Monday, November 13, 2017

Fresh off the Boat

After hitting temples and wandering the shopping streets of Matsuyama, I was ready to take my last ferry across to Hiroshima.  Usually being a resident foreigner works against you - we can't get the #-day JR rails passes, for example - but when I got to the port I was pleasantly surprised to get my ferry ticket to Hiroshima for almost half the price.  I cringed when she flipped my passport to the back where my visa was, but she gave me the foreign price anyway, and pretty soon I was sitting in comfort looking out over the open sea.  Of all the forms of transport I've used during this trip, I think the ferry was my favorite, leisurely floating over the water, up on the deck where you can feel the wind, or seated inside on a couch at a table.  This time, I worked most of the journey in my sketchbook.
I hopped my first streetcar right after getting off the boat.  This is a big thing in Hiroshima - they have all sorts of old streetcars, which they buy off other cities.  It's kind of like a moving museum.  I was glad I got on at the first stop; by the time I hopped off it was so crowded I had to body check a few people to get off, and I was right next to the door.
I scanned the area close to my AirBnB for restaurants while I was on the ferry, and found a Turkish place, at which I arrived perfectly in time for dinner.  Probably I'm a heathen for not looking for a good Japanese restaurant.  Hiroshima is famous for their okonomiyaki, and I made sure to eat some the following evening before getting on the Willer Bus back to Tokyo.  But I love Turkish food and I owe a lot to the Turkish community in Japan, since they're sort of the reason I have a job, so I ate at Karsiyaka.
After stuffing my face with iskander kebab and hummus (I stopped short of the baklava...barely...) I started walking to my AirBnB, just on the other side of the Peace Park.  I passed an Animate along the way, making a note to come back and check to see if they had any good swag.*  I was feeling giddy - I had one more day of vacation, we'd just been paid - when I came to the river and found myself facing the Atomic Bomb Dome.  I was steps away from ground zero.

The building before me reminded me of the old, crumbling churches you sometimes see in paintings, complete with a churchyard full of tombstones: the rubble from the blast serving as an additional reminder.  One of the things I love about anime is the way it offers us an alternative reality - not just an escape, but a different set of possibilities.  In Naruto - which I reference fairly often but it is just that good - the evil ninjas set out to create a weapon so bad that it will force everyone to make nice (nevermind all of the people they have to kill along the way).  Naruto - who has literally lost everything - manages to come out of his rage and talks to their leader, and convinces him that causing more pain won't bring peace, but rather will just continue a longstanding cycle of revenge and hate.  It's a pivotal moment in the series.

The real world might be a better place if anime was a religion.  Probably a creepier place, too, but although there are at least a couple of things about Japan that drive me crazy, the creep factor is actually negligible.  I feel far less skeezed out by the otaku in Akiba than by the gaijin in Roppongi...but maybe that's because they're my kind of people...

The next morning I got up and went to Miyajima - the temple group with the floating torii.  One of the things I read reminded me to be sure and check the tide table, but ain't nobody got time for 'dat - another typhoon was headed that way, so as soon as I got up I headed out.  I didn't beat the rain, but I hoped it might scare off the tourists.  It didn't, but I think it might have put a dent in them when it started raining in earnest.  Unfortunately, the day before the sole started to separate from the upper on my only pair of kicks, so my enjoyment of the shrine with fewer temples war marred by even squishier feet than at the beginning of the week.

(For the record, I am still wearing those shoes half the time.  It sucks, but they're the only Chucks I've got right now, and I'm too busy - read: distracted - to buy new ones.  I very nearly ordered the Hoozuki No Reitetsu sneakers I found on pre-order at Animate after I got back, but they won't really help me now, not to mention I can paint my own for cheaper and I'll like them much better...)
I sat on the...porch?  Dock???...of the shrine for a while under the eaves of a pavilion painting the torii and watching the tide roll in.  With it came the scent of the sea, the saltiness of things living under the water.  It gave me shelter from raindrops, but when it began to rain in earnest the flood of water creeping along the plank toward the sea pushed me off.  I got up and explored the rest of the area, watching the creepy deer and purchasing a couple more ema for my collection.  And then I went back into Hiroshima. After a week of constant motion, I was pretty much done.  I parked in Starbucks for a while to type, went after that okonomiyaki I was told I had to try (meh.  I liked Osaka's better...), and tried to stay out of the rain while waiting for the Willer Bus to take me back to Shinjuku.  I don't feel like I really did Hiroshima justice, but I think that's okay.  I think it just means I'll have to come back, and I'm totally okay with that.

*I seem to do that with every one I pass.  It's ironic, because Akiba is a straight shot up the Keihin Tohoku line, but I'm my mother's daughter after all, and I can't tell you how many times she dragged us through random Wal*Marts we passed on vacation...

