hike.  And by hike, I mean a really long walk.  I counted myself fortunate to be with the kids who were done pretty quickly, and when they wanted to stop and chill and play in the water, I was happy to oblige.  One of my hardcore nerds decided to try "fishing" by stabbing at minnows with the stick he'd been carrying around.  (Apparently reading Hatchet in fifth grade had a huge impact, because they could tell me all about it).  Another of my nerds joined him, and their third technique - using a handkerchief for a net - was a success!  They were disappointed that I wouldn't actually let them eat their catch, but hey, responsible-type adult person here.

The hike back to the camp took about twice as long.  Possibly because at one point I turned around and realized that the other two chaperones and I were together with a big group, and there were quite a few stragglers spread out across the distance, so I went back to fish shoes out of the mud and tell them that no, they could not walk back to camp in their muddy socks while carrying their shoes.
We had some down time before dinner, and afterwards organized a game of capture the flag.  The space really wasn't big enough, but we didn't want to annoy the other guests and had to give the kids at least some cover to work with.  Since they didn't grow up with fairly hardcore Mutrux relatives who demanded perfection in their survivalist games, the kids didn't really care - they got to run around and chase each other, so they were happy.
We were pretty disappointed, though, that we couldn't have a campfire.  It was too windy, and a lack of rain meant that we were liable to burn down the steppe if we tried.  Instead, the camp let us use the...actually, I have no idea what to call it.  Common room?  An enclosed space where we could make a little noise without bothering others and being exposed to the elements.  Sadly, there was no fire, so the s'mores ingredients I brought didn't get used, but The Voice had an awesome game called Musical Charades that he led the kids in, where you speak/sing/act as many songs or musicians as you can in a minute.  My ghost stories had to wait for the ride back, and if it was not as satisfying as telling them around the fire, at least by the time "Tailybones" was giving them nightmares they were somebody else's problem.
I brought my flute and The Voice brought his morin khuur, so we were able to finish the night with some music, and since both of us are decent musicians...

Okay, fine.  I'm a decent musician who can play by ear.  He is a highly trained professional who basically kicks ass on whatever instrument he picks up.  I could take him in a dance off or pictionary, though...

Anyways, between the two of us we were able to take requests, and it was a nice way to end the night.  In fact, it put me in such a restful mood that two hours later I slept through my alarm and missed my turn on watch.  Oops. After breakfast the next day we had just enough time for a safari before we had to get ready to go back to UB.  A change in the students on each bus meant that mine was a little livelier, but since I got the group that wanted to tell ghost stories and talk nerdy, I didn't really mind.  When we got back to the school, I found it to be a disappointment more than anything, because it meant that everything was over, and these kids that I absolutely loved weren't mine much longer.  But I couldn't be sad for too long - I was in the middle of finally interviewing with a school I actually wanted to work for, and I had the last interview the next morning.  More on that later.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Art & Seoul

Living in Korea was a different time in my life.  Or at least, that's the best way to explain it that I can come up with at 6:30 on a Saturday morning, although it probably sounds pretty cliche.  I've been interested in art since I was very young, and up until that point it seems like I never passed up an opportunity to visit an art gallery.  In Korea, though, I was an expat for the first time, and an ESL teacher by trade. While it is true that my first solo excursion into Seoul was to see the Chagall exhibit at Seoul Museum of Art, and I often wandered into galleries when I was in Insadong, not to mention the fact that I loved getting off the metro at Gyeonbokgung for church because they often had displays of children's art, the fact remains that I didn't really art much in Korea.
That, of course, has changed.  Back when I went to Seoul for Tsagaan Sar I was looking for new things to do, and although I didn't actually do most of the things I came up with, I did visit Hyeri Art Village.  It is up by the DMZ in Paju, and the idea of an artists' community intrigued me, so after leaving Silloam Sauna bright and early on one of my last mornings there, I caught a bus heading north.
Did I mention not only the brightness but also the earliness of the morning?  I alighted at the Hyeri Village bus stop around 9:30 in the morning, possibly grumbling a little to myself because a Korean couple got off with me and were walking hand-in-hand all lovey-dovey down the street, and on an adventure such as this, I like to have the place to myself.  But as I walked on, away from the "crowd," past each closed cafe and gallery, I realized something.
It does you absolutely no bloody good to have the place to yourself if everything is closed.

