Monday, May 30, 2011

Break for Culture

Readers may not be aware that I'm taking an ikebana class along with my more 'serious' academic subjects. Here's an effort at a 'standing style' arrangement I made Tuesday.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


I'm winding up a heck of a busy weekend over here-- the best kind. As of Friday,  the last step in my 'official' move to Japan completed with the issuing of my gaikokujin tōroku shōmeisho, which will serve me as a legal ID, residence registration, and, judging by the ominously immense number of variously sized holographic renditions of the Ministry of Justice's official logo that cover the entire face of the document, my official reminder to be on my best behavior. Heavy (though I hear rarely enforced) penalties compel me to carry the card on my person at all times, subject to immediate inspection at the pleasure of the authorities- there to be cross-referenced with the two fingerprints and headshot that the MOJ already has from my entry into this fair land, I presume.  I hear rumors that the UN High Commission on Human Rights looks somewhat askance at the practice, which savors somewhat sourly of xenophobia. Mostly I'm just irritated that I have to turn the thing back in when I check out-- it's got more flashy junk on it than a rare Pokemon card. 

So it was that I woke up this morning, and, as my first act as a registered alien, set off to (what else?) get a peek at the traditional ways of local bear hunters.  

Artist's impression pictured.

Though their fame has been somewhat eclipsed by the beauties, rice, and traumatic celebratory traditions produced by their strictly agricultural neighbors, communities of hunters known as Matagi have existed for centuries in Tohoku, trapping marten, fox, and rabbits, and hunting for larger game among the mountains, taking serow, boar, and, most famously, bear. Their descendants are still permitted to hunt in the mountains, and AIU's local outreach club had organized a trip to go and meet a few. 

We got up early this morning, bound by bus to the village of Nekko, a speck on the map accessible only by roads of rickshaw-ready width and hilariously terrifying steepness-- like some fantasy-novel hideaway for elves, the town was in fact surrounded on all four sides by steep mountains, and was, I later learned from our guides, in fact locally reputed to have been a hiding place of the similarly legendary Minamoto Yoshitsune. Several times the bus was forced to stop in order for the driver to make the go/no go call on a low-clearance bridge or unusually tight turn. The final hurdle was the tunnel into Nekko itself, a narrow quarter-mile bore that the bus barely fit, despite entirely taking up both lanes. Supposedly the local elementary-schoolers hike through it every day-- if the story's true, the route really is uphill both ways!

Every bit as tight a squeeze as it looks (12ft 3in h, not very wide). Stand by for the Youtube video.

The village of Nekko.
End of the line.

We walked to a large whitewashed home on a rise near the edge of town, where we were met by our guides-- three gregarious fellows in their late 60's, dressed for a day outside. As we were being ushered into the front room of the house, I realized several things in quick succession: 

1. This was really cool

2. Two of the guys were named Sato, one was a retired school-teacher, the other had been hunting bears for years and kept at it now

3. At least 75% of every utterance made by our hosts was totally incomprehensible to me

In fairness, it looked like I wasn't the only one struggling to understand, judging by the expressions on the faces of my Japanese group-mates. The Satos and Guy 3, whose name I hadn't even caught, were all speaking to us, not in the schooled, officially-sanctioned Japanese of college and the TV news, but in Akita-ben, a dialect so distinct from Standard Japanese as to push very close to the ragged edge of 'new language'. To a Japanese speaker the dialect apparently makes you sound like a muddled hayseed. To this Japanese learner it's like being hit on the head so hard that you can't see straight and then being asked to speak Korean. 

Our hosts ushered us into the front room, and launched into an animated lecture on the matagi lifestyle and history. I'll abbreviate what I caught:  

Very few matagi hunt at all anymore. Like most traditional professions, the younger generation doesn't see any future in the business, and by and large, have decided to make their living in other, less potentially dangerous lines of work.  Our hosts kept at it, although they no longer used the traditional methods to find and kill the bears. The bears too, have changed-- we were told that contact with humans had made the Asian black bears in the region meaner and more carnivorous than the old days. Their fur had changed color, Sato-san claimed. Now their hides were bluer than before and their bodies larger.

We were shown a variety of tools, plants, and implements of the old ways:

This tree is called kuroji. If what I heard is correct, the wood makes snowshoes and the leaves make tea.

Dried mochi of uncertain flavor, traditionally eaten while in the woods. The color does not match the taste.

A geography lesson. Nekko and the nearby village of Ani are in the area of the right-most dot.