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Finding Inspiration

Everybody has something for which they hold the opinion that, "If you've seen one, you've seen 'em all."  For example, the summer I moved to Korea for the first time, my parents took my younger siblings and I on a road trip to Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Now, if family road trips are challenging as kids, trust me when I say that they are even more difficult when you're adults, because everyone has an opinion and they all feel entitled to them.  My opinion was that I wanted to visit the art museum in Minneapolis.  My mom, on the other hand, had the aforementioned belief that as she'd already been to a few galleries in her day (mostly on my account) and thus, was good.

I bring this up in my Matsuyama interlude because I went to - you guessed it - more temples in Matsuyama (and - guess what?!? - there will be one more in Hiroshima.  Don't shoot me).  I had a really good reason for visiting so many temples and shrines.  Of course there was the pilgrimage and the fact that spiritual seeking is one of my things, but there was a little more to it than that this time.

I was hunting dragons.
I've mentioned my painting course in passing a couple of times, and I'm planning to eventually write about my body of work for the semester, but this is not (really) that post.  This is relevant because the subject of my second work is a kawaii pink dragon.  He has been a pain in the ass because I can't seem to get the back legs right, and to be honest, I'm not entirely happy with the front legs, but it's not exactly like I can call up my neighborhood dragon, and be like, "Yo D, my homes - come over and help me re-enact that scene from Titanic!"  So I've trawled the internet, the National Museum, and more than a few temples looking for source material.

Now, if I wasn't dragon hunting, temple hopping might get a little boring.  If, you know, I wasn't me and digging the atmosphere and taking shit tons of photos.  But because I had something to find, it made me take a closer look, really noticing what was in each shrine and temple.  So the moral of the story is that if someone you love is annoying the everloving crap out of you by dragging you to five bazillion things that - as far as you're concerned - are completely and totally indistinguishable, try and find something to look for.  Make a game out of it.

Or else you could ditch them.  I mean, either short-term or long-term - up to you.  One of my favorite things about being single is not having to pretend to be interested in other people's stuff, and this includes traveling, although I guess the argument could be made that you miss out on opportunities.  Really, the ideal travel buddies the ones that you can confidently leave to do their own thing at times - I pretty much refuse to go anywhere with someone who doesn't meet this qualification.
I was also trying to find ema - the wooden plaques you write your wishes on at temples and shrines.  In the last post I talked about the paintings I saw on some, and I've been toying with using them for my final painting project to create an installation of self-portraits about wishes.  The dragon at the front on the left was a particularly good score, since it references my current work. 
I can squeak one more dragon reference into this post, and bring up Spirited Away, Studio Ghibli's masterpiece about a girl who falls in love with a dragon in a bathhouse.  (Yes, that makes it sound sketchy...I prolly did that intentionally).  I've read in more than one place that Dogo Onsen was Miyazaki's inspiration for the bathhouse in Spirited Away, and after checking it out, I can believe it.  Dogo Onsen is one of the oldest in Japan (a country that loves their public baths), and their spring is known as kami-no-yu - the water of the gods.  Its facilities aren't as extensive as some I've been to, but you can feel the history etched into the walls as you soak away your train-induced weariness.  Considering its long, glorious history - everyone from empresses to Japanese literature's greatest writer have visited - the 410 admission seems pretty reasonable.

Speaking of Japan's greatest writer (according to some...) I coincidentally started my first Natsume Soseki book in Matsuyama - I Am a Cat, although I realize (now) it should have been Botchan if we work on the same principle that led me to re-read Kafka on the Shore this trip.  It's interesting, but so far my vote is still for Haruki Murakami.  I'm sure that will come as a surprise to nobody who both a.) has read any of his books, and b.) knows me.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

One, Two, Skip a Few...

Sorry for the gap in writing - I've been back home since Sunday, but between my painting course, work, and my newest sewing creation I haven't been able to conclude my adventures.  So picking up where we left off, Sensei gave me some advice about things to see, and one of them was her friend, Ikuko.  I was supposed to stay with her on Wednesday, but I screwed up the day (I was actually in Tokushima on Tuesday), and when I hadn't heard back from her that Tuesday would be okay I panicked and rented an AirBnb for the night instead.  And after I clicked confirm, I noticed that my phone was blinking with a message.  I felt like a complete idiot.  But we made plans to meet up anyways and have dinner together.
Something you might realize about me if you've been following this blog for any length of time is that I'm a pretty solid introvert.  I like people okay (most of th...sometimes...) but it takes me a while to warm up, especially if I'm talking to another introvert.  Ikuko, on the other hand, is an extrovert, and she was so friendly and chatty that it was really easy to talk to her and her boys.  When she picked me up at the train station she asked if I'd been to Ryozen-ji yet, and off we went to my first of the 88 temples.
One of the notable things about Shikoku is it has a special pilgrimage, the hachijuhakkusho-meguri.  Most of the temples on the route were either restored or built by a monk known as Kobo Daishi - who just happened to also create the kana syllabary (aka, the way to read Japanese without learning thousands of characters) and founded the Shingon sect, Japan's take on esoteric Buddhism.  In the old days, pilgrims would walk the route, but now most people take buses, as Ikuko said her colleague did (although, she explained, being a gaijin and one who enjoys his adult beverages, it still took him several years to actually make it to all 88). 