I get a little fed up with tourists, it's true.  A month later, when Five and I were running around Osaka, I possibly lost my cool a couple of times because there were too damn many people, most of whom were not uber-polite natives.  I do understand (on some deep, shall-not-be-named level), that I'm one of those fat, stupid, loud tourists, and businesses exist to make money off us, but that doesn't change the fact that sometimes I just want to get away and be by myself.

If you ever have times like that, try Hyeri Art Village at 9:30 on a weekday morning.  Just make sure to pack a coke, or - better yet - a hot chocolate.

Anyways, from a shopping/cafe-sitting perspective, this jaunt was a bust.  However, it wasn't a total waste of time.  I wandered around the village for about an hour before I decided there were definitely more interesting things to get up to in Seoul, and got to see some interesting sculptures...this rhinoceros, for example, which made me think of the play I read in my AP Lit class as a senior in high school - I almost posted it to Drim's facebook page to ask for extra credit.
I'm honestly not much of a sculpture person and it took listening to Bill Lishman at the ACAMIS conference three years ago to help me appreciate the importance of public art.  Not that I'd explain the meaning of this one to you - I didn't really give it much thought because I was cold and caffeine-deprived - but, you know, I could talk to you about the use of the art elements and design principles, and the processes the artist might have used, and ask you some questions to help you construct your own meaning.  Because, hey!  Art teacher! ;-)  Although I won't, because I'm still caffeine-deprived, since I decided it was a good idea to drink my last coke at 10 last night and the shop's not open yet.
By far this was my choice for the most interesting work there.  When I was walking around and viewing it from a distance, it seemed to be just a bunch of mesh forms in a copse of trees.  When I got closer, though, I realized it was a colossal recumbent nude emerging from the earth.  (How's that for using some art jargon?)  There were holes in many of the pieces, allowing you to enter them - or at least, I'm pretty sure that was their purpose.  The thing about public art is, you're not going to be sitting there policing it, so if you don't want people interacting with it - climbing inside it, in this case - you can't put holes in it.

On the other end of the equation, though, is the fact that you may have a hard time getting people to interact with it in the way you want.  A few years back, when I attended the Summervision DC seminar, I took off my shoes and walked through a water feature in the courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery.  Then I looked up feeling childish and guilty, but the museum educator who was working with us that day encouraged me, saying that most visitors walk past it, ignoring the artist's invitation to play in favor of the sanctity of the art museum.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Return of Sgt. Becks

In high school I was well-known as a hard-core band nerd and a pain-in-the-ass bitch who was too tough on people.  For this reason, during my senior year my rivals started calling me Sergeant Becks - or at least, I always assumed that was the reason, although Baby Chicken Wing (as the youngest was called) will surely let me know over the summer if I've got it wrong.  Although I have changed over the years, one thing remains the same:  I am still a pain-in-the-ass bitch who is too tough on people.

My band days have long been over, but after Engrish took responsibility for directing the school musical this spring, I found myself agreeing to be a part of it.  Being in charge of artsy shit like costumes and sets sort of goes along with being the art teacher, although I ducked out of it last year thanks to the fashion show.  Without that, and with a couple of extra preps in my timetable, I really had no reason to say no this year.  My first responsibility was getting the scripts and scores back to Mongolia, a job I volunteered for because I knew I wasn't planning on bringing much else back with me.  Thanks to the traumatic flight path getting back to UB, they didn't actually make it into the school until several cold January nights later, but because I didn't have to re-check them anywhere, I managed to avoid any baggage fees, so it ended up costing a lot less to get them to Mongolia than it should have (returning them, on the other hand, took us from just breaking even to very deeply back in the red.  Oh well).
Having delivered the goods and chosen student costume and set designers, I thought my responsibilities were fulfilled for a while.  And then The Voice came in one afternoon and said, "So I don't want you to feel pressured, because I know you're busy, but do you want to play in the pit band?"  I think my answer was something like, "Well, I don't want to get in the way of the kids or anything, but I can probably work it into my schedule," because I'm all cool and everything.  Inside, though, I was like, "HELL YASSS!"  So he gave me the score and I started practicing with one of the school's flutes. 