Straw rain-hat

Bear-pelt gloves

Sato-san's personal nagasa, or knife. One must remember always to pray in thanks before making the first cut on your quarry.
The matagi hunted bear for their meat (<Most delicious are the bears of October and November>), their pelts, and for their gallbladders, said to cure any number of diseases. In more innocent days, bear meat was eaten raw as sashimi-- a faintly terrifying fact!

Bear gallbladder.  Worth $1000 on the open market. Cures what ails ya.
The lecture completed, we headed out to a nearby shrine to briefly pray before setting out:

An offering to the goddess of the mountain. Some say she is hideously ugly, and for this reason women may not hunt-- the goddess will become jealous and bring them bad luck for having the temerity to look better than her.
Matters cleared with the kami, we headed up into the hills outside of town to make kiritanpo and kiritanpo-nabe, local specialties said to originate with matagi.

Not exactly the traditional method for firestarting.

Kiritampo-- mashed rice spread on sticks, grilled over charcoal.

Best eaten topped liberally with a miso-shouyu blend. Pairs well with beer.
I chatted (to the extent possible) at lunch with one of the Satos-- he'd been an elementary school teacher in the area, and had once visited America as part of a government-run enrichment program. He'd spent two weeks in the Boston area. What stuck with him, he said, was how large the country was. <You looked down in the airplane, and it just went on and on!>
One of the best soups I've ever eaten-- kiritanpo-nabe, a chicken soup flavored with cress, maitake, green onions, and nira,  ('garlic chives').
After lunch, our hosts crashed off into the bushes to demonstrate how matagi would hunt in groups. In the days of matchlocks, spears, and bows, hunters worked in groups. Half would hide at the high ends of ravines and wait for bears to be driven towards them by the rest of the group. The rough terrain would lead the bears to the shooters. The lead man in this operation had to be the best shot and also the best at camouflage-- we were told that while waiting for the bears to come, one had be still <like a tree>, no easy task in winter. To demonstrate, Sato walked off a ways and pretended to drive a bear towards us, whooping and growling as he came.

We parted ways after the demo, stopping in the next town to see a small and somewhat cheesy museum of matagi artifacts, attached as a kind of bonus attraction to a hot-spring resort. It was not a model of good museum design-- the tags were mostly each object's name in dialect, with cryptic definitions in Standard Japanese that evaded my abilities to translate.
Various tools of the trade at the Matagi Museum in Ani.

Snowshoes on the left and... I have no idea on the right. The words are in dialect, and the translations weren't too clear in Standard Japanese.

Various tools of the trade. The oar like sticks are for support in snow.

All in all, a good long day in a good long weekend. All that remains is to do my homework!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

That Makes It Official

To nobody's surprise, least of all the friends with whom I was chancing damnation by eating chocolates and sipping soju at the time (a much better combination than it sounds), the End of Days went into extra innings Saturday,  although I was instructed by my buddies (staunch agnostics all) to be sure and Facebook them if I were suddenly to be rapt up on high.

<Take good pictures, David! We're counting on you!>

<Yeah, sure, I'll give it a shot. I doubt they give you Internet down there, though...>

All of which is to say that not much else has happened this week beyond what you'd expect-- schoolwork, non-blog-worthy conversations, capricious weather.  On the other hand, my long-extended move-in process has hit another significant milestone. I've been issued a hanko-- a signature stamp with which I can, among other things, sign for packages and enter certain minor contracts.

Finally, I have a legible signature.
Technically, this is a daily-use mitome-in, a fake-ivory cylinder around the size of my ring finger, knurled on one side to indicate which side should face upwards when 'signing'. Cheap ones are available for a variety of the more common Japanese names at stationery stores nationwide, like a legally-binding version of the chintzy holographic keychains one sees ranked from "AMBER" to "ZACH" in your favorite local beach-blanket-beer-and-flip-flop emporium. Facing an influx of foreigners with weirdly-spelt names, however, AIU opted to purchase all incoming exchange students custom seals, which presented me with as close an opportunity as I'll ever get to set up a bona-fide Secret Identity--or more properly, a Secret Alternate Surname Spelling.

Blessed with an overabundance of writing systems, Japan has chosen one, the hard edged katakana, to spell onomatopoeia (but don't forget the ones for soundless concepts!), and most foreign loan-words, including the tongue-twisting names of people like me. My own name in this system is transliterated thusly, done not a little bit of phonological violence by Japanese's restricted inventory of sounds (no z, for example) and rigid moraic structure.