When I originally read about the Shikoku pilgrimage, I thought, "That would be pretty cool.  I could do it on a bike!"  Maybe if I hadn't actually got a job this year I could have done it...but probably not.  I think my days for that kind of adventure are long gone.  But when she suggested we check out the first two - because Gokuraku-ji is very close to Ryozen-ji - I was happy that I'd at least get to start the route.

It was late, so we were the only visitors at the temples, and they were a little spooky, but also really beautiful.  It seems like all the important temples in Japan are big and intimidating, but there was something about these quiet temples that was really approachable (of course, I might change my tune in the daylight if they were crowded with pilgrims...who knows).  But exploring the temple grounds with Ikuko and her boys was really nice (bonus - when you're with little kids, you don't feel silly ringing the bell).

As Ikuko was driving me to Tokushima station later after dinner, she invited me to come back again to visit.  I said I had to - I still had 86 temples left to visit!  We laughed over the fact that I'd still probably get them finished sooner than her co-worker, and I said, "Oh, I think there are a few in Matsuyama - I might get another one or two in."  And as it turned out, I did, although not in Matsuyama.  After confirming that no, I would not be able to visit Nagoro on this trip (aka, another reason I have to come back to Shikoku), I took the next local train I could out.
Now, on a map, Matsuyama looks like a straight shot west from Miyoshi, but on the train you have to go up to the coast and then head south west.  One of the issues I think Google maps was having directing me was the fact that most of the trains along the route don't go the whole route...unless you're on a limited express.  Being determined that I was NOT going to do the limited express thing, I bought my first ticket as far as Tadotsu, and from there, got a train bound for Kan'onji.  After I got on the second train, I started wondering if there was anything to do in Kan'onji - the name sounded like a temple, after all, and in fact Kan'on-ji turned out to be the 69th temple, so I decided that would be an excellent pit stop on my very long train trek.  FYI - while I'd prefer to have my internet sorted out and have a real internet connection at home, the pocket router has proven to be pretty damn useful - I can't tell you how great it was to not have to go looking for a 7-Eleven or McDonald's to poach wifi.
One of the things I came to really appreciate in Shikoku is that it seemed like every station had lockers.  I dumped my bag in one of them after making change in the adjacent coke machine, which poured fountain cup into a cup of pebble ice.  (This is my new favorite thing, and I've been on the lookout since coming back for this kind of vending machine - while normally this coke connoisseur prefers cans, that is merely because five years in Mongolia have conditioned me to not expect fountain coke).  Having done this, I set off in the direction of temples 68 and 69.  67 and 70 were close by as well, but Google maps wouldn't tell me where, and I decided not to be a glutton for punishment.
Along the way, I noticed a theme.  There were posters and banners that featured that old-fashioned kind of golden coin with the square hole in the middle.  Relying again on my pocket router, I looked up Kotohiki Koen, which seemed to be what the fuss was about.  I was both shocked and delighted by what I discovered - there was a gigantic sand sculpture of a coin just on the other side of the hill from Jinne-in and Kan'on-ji.  After visiting the temples, I hiked up the hill to take a look.
The Sand Dollar (get it?) was supposedly first constructed in 1633 to honor Daimyo Ikoma Takatoshi, who was visiting.  According to the placard at the top of the hill, it was made in only one night, and twice a year volunteers help spruce it up, since even giant sand sculptures are no match for the wind and rain.  It is said that anyone who looks at it will live a long, healthy life without money troubles, so hey - bonus!

Rather than going back the way I'd come, I decided to follow the path onward, assuming it would end up at the torii I'd passed on the way to Kan'on-ji.  The gate apparently marked the entrance to Kotohikihachimangu, a Shinto shrine.  I've done a little research about Japanese spiritual life as part of my process journal for my painting course, and I found it interesting that Shinto and Buddhism - two very different religions - have managed to coexist peacefully in Japan all this time.  When I stop and think about the fact that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are essentially THE SAME F*@($NG RELIGION and yet we STILL haven't figured out how to get along, it makes me never want to leave Japan.