Back in my flute playing days I read an article in Flutist Quarterly (yes, I was a member of the National Flute Association.  I told you I was hardcore) by this guy who had left music to serve in the military for a while.  And he said things like, "It's like riding a bicycle," and "It made me a better musician," but I couldn't believe it.  And during the first week or so carving my way through the score I still didn't believe it.  I've mentioned our sad sax player who honks and toots his way through old age, driving me nuts, and as I started learning the music, I thought I must sound like that to everyone else.  Yes, I could read the music, I could play the notes...but not very well.  I guess I forgot how hard it is learning a new piece (or 20) of music.  But eventually I learned the quirks of the school's beat up student flutes (and fixed a couple of problems on them), got used to using various muscle groups again, and managed to pull off a halfway decent performance (although it would have been even better if my Yamaha had managed to get here from Canada - my mom sent it to me via the principal's Canadian residence, but it got held back in customs.  Grr.)  I also forgot how much fun it was to play in a group, and especially loved working with my fellow flutist.
If you're not familiar with the musical Kiss Me Kate, it's the story of a theater troupe performing a musical production of The Taming of the Shrew.  The leads, Fred and Lilli, are divorced but still have feelings for each other, and during the performance, those feelings start to come into play.  The music is challenging and the material required a lot of maturity and hard work from our kids, a challenge that they rose magnificently to.

One of the blogs I wrote toward the beginning of my time in Mongolia was about watching Hamlet at the State Drama Theater, and I think it's fitting that I'm writing about another production based on Shakespeare at the end of all things.  Even though Americans have a tendency to want to dumb down Shakespeare, I've always loved him, and when I figured out that the 400th anniversary of his death was a scant few days before Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham were opening the Shrew in Ulaanbaatar I felt like it was a felicitous sort of kismet that led Engrish to suggesting it.

Shakespearean-era costuming is hard to come by in Mongolia, though.  Engrish and I thought we'd sorted out our boys by borrowing a lot of good stuff from our sister school, but most of it was too small for them.  We tried a couple of costume shops, and ended up having a few things tailor made for the leads, but the biggest help was our dance teacher's connection with the State Ballet, from whom we were able to borrow some old jackets and dresses (although this time the girls had the problem - the dresses were made for ballerinas - but in the end nobody went naked).
The sets were a little easier to handle, mostly because I didn't have to do the cutting and screwing.  We have a really awesome maintenance crew at the school and they made the actual pieces...all we had to do was tell them what we wanted and then paint them.  Two of the pieces were from last year's production of Grease, and we were able to repurpose a door frame from two years back, adding an actual door.  The other pieces were made new.  There are basically two sides to Kiss Me Kate.  The play within a play is set in Padua, which I felt uniquely qualified to create, having been there just two years ago.  I tried to use warm, bright colors like you'd see in Italian architecture.  The other scenes take place backstage, and so we painted bricks on the backside of the 3 set pieces.
Most of all, though, I was proud of our kids, who worked damn hard to learn songs, dances, and lines.  Our lead actor was my very own Ukulele Man, who may have changed his hair several times since Istanbul but is still a huge pain in my ass.  Just a few weeks before opening night ("Three weeks, and it couldn't be worse!"), Engrish confided in me that Ukulele Man was stressing her out more than anything else - he still didn't know a big chunk of his lines and had a tendency to ad lib, which is apparently a big no-no with Shakespeare.  I'd watched the first act of the BBC Proms production of Kiss Me Kate to prepare myself for the set and costumes, but hadn't heard the lyrics to most of the songs before the band started to rehearse with the cast.  So it came as a huge shock the first time I heard him sing, "Where is the Life that Late I Led?" and he got to the line, "Where is Rebecca?  My Becky, Weckio?"  I may have panicked a little, thinking he was ad libbing again - it's possible that maybe I let the kids get away with calling me by my first name when we were in Turkey - before I realized it was actually part of the song.  But I assured he would come through, and he did.

It's been two weeks since we closed the show.  They've been busy weeks - we submitted our AP Art portfolios a week ago, and yearbook has taken up a lot of time, too - so my apartment is still a mess but they've gone by quickly, for me at least.  But Engrish confided that it was a little bit of a let-down: all that hard work, staying at school til 8 or later most nights, only for it to be over so suddenly.  I had to agree - I missed playing music and seeing the kids bring their characters to life, especially our lead actress, who did an amazing job as Kate the Cursed.  But in six weeks I'll be on a plane to uncharted waters.  She at least has next year's production to look forward to.