Or Ranjiini Debido if you please.
Each glyph here represents one syllabic sound unit or mora, yielding RA-N-JI-I-NI DE-BI-DO when read. The result is certainly workable (I continue to sign my name like this every day), but inconveniently long (certainly too long for a seal) and somewhat graceless (not to say blatantly foreign) looking when compared to the genuine article. Real Japanese names, of course, consist of one to three kanji (Sino-Japanese characters) for each surname and forename*, and thus fit conveniently on a small stamp while providing a bonus opportunity to write one's name with logographs yielding auspicious, attractive, historic, or otherwise significant meaning.** I was (and am) out of luck on this front, barring any chance at pulling a Koizumi Yakumo-- I mean Lafcadio Hearn. Most of my classmates hence admitted defeat, abbreviated their names to the first three moras and inscribed the result in katakana. I, however, had another option in mind.

Foreign words, as it happens, were not always written in katakana. Up until the late 19th century (and occasionally today), foreign words were instead written in Chinese characters lumped together for their sound value, a system called ateji. Since kanji don't rigidly follow the "one-mora-per-character rule" so rigidly, (and look cooler to boot), I was pleased when, after I asking nicely at the Hanko-Ordering Station back in April, I was able to recruit two of the sophomore Orientation Advisors to help me rerender my surname in kanji. After 15 minutes or so with our dictionaries, we hashed out the following together:

Much better.

From left to right, that's read RAN-JI-NI, using the characters for "orchid" (also an abbreviation for 'Holland', a parallel which works better than you might expect, given my ancestry), the Confucian value of benevolence, and an elaborated version of the character for the numeral 2. I'm less than satisfied with the final character, but most of the alternate choices we could find for that sound are even less attractive in terms of meaning.

And that, stamped in red ink in a consciously archaic style, is what I'll be signing for care packages with from now on.

Arbitrary? By its very nature. Slightly pretentious? Perhaps. Cool as heck? Certainly. And rest assured, I'm not going anywhere near a tattoo parlor...

*Some trendy parents these days prefer to use the swoopy, softer, and more "feminine" appearing hiragana (originally "women's script", after all) to write their daughters' given names these days-- a trend which, incidentally, irritates me because as a rule, the kanji for girls' given names are the easiest to sight-pronounce, as opposed to boys' names, which are a minefield of alternate non-standard readings.  Surnames are, to the best of my knowledge, always written in kanji.

**Or, since most everyone's ancestors chose their surnames around 1870, merely a combination of characters meaning "Village", "Rice-paddy", "Mountain", "Tree", "Stone Bridge" or the like. One quickly gets the impression that life was not particularly interesting, and education not particularly excellent, in the Bakumatsu period. But see also Wikipedia.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hirosakinité (part 2)

As a cloudy twilight settled over Hirosaki, and our fish-on-stick lunches started to wear off, we trooped back to the central station, looking for a commuter train that would take us out to a public hot-spring bath, or onsen, on the rural verge of town. Posted schedules in the station noted that as a power-saving measure, all lines had been moved to restricted operations-- the last train would leave Hirosaki at 9:30. I was surprised, once we got underway, that the line was running at all. We were the only passengers on a two-car affair of such obvious vintage that Kazuma and Shugo joked half-seriously about <How nostalgic!> the weathered interior of the empty train looked.

I had to agree, though for me the experience was less of nostalgia and more of overpowering deja vu. A nation with a rail network naturally makes movies and TV shows aplenty with scenes on trains, and now, riding in a strangely familiar carriage through the gathering darkness, the train passing over ink-black flooded paddy fields as if parting a shallow sea, I felt weirdly as if we were riding towards a a third-act plot resolution rather than an ordinary public spa. We were quite far out from the city now. How far, I wondered, would we have to walk from the station at this rate?

We arrived-- at a tiny, unmanned whistle-stop with bicycle parking only-- and walked up a narrow road, squeezing ourselves as close as we dared to the meter-deep irrigation channels on either side when cars passed.

Before long, the onsen itself came into view-- a low complex of tile-roofed buildings that looked to have been recently renovated. Shugo was pleased to see that among the new additions since his high-school days was a shishi-odoshi, a bamboo fountain feature that prompted another burst of <Nostalgia!> among us. For my part, I was happy to have the name recalled to mind before I had to ask what the <Thing That Goes Doink> was named in Japanese.

The lobby was larger than I had expected, featuring a largish drink-and snack stand (traditional for after-bath refreshment) and a mood-lit reception desk. Here we exchanged our shoe-locker keys for another set of clothes-locker keys and received a small bag containing two towels-- a face towel/washcloth for around-bath use, and a larger body towel. So far so good.

Onsen, like trains, Shinto shrines, and sushi,  enjoy rather thorough coverage in Western sources as one of those Great Traditions that one should Carefully Prepare To Experience so as not to Look Like A Total Doofus. So far, everything lined up with my expectations, so I was surprised when, just outside the locker room, Shugo tapped my shoulder.