This shrine seemed almost abandoned - there was a guy up there doing calisthenics, but otherwise, there was no other sound, as I checked out the emas - votive tablets you write your wishes on.  I was checking out some of the really beautiful paintings that had been done on them when I became aware of a knocking sound.  I followed it to the back of the temple grounds, and found myself in front of a small building, where it stopped.  Part of me was tempted to poke around and find out what it was...the other part of me is whimsical enough to halfway believe that's a good way to fall into a well and end up back in the Sengoku Jidai...*
When I looked up Kan'onji at first, I also looked up the next seemingly major stop along the Yosan Line, Imabari.  It also hosts a couple of the 88 temples, and I thought it would be another good opportunity to stretch my legs.  However, when I got back to the station, the next local train went all the way to Matsuyama - I had just enough time to grab my bag and another of those fountain cokes before jumping on the train, and once I was settled, there was no way I was getting off.  It trundled along the tracks, through tunnels, past villages and rice paddies, and I decided it was just as well that I was going to have to come back to visit Nagoro - I really loved the leisurely pace of taking the train around Shikoku.  Although I may wait until I've left Japan and come back as a tourist so that I can do it with a JR pass instead of paying at each station...

*This is how a manga/anime called Inuyasha starts.  It's one of my favorites, but involves more bug-type monsters than I'd like to deal with in real life, and is set in the very dangerous Warring States Period, so if I was going to get sucked into an alternate reality based on an anime I've watched, I wouldn't choose that one. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Taking Advice

When it comes to traveling, I have some pretty clear ideas about what I want to do.  That said, when I decided to come to Shikoku and see Nagoro...

...which didn't happen, btw.  Plans to visit the #1 thing I really wanted to see on my vacation - the creepy "scarecrow" village where an artist decided to replace all the people who died or left with lifesize dolls - got wrecked by a bloody landslide.  Which sucks the big one, but what can you do?

As I was saying, when I decided to come here my teacher friend, Sensei (that's a new nickname, for those of you keeping track), told me that she was actually from Shikoku.  I told her what I was planning and asked if she had any advice.  She put me in touch with her friend in Tokushima and suggested that instead of making Awa Ikeda my base camp for getting to Nagoro that I stay in Oboke.

Tokushima wasn't originally on my itinerary.  Honestly Shikoku seemed pretty expensive to get around as I was pre-navigating on Google Maps, and it turns out, it is.  Any express train costs twice as much to ride, and the route to get to Matsuyama, where I'd hop back over to Honshu, was already long enough.  But I really loved the idea of getting a little extra sightseeing done and meeting her friend, which is just as well since I didn't actually make it to Nagoro.  Takamatsu, on the other hand, was, but I didn't do much of anything there, except get up WAY too early and get the bus.  I just didn't feel like it.  Tokushima, though - I arrived around 8 in the morning but wasn't meeting Ikuko until 5, so I was going to need something to do.
So I get into town around 8.  It's a ghost town...in Tokyo, even though things aren't open, there's a sense of life.  Not so much in Tokushima.  After chucking my bag in a locker and deciding Lotteria's breakfast was not a suitable replacement for McDonald's, I decided to do a little wandering.  The only other person who was out on the streets was the guy banging on the window of the pachinko parlor 10 minutes before it opened (like, really?  You couldn't wait politely a little longer to get your fix?)  I've been traveling with my pocket router, so I looked at my options and decided to start with the Awa Odori Kaikan, for the simple reason that it opened first. 
I've seen the Awa Odori before, back in August in Koenji, so it made sense to me to check out the museum and learn a little more.  After wandering around the nearby shrines and temples, I went on in.  Unfortunately, almost all of the signage was in Japanese, so mostly I just looked at the pictures, of which they had an impressive array.   If I was interested in being a museum curator, I'd want to learn from the Japanese, because they've made it into an art.  Although the museum was small, it was very well presented and even without being able to read the labels I started to get an understanding of the history of the dance.
At 11 they had a performance which demonstrated some of the history of the dance, and included an audience participation bit.  They chose four audience members as the "star dancers" and - big surprise - guess who was one of them (hence the flowers).  Perks (?) of being the token foreigner in the audience, I guess.  It was a little embarrassing, but I got a headband out of it as a prize, and if I was Five, I'd subtract that from the cost of the ticket and call it good.

Sensei sent me a link for the Awa Jurobe puppet museum (let your friends know that you went to a doll memorial and are planning to visit a scarecrow village and they start to draw some conclusions), which has performances at 11 and 2 - but in the end, it didn't happen.  Google maps failed me again, not being able to tell me how to get there, so I went back to the train station and asked at the information center.  They gave me instructions on how to get there by bus, but when I figured out that I wouldn't be able to do both that AND the Naruto whirlpools, I knew what I was going to decide.

For the record, I didn't make this decision under the influence of my otaku tendencies.  Not entirely, at any rate...although it IS pretty cool to be able to say I passed under the real Great Naruto Bridge.  More importantly, my current work for my painting class deals with water, and I thought it would be excellent research to this phenomenon in real life.  Naruto is the closest point on Shikoku to Honshu, and when the tides of the Inland Sea and the Pacific Ocean are changing, they create some pretty kickass whirlpools.  It's safe to take a boat and take an up close look at them, so that's what I did.  I regret nothing.