(BTW - Photography credits to B. Munkhbold - I couldn't very well take pictures and play in the pit band.)

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Grub on the Road: Table for Two

"Look up," he said...
Traveling with someone is not my normal state.  It's not that I want to be alone (although it's nice, especially when it comes time to write blogs) so much as that I generally can't be bothered coordinating travel plans with others.  I want to go where I want to go...but if one of my nearest and dearest wanted to come along for the ride, I'm generally pretty copacetic.  This trip didn't exactly go down like that...I maybe encouraged Five to go to Japan so that I would have an excuse to go back even though I just spent our October break in Kyoto, but since I still have no idea what I'm doing next year, I'm kind of okay with that.

Anyways, back to my opening shot - traveling with someone is different.  When I'm alone in vacation mode, I sometimes forget to eat all day.  Or maybe not's just that I've got so many things to do that food kind of gets de-prioritized.  On the other hand, if my raison d'etre on the road is learning new things, Five's is to eat new things. For this reason I put her in charge of restaurants.  For about five seconds - I changed my mind after she announced that we were going to try raw chicken sushi.

That saying about how you won't know if you like it until you try it?  I call bullshit.  There are some things you don't need to try to know they're not good.  Salmonella is one of them.
Fire Ramen, on the other hand...  Five was reading up on places to eat on our second day in Kyoto, and came across this place on someone's foodie blog.  The lines are supposed to be long, so we decided to go the next day for an early lunch and walked right into a special news feature from Tokyo.  They hooked us up with mics and asked us some questions - kind of awkward, but then again, it seems to happen a lot around me.  I didn't think the flavor of the broth was that different, but the fire definitely had an effect.  There were tons of green onions piled on top, and when they poured the flaming oil into your bowl, apparently the onions soak it up, and take on this sort of smoky flavor.  I am not a huge fan of green onions - normally I eat around them, and that was my plan at Fire Ramen.  But I accidentally grabbed a few with my chopsticks, and they actually tasted really nice.  I ended up eating them all.

Afterwards she went to Nishiki Market, the food street I'd showed her the night before so she could try more new things.  I ditched her to catch up with the Kawaii Kingpin - after walking along the Kamo we ended up having an early dinner at Coco Curry.  He introduced me to it back in October, and I was planning to take Five, but she said she didn't really like curry.  Then another friend told her about it, and I came back telling her how you got to choose the size of your portion - in grams of rice! - and she decided that she'd give it a try for lunch on our last day in Osaka.  And ended up loving it so much that she bought a pack to bring back to Mongolia.

The next day we went to USJ.  Theme park food is generally not worth writing about - it's overpriced and the quality doesn't generally match up with said price - but eating fish and chips in the Three Broomsticks with a cold butterbeer was worth it.  The fish was tasty, and the ambience was on point.  I should have taken a photo, but I was less snap-happy this trip.  Which is dumb because that's one of the best things about having a travel buddy - having them take ridiculous photos of you - but there ya go.

We ate a lot of strawberries.  We were there smack dab in the middle of strawberry season, and although we couldn't quite fit in a visit to an all-you-can-eat strawberry farm we made up for it buying strawberries just about every time we saw them.  My favorite strawberries were in the crepes I found at the end of Teramachi arcade - just the right amount of strawberries smothered in whipped cream.
In Osaka we stayed near Shinsaibashi, first in a ryokan that smelled like cabbage when it didn't smell like cigarette smoke, and then in the historic first capsule hotel, located in Asahi Plaza.  This meant we were right in the thick of things, and we had the chance to drool over a lot of food.  Osaka is famous for its okonomiyaki, and it's generally a good idea to try the local specialty, but I had another reason for wanting to try it.  My first anime, Ranma 1/2, had a character who made okonomiyaki.  Five didn't know that when I kept referring to it, but when she finally figured out what I was talking about - apparently okonomiyaki rolls off my tongue a little too fast and explaining it as "this pancake-ish thing" didn't tell her much - she was interested to try it.  I think it was my favorite thing I ate all week.  We were each going to have okonomiyaki, but when we saw their yakisoba, we decided we'd share, and that was delicious, too.