Actually, I should have gone up on the bridge afterwards, but I was kind of tired.  I'd had enough Naruto for one day.

I considered staying in Tokushima a little later the next day so that I could see the puppets, but I decided to head onward early again.  Sensei had suggested the Iya Valley to me for several reasons, but it's vine bridges looked pretty damn amazing, so I wanted to make sure I saw at least the first one, Kazurabashi.  I got my first hint that my plans were not going to work out when I tried to get the bus to Oboke, and the lady at the bus depot told me, "No."  The train was running though, so I grabbed a ticket and hopped on (and then had to pay more because it was one of those damn limited express trains), and made it to Oboke with almost no problems.  Where I found out - once again - that the buses weren't running.  I looked at some of the tourist stuff they had in the station, and then got pulled into a conversation between two older Japanese ladies and one younger one, wanting to know where I was going and if I wanted to share a taxi there and back?

Well, of course I did!  My share was 1,000 yen each way, and maybe I had a little buyer's remorse because I was still thinking I'd make it to Nagoro the next day, but it was honestly worth it.
I don't know if I can really do the bridge justice - I mean, if you are an adrenaline junkie, this is the bridge for you.  In the first photo, that's my foot (if you can't tell by my trademark 5 yen Converse shoes.  I have been blessed with feet that are both long and wide and I still got nervous that my feet were going to plunge between the slats.  That was what got me - I knew the bridge had been reinforced with steel cables, and it wasn't going to break, but those gaps...  About halfway across someone seemed to be shaking the bridge.  Maybe it was just a physics thing, where that's the least stable part of the bridge and you feel every footstep...I'm not sure, but it felt, at least, like someone was trying for the dickhead of the year award.  I was too busy watching my feet to try and figure out who, which I guess is a good thing, because I probably would've pitched their asses off the bridge.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Right as Rain

If you were to lay this year's fall break out side by side with last year's, you'd probably notice I'm a lot less busy.  I think living in Japan makes it a lot less pressing to SEE ALL THE THINGS - a year ago, as much as I was hoping to be here now, I had no guarantee.  I also think there's a bit of holdout from years of living in Mongolia - to an extent, the journey is the destination, otherwise you might feel a little cheated after driving for hours or even days just to see one thing, like a lake full of swans.  As I rolled down the track yesterday morning, taking the local train because the price doubles for the rapid express and I've got more time than money this year, I was alternately lost in Kafka on the Shore, jotting down notes because I wasn't sure when my laptop would cooperate, and enjoying the scenery of a clear morning as we passed country towns.  It was a nice change of pace.

Sunday, as I mentioned yesterday, was squishy and wet.  After the art exhibition, I put off walking in the rain as long as I could.  I visited Okayama's Animate, which required me to go through three floors of Don Quixote.  Usually I'm ready to run screaming five steps into the door - it's a kind of discount crap shop, and can be kind of overwhelming - but this time I actually spent a little time checking it out (if you're wondering about that section behind the curtain, it's exactly what you thought it was).  I stopped for lunch because I stumbled across Coco Curry, and then finally had to face facts: the rain was not going to stop.  I was going to have to suck it up and get wet.
I took the tram east from the station a few stops, and followed the stairs into an underground arcade that seemed like it could have been lifted from a Murakami novel.  I followed the signs for Okayama castle back upstairs and then uphill.  The last time I visited a castle it was raining too, albeit harder.  Then Five and I were more interested in getting back to Osaka and drying off than going inside.  This time I probably would have sprung for the admission fee just to dry out a little, but if it was open I didn't find the entrance.  There's a nice garden close by that is apparently one of the top gardens in Japan, but it's kind of hard to enjoy the beauty of nature when you feel like a drowned rat, so I headed back to the station.
Remember how I started this post by talking about how I am less "busy" during this vacation?  Well, it is true, but that doesn't mean I want to waste it.  After the castle, my shoes were already soaked and I couldn't check into the guesthouse until after 4 regardless, so I decided, what the hell, let's visit a shrine!  There was probably a reason why I singled out Kibitsu-jinja as the one to visit, but at the moment, I have no idea what it was.  One thing it had in its favor, when I arrived, was that it has a very nice, covered approach to the main shrine, which made it a very nice place to hang out and try to take aesthetically pleasing images.  Of course, that doesn't quite balance the fact that it's a bit of a hike to get to the shrine from the train station, especially when you realize you have to walk all the way BACK when you finally do leave, but, you know, ya gotta keep looking for those rainbows...
I grabbed a bite to eat when I got back to the station to take my bag out of the locker (moving hotels every day is a pain in the ass, but at least Japan has lots of coin lockers...or we do until the Great Orange Monstrosity comes to town on his first presidential visit 😑), and finally headed to the Igusa Guesthouse for the night.  By the time I stepped out of the small nearby train station is was dark, and the rain was really coming down.  Before it was just playing, but when I got to Hayashima it was like, "Oh yeahhhh...we're supposed to be having a typhoon, right?"  I followed Google maps and turned down the road it was on, stepping into one big, huge fucking puddle.   In the dark, it's a little tricky to see how deep they are, and this finally made me decide to drag out my flashlight.  I thought maybe I should step off the road onto the sidewalk as I was digging through my bag, but there were no cars around and I thought the puddles might be even worse there.  This turned out to be one of my better decisions...the "sidewalk" was actually a canal.

So, boys and girls, the moral of the story is, when it's raining, find a nice covered shopping street to while away the hours, and go to your hostel early.  The End.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Art of the Matter

I approached my first holiday in Japan like a kid in a candy shop.  There were so many places I wanted to see that I wasn't entirely sure where to start - in fact, I have a board on pinterest where - since accepting this job - I migrated all my pins of places to see in Japan entitled (oh, so wittily), "I'm moving to Japan, Bitches!"  I finally decided, however, to come south...I'm sure you'll figure out all the reasons over the next week.  I began with a ticket on the night bus to Okayama.  I briefly considered stopping in Kyoto so I could see the Kurama Fire Festival (which I missed last fall), but luckily I decided against it, since I'm not sure anyone would've been able to get the torches lit this year, given the typhoon.  It made for a pretty wet start to the week.

Instead I alighted the night bus from Shinjuku outside Okayama station in the pouring rain.  On my list of things to do in Okayama were temples and a castle...not exactly the best wet weather travel plans.  As I walked into the station, though, I noticed posters for "Japan-Eshi-World," which turned out to be an exhibition of artworks (pretty much exclusively of kawaii girls) in the anime style.  AKA, a GREAT rainy day activity.  I stopped in the Momotaro Visitor's Center - he is all over Okayama, the legend apparently comes from there - to make sure it was what I thought it was (last day, opened at 10, 800 yen admission, then headed back through the station to where I got off the bus to check it out when it opened at 10.
While I was appreciating the art, I realized some things about most of the pieces.  First, that they were jaw-droppingly gorgeous.  And secondly, that was about all.  The composition was, by and large, the same for all of them - pretty girl placed in the middle with sparkly background.  Some of them had a bit more to go on, but if art in general is all about communication, then anime particularly tells a story, even when we're only getting a glimpse of what that story is.  Most of these didn't have a story, even when the girls strongly suggested a character.

Although I don't mind the aesthetic appreciation of the human form even when it tends towards ecchi (it would be nice if more of it was targeted at female audiences, because there is definitely a market for it), I feel like art left behind the idea of just painting beautiful women (clothed or not) 150 years ago.  I wanted to see something challenging - something that made you question that beauty, or see something beneath it.  But by and large, it was lacking.

The second thing I found disappointing was that most of the artworks were digital.  Possibly the artists used a pencil at some point, maybe to get started, but there's no guarantee of that, even.  It's great - sorta - that we can do so much cool shit with graphics software, but I feel like you lose a part of the artist's soul when they never actually touch the paper.  At the end of the 100 commissioned artists was a small showing of - I believe - student artists, and although they weren't as polished as the pros, I felt like there was a lot more interesting stuff happening in these smaller works of art.
Although the Japan - Eshi - World exhibition was not originally on my itinerary for the week, art has become one of my major points of interest in any trip.  There's an island in the Inland Sea (three, actually - hell, the contagion has even spread to Uno's port, where this guy and another fish made of washed up plastic have crawled up on land - but I believe it all started with Naoshima) that has been taken over by art.  I was a bit pissed off at myself when I was looking over a booklet about all the attractions in the area Sunday night and realized that the museums on Naoshima were actually closed the following day.  Apparently I've been away from the States so long that I no longer equate Monday with museums closing.  Ooops.
I went anyways because some of the best art on the island isn't in the museums.  There are two pieces by Kusama Yayoi out in the open air, and that was what I was coming for the most (although doing legwork for a possible field trip to the next Setouchi Triennale works out as a nice bonus).  Kusama has a newly opened museum in Tokyo, but the wait for tickets is two months long, so here I was, seizing the day.
Naoshima has two of her pumpkins, one that you can walk into.  Since it's right next to the port, you literally can't miss it (unless you're blind).  The dots have showed up in other places as well - right above the waterline on the ferry, all over the bus that for 100 yen takes you to the other side of the island, and (of course) on plenty of souvenir swag you can take home with you.  The pumpkins are pretty neat, and since my favorite of her pieces aren't the outdoor sorts of installations, I suppose they'll do.  Several of my classmates in my painting course have talked about her, so it was interesting to walk inside one of her works.