Speaking of anime, I actually had some success in my shopping this time.  We passed the Jump Shop on our way into USJ, and it was still open when we left that night, so I picked up a reproduction of the sketch of the final fight between Naruto and Sasuke, along with a few other things.  In Denden Town I found several nendoroids I wanted to buy, but ended up only getting Araragi from Bakemonogatari (even if he's an idiot and falls for the wrong girl, he's still my most recent favorite).  But my best find was in the Mandarake Grand Chaos, across the street from our capsule hotel.  I originally marked it on Google maps because someone wrote about their selection of cosplay goods, but I didn't get that far into the store - I realized they were closing in 15 minutes while Five was getting her pot bing soo on our last night.  They had a huge selection and I managed to find something I'd been on the look-out for the entire trip moments after walking into the store - another nendoroid.  This one is from an anime I mentioned during my previous trip - Touken Ranbu - about swords that have been turned into boys.  Mikazuki's design is particularly beautiful, and I'm considering making him for the doll contest this summer.  So it's design research.  Yeah, that's a pretty good justification.

So if you're thinking it's taken me a long freaking time to spit out this final blog, you're right.  I haven't really been neglecting the blog so much as neglecting everything in my life.  I decided to get involved in the school musical this year - originally I was supposed to be responsible for costumes and sets and things like this poster, but when our music teacher, The Voice, asked if I wanted to play flute with the pit band I realized it has been a really, really long time since I had played in a group, and that I really wanted to.  So I borrowed one of the school flutes - they're not great, but my flute was at home and is now in Canada, although for some reason the Canadian post held onto it for 10 days and as a result it didn't make it to Mongolia with my principal.  So that's taking up most of my time.  In fact, I'm actually supposed to be painting sets right now, but when I woke up from my Sunday afternoon nap, the sounds of sad sax were wafting in my open window, which I immediately shut and started blasting one of my Youtube playlists.  If hearing that in my apartment is torture, painting just upstairs from it is even worse, so I decided to order sushi and work on this post instead.

Moral of the story - if you're in Mongolia next week, you should come watch Kiss Me Kate.  As stated previously, my students are amazing and the things that Engrish and The Voice have managed to do with them make me so proud they bring tears to my eyes. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Size Does Matter

(Alternate Title: I Like Big Butts and I Cannot Lie)
For anyone out there who may be wondering, my interest in Japan goes back waaaay longer than my interest in anime.  When I was in third or fourth grade, my gifted class did a study of Japan and visited the collection at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, which served as my gateway, and later this would become my art home.  This influenced me to choose Asian Art for my non-Western history course, even though African/Oceanc/etc was usually considered to be the easier way to go..  Even now that I have been infected with otaku fever, I have a lot more reasons to want to live in Japan than just access to all the merch (although that definitely figures into my list).  Just like I'd been wanting to see a proper geisha dance since my first visit, there was another spectacle that I've been trying to catch throughout my travels to Japan, and Thursday I finally got to experience it: sumo wrestling.
Five is the kind of adventurous person who likes to try everything, so when I told her I wanted to attend a sumo tournament she was like, "Alright, cool."  Apparently I gave her the impression that it was in Osaka.  Perhaps because when I told her all I could remember was that it was close by.  Sort of.  Himeji isn't technically in the same region - it's in Hyogo, whereas the rest of our trip was spent in Kansai - but it's not that far either.  A two hour train ride isn't terrible, especially since sumo tournaments typically take place during odd-numbered months, and I seem to always be on vacation in the evens.  However, there are a few special tournaments that take place in April.  When I went to Tokyo three years ago, I missed the special tournament at the Yasukuni shrine by a few days.  I wasn't going to let it happen again.