I had a look around at the other sculptures in the park around the Benesse Museum, but that orange pumpkin on a pier out over the water is a hard act to follow.  I'd just started re-reading Kafka on the Shore - it takes place in Takamatsu, where I was staying that night, so it seemed fitting.  The further I get into it, the more that feeling intensifies - even though I'm not intentionally trying to follow Kafka around the island, there's an inescapable sense of place in Murakami's writing.  When I came across this sculpture, I had to laugh, thinking about Nakata and his conversations with the pivotal cats in the first part of the book.

I'm staying tonight near Awa Ikeda station, and so far things have gone pretty damn well.  No problems getting where I needed to be, or things going wrong.  The most vexing thing I've had to deal with is the fact that my trusty* ASUS transformer netbook is crapping out on me, causing me to have to finish this post today and not Monday night like I'd intended (I had caramel TimTams all ready for the blogging party...they're long gone, btw).  It's a big change from Mongolia, where getting anywhere - particularly somewhere remote - usually involved hiring someone to drive you.  Since the remotest part of my journey happens tomorrow, we'll see if it actually comes down to that.

*By "trusty" I mean - of course - that I can trust it to be a pain in my ass.  It's had issues almost since I first got it, including a dodgy battery, not staying on, running through the battery too quickly, and in Amsterdam I dropped the tablet part so the screen is cracked and no longer responds to touch.  Right now the keyboard port is the issue...I've ordered a replacement to try and prolong the need to replace it, but we'll see if it works.  Otherwise I may not be blogging much til Christmas...

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Otaku Report, Vol. 1

As you already know, among all the things I was looking forward to about living in Japan, one of the highest on my list was access to that good otaku life.  In other parts of the world, you have to wait around for the local anime convention (ie, AnimeIowa) or else instigate your own (for example, the nerd nights I planned at ASU with my favorite weebs.  Here in Japan, there needs be no special occasion - it's happening all around you.  You could, just for example, be sitting at the Shinjuku Express Bus Terminal and see a tall person of indeterminate gender walk past wearing high-heeled, studded boots and a kick ass outfit with those Sailor Moon-style twin buns in their hair (which may, in fact, have just happened.  Cosplay in Yoyogi Park is a regularly occurring thing, and if you find yourself walking on the streets (literally - they close it to traffic) of Akihabara on a Sunday, who knows what you will come across...last time it was some sort of gaming thing, which - not really being a gamer - I knew nothing about but still found interesting.

Before I got here I learned about Sora News through a friend who'd been living up in Sendai.  It often lures me in with a story, and on the side I'll see something exciting that I want to check out, only to find out that it's long since passed.  The good news is that most of the new stuff I've caught, and it's been fun.

For starters, I got to see Mikazuki Munechika in the...well, steel.  I mentioned the anime about boys turned into swords at least once before, and while Touken Ranbu isn't my favorite - it just seems like such a waste of cute boys to not have any hint of romance - but I have a healthy appreciation for both swords and cute boys, so, you know, it works.  Mikazuki Munechika is one of the five great swords of Japan, and considered to be the most beautiful because of a crescent pattern in the steel thanks to the way it was forged.  He's owned by the Tokyo National Museum, and they had him out on display this summer, so one weekend I went up to Ueno Park to check him out.  I got there a little after the museum opened, and went straight for the sword room - apparently all the fujoshis have been lined up taking shit tons of pictures, and I hate lines, but there were just a few women ahead of me when I got there, so all was well.  I couldn't really see the crescent pattern - it's supposed to be subtle enough that it really doesn't come out in photographs - but it was a pretty cool sword.  Not sure that it was any more beautiful than any of the other swords in the room, but maybe I'm not very discerning.

Along with that, I found out that there was a Touken Ranbu musical coming up in November.  Flower Boy posted that he'd purchased tickets for the Sailor Moon musical right before I came to Japan, and I had all sorts of feelings about that.  First jealousy, because I love musicals and plays and all of that.  Second, I was a little miffed because it was Sailor Moon, and although I watched about 10 episodes - it's a shoujo classic - I couldn't really get into it.  Maybe I'm too old.  At any rate, I wasn't going to shell out for Usagi-chan.  And finally, I was a little wary, because if live action movies are bad, would a musical be worse?  When I found out that there was a Touken Ranbu musical, I decided I'd find out for myself.  I diligently marked the day that tickets went on sale and went online to buy my tickets at the appointed hour.

And then my bank decided this was a great time to decide it was suspicious that I was ordering tickets in Japan, and blocked the purchase.  By the time I had called them and set them straight, tickets were all sold out.  Again the mix of emotions...I was PISSED that they chose that time to block my card.  On the other hand, while I was scrolling through the ticket order pages I found out that there was also an Ao No Exorcist stage show, and if Touken Ranbu is specially formulated to appeal to women who like beautiful men who aren't interested in women, Ao No Exorcist is not.  It is pretty much straight up shounen...and it wasn't sold out.