The tournament in Himeji actually started at 8, but after a long day at USJ we were in no hurry to get anywhere that early, except possibly the McDonald's up the road in Shinsaibashi.  We managed to pull into Himeji Station around 11 and after a bite of ramen, made our way to the gymnasium - about a half hour's walk.  When we got in we were given a program, a calendar (in case we wanted to catch some wrestling later this year), and a plastic bag for our shoes.  We got some help finding our seats (Japanese-size, just like on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey) and figured we'd come in on some sort of opening ceremony.  There was a drummer playing some mad beats, and then all of the wrestlers paraded in, led by the referee, wearing these beautiful embroidered apron-like cloths called a keshomawashi (I had to look that one up, I'd never seen pictures of them before).  Some of them were carrying their babies with them, which Five thought was cute and I thought had the effect of making them seem even bigger than they already did.

Then before the actual wrestling, we got to see a wrestler have his hair done.  They all had their hair tied up in a topknot, which is part of the sumo lifestyle, it turns out.  It took at least 10 minutes (based on my file details...but it felt like it took longer).

Finally it was time for the main event.  My knowledge of sumo was almost non-existent, but I did realize there is a certain amount of ceremony to it.  Being Japanese, there is a fair amount of bowing.  Being a sport, there's some posturing thrown in as well.  Even ignorant gaijin like Five and I knew about the foot stamping part, where the wrestlers face each other in the center of the ring, lift their leg as they lean to the side, and then stomp it back down.  (Edit: Five knew about this because of Street Fighter, and was slightly offended at being grouped in with other ignorant gaijin.  See, this is the problem with sharing the spotlight!)

But apparently, as I've learned while reading up on it, there's a religious side to sumo as well.  I'd seen the salt-throwing before, and knew that it was about purification (have I ever mentioned that I've watched a lot of anime in the last three years?), but it turns out that religious tradition still has a lot to do with sumo.  The canopy overhead is even modeled after the roof of a shinto shrine.
The match doesn't actually start until both wrestlers put their hands on the ground at the same time.  In some of the matches we watched, it took longer to get to that point than the match actually lasted.  They'd come to the middle, bow, stomp, get some salt, toss it - occasionally one would do this with panache, really throw it into the air...rinse and repeat.  Most of the matches were over in a matter of seconds, after all that.  Since you win by getting your opponent out of the ring, it's sometimes just a matter of lifting them and carrying them over the line (easier said than done when your opponents are this size, but you get what I mean, right?)
I don't think Five was expecting to enjoy it as much as she did, but I think she actually got more into it than me.  The matches are so fast paced that it never got boring.  After the first one or two, we decided to bet our small change on each match.  One of us would set the wager and the other would pick the wrestler they thought would win.  I was not doing well - I'm a terrible gambler - and eventually we had to stop because I didn't have any more small change.  Instead, we refined our strategy for picking the winner.  Five based it on the color they wore, picking the color she liked better, and going for the smaller wrestler if their loincloths were the same color.  I didn't really have a strategy, merely watching the way they moved and looking at their overall muscle tone (no, that's not a joke - these guys were seriously strong).  The exception to her strategy was if one was a foreigner.  There were several - one from Georgia and another from Brazil, as well as a few that we were sure were foreign without being sure where they came from - and I pointed out that for them to be this successful in a Japanese sport, they must be really good.
At one point the matches ended - this was the lower-ranked part of the tournament, I think - and one wrestler came out with a posse of other wrestlers to have a special rope thing (called a tsuna) tied around him.  Apparently this means that he's a grand champion.  There was more pageantry with two different yokozuna posturing for the crowd (this might be a religious thing, as of the articles I read said that grand champions have a god-like status).  But eventually we decided that it was time to head out, and left the gymnasium to find out that it had started raining.
Rain or not, I was still hoping to take a look at Himeji's castle.  It's a UNESCO world heritage site, and Five hadn't been to any castles yet, although we at least walked past Nijo on our way to Fire Ramen (that post is still coming, FYI).  By the time we got to the park surrounding it, though, the legs of my pants were wet and my shoes were soggy, so since Five didn't actually care, we just looked from the outside.  At least we finally got our fill of cherry blossoms - they were just beginning to get interesting before we left Kyoto, and our last night there the Kawaii Kingpin showed me the bar street, which was gorgeous with its blooms and small creek, as long as you didn't think too hard about the vomit and urine that had been deposited in the creek the previous night.  However, I'm an artist and at least a little bit of a weeb, so a trip to Japan in the spring just wouldn't be quite right without a legit amount of sakura.  Even if we couldn't sit under the trees thanks to the rain, I felt like we'd finally found that.