So last night saw me hoofing it after work up to Roppongi, where the theater was located (this also worked out well - the musical was at the Tokyo Dome, and I would've hated to try to make it up there and back after a long day of work.  It wasn't exactly a walk in the park, though, because I'd realized when I was looking at the email during school that you're not supposed to use the English, foreigner's site if you're living in Japan - there was something in the email about having to bring your passport, so I wasn't super happy to have to run home for it.  Fortunately they didn't look through it to see whether or not I was here on a visa - the picture page was enough bonafides for them (phew!)  I got my ticket, went past whatever swag they were selling - DVD's, postcards of the cast, t-shirts, whatever - and found my seat.  And then looked around.  With the exception of the stinky foreign guy on my right, it seemed like the entire audience was female.  Like, you'd have to go to a women-only screening of Wonder Woman to find an audience with that ratio of ladies to men.  It was a little crazy.
The show was interesting.  It didn't seem to have any overlap with the first or second season of the anime, and I haven't read the manga so I'm not sure if the story was canon, but whatever.  Kamiki gets kidnapped, Shima is up to something twisted - I wasn't entirely sure why, because it was in Japanese.  Now, of course it was in Japanese, but for some reason this came as a bit of a shock to me.  No supertitles.  No helpful notes in the program.  But if you can follow an opera in a foreign language, a movie or a play aren't that much more of a challenge.  And the best parts - the action, and a lot of the comedy - you didn't need to understand the language for.  And I think that's what made this a success as a play - there's a lot of room to play with special effects when your main character is the son of Satan and he wields blue flames.  The actual staging of it was impressive, too - I couldn't believe what they were able to do with a projector, several stair pieces, and two platform things.  It kind of made me wish I was working on a musical this year.

A couple of weeks before, I was shopping at my favorite place, the Daiso store (have I mentioned this before?  I need to start a weekly, "Things I bought at Daiso," post).  And the muzak playing over the speakers, I suddenly realized, was familiar.  In fact, I heard it again last night at the play - the second opening song for Ao No Exorcist.  I hope there's a special hell for people who use good music like that for nefarious purposes.  Cause it sucked.

My final report comes from a gallery stationed at the aforementioned Tokyo Dome.  In fact, I teased the poster for this exhibition back when I was writing about rabbits...in a little more than a month the live action production of Fullmetal Alchemist is being released here, and Japan is great at promoting.  They have nendoroids coming out (Ed, Al, and Colonel Mustang), a new chapter of the manga is rumored to be a freebie when you watch the movie, and they had a big art exhibition featuring covers, pages, and at least a couple of interactive displays. 

It was legit.  I haven't really written about just how damn well Japan uses light and sound in art, but they've got it down.  My favorite was a room painted to look like Ed and Al's house, which had the alchemy circles projected onto the floor and Ed and Al's voices recorded - it really brought you into the moment. 
Much more creepy was the projection - hiding around a corner, so it catches you off guard - of Selim Bradley peeking out of blinking, watching shadows.  Unfortunately for most of the exhibition you weren't allowed to take photos, because I wanted to TAKE ALL THE PHOTOS.  I feel like there should be some sort of exception made for art teachers when it comes to that rule, because we are educating the world's future artists and we need to be able to show them examples of what we are talking about. 

Instead I bought the book - which I would have done anyway if any museum type people are reading this - which had all the gorgeous color paintings in it.  It was well-worth the 1500 yen admission price, and even worth the hour I stood in line waiting to get in, although I would have enjoyed it more if there hadn't been quite so many people.  FMA is one of those stories that kicks you in the teeth every time because it is just SO good.  I read the manga back in the fall of 2014, went back and watched the anime in the summer of 2016, and walking through the art of it made me want to do it all over again...I'll probably even break down and watch the live action movie, because even if that is the one thing about animation that America does better than Japan, it comes with a free, new chapter, so even if it sucks it's not a total loss.  Even if the movie isn't great, the characters - particularly the women - are top notch.  When the nieces get a little older I'm definitely showing them Fullmetal Alchemist, because whether they want to be mechanics, generals, snipers, or just housewives, there's a badass role model in there for them.  If you're in Tokyo and you want to check it out, you've got one more week to do it - aim for morning or late afternoon, the line was lethal when I got there at one.

So that concludes the first volume of the Otaku Report.  I meant to finish last night but after a long ride down to Okayama on the Willer Bus and a full day of slogging through the typhoon, when I got to my hostel I kind of passed out.  Which is a shame, because it has a gorgeous Japanese garden, and I'm currently wrapping this up sitting at my first kotatsu (a little because it's chilly, but mostly because I'm trying to dry out my hoodie some - I'd do the same with my shoes but I don't want to stink up the place).  There are castles, temples, creepy doll villages, and - of course - art in the near future as I head into Shikoku and eventually to Hiroshima over the next week.