<Wait, David, before you go in... umm...>

 <Err, is there something I should be careful of? I already know the rules... shower first, then get in, and all that...>

<Oh, good! Err, it's just that one of the exchange kids I took here last year kind of freaked out.>

<At what?>

Shugo switched into conspiratorial English.

"Nothing, it's just that we're all gonna be naked, and that if you see anyone washing anyone else's back, it's not gay."

"I kind of figured that went without saying."

"Yeah, me too."

And so, to make a long story short, I walked into a locker room full of Japanese men of all ages and states of undress, took off all of my clothes, and, as nonchalant as one can be in that state, walked in to hit the baths.

Chalk another one up on the growing Reputedly Excellent Japanese Things That Live Up To The Hype tally. The guy's side alone turned out to possess a bank of car-wash grade showers, two saunas, three neck-deep pools, their heat calibrated nicely from hypothermic to "lobster boil", a fabulous 'relaxation corner' in which one could prop one's head against a wooden headrest and lie, eyes closed, on a warm slate floor in a half-inch of warm, flowing water (feels even better than it sounds), and as a bonus, a semi-enclosed outside bath, or rotenburo, in which I spent the majority of the next two hours, shooting bull with the guys and enjoying the contrast between perilously hot water and chilly evening air.

We had to run back to the station in the dark to make our train, but I can state with certainty that I was far, far too relaxed to be bothered.

And naturally, I didn't object in the least to hitting an izakaya, a hybrid restaurant/pub, on the way back to our hotel for a late group dinner party.

By the time we'd finished sharing an astonishing list of unusual bar eats (chicken cubes with edible bones in, anyone?) and the drinks to go with them, it was well after midnight. We might never have come within a hundred miles of the elevated aesthetics of intransience that evening, but I settled into bed that night feeling indecently content, turning over and over in my head what a damnably civilized day it had been.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Word On Traditions

Blog updates have been slow, I know-- a combination of a bad work week (group projects, the bane of all competent students' existence, are regrettably popular around here) and my practiced ability to write one-draft essays-- but only at 2 hours a page. My Fridays are quite open, so we will return to Hirosaki tomorrow.

In the meantime, my continued willingness to speak Japanese in public continues to gain me notice: This afternoon I was asked on short notice to serve as a potted example of a skilled upper-intermediate student of Japanese for the benefit of AIU's teacher certification program-- a hectic half-an-hour in which I was made to role-play progressively more grammatically complicated and embarrassing situations until I was reduced to logorrheic incoherence in front of two Japanese professors and their note-scribbling grad students. Not my proudest moment, but at least they all seemed impressed that I lasted so long before "tapping out".

After all that brainwork, I was pleasantly surprised when Professor Sugiyama handed me this on my way out the door:

Cute, eh?

Inside, it turned out, were some very tasty chocolate butter cookies-- not what you'd expect from a box covered on every side with a grimacing, knife-wielding demon. Unless, of course, the box is actually intended as a souvenir of Akita's other claim to fame-- Namahage. 

 Along with their rice, women, dogs, and sake, the good people of the Tohoku region are known for their colorful traditions-- and none is more well known in Japan than Namahage, the region's extra-colorful variation on New Years' festivities. It goes down something like this-- too bad I arrived in spring:

While the rest of Japan is eating sticky rice-cakes, setting up pine and bamboo wreaths, and listening to Beethoven's Ninth on New Year's Eve, in Akita, unmarried men of various villages have, time out of mind, dressed up in straw raincapes, demon masks, and, carrying knives and buckets, spent the evening scaring the hell out of the local children. In the old days, it is said, the "demons" went to every house individually, where they would slam the doors open, growl, beat their buckets, and stomp around the hearth in their boots, supposedly in pursuit of lazy and disobedient children to drag off to their lairs in the frozen mountains. After closely inspecting each child in the family for naughtiness, and being ceremoniously bribed with sweets and sake by the parents, the demons would depart, promising to return with their knives and pails at the first sign of misbehavior. Nowadays, as my box of souvenir cookies attests, the knives are wood and the event is a tourist attraction, put on in the village community center-- but for all of that, no less good clean scary fun (?), as you can see from this Youtube. Translation is largely unnecessary, but most of the content I can understand goes something like this:

Demon: (in sepulchral tones): <ANY LAZY CHILDREN AROUND HERE?!!!>

Small children: <AAAAGH, SCARY!! SCAAAARRYY!>



Stick around for the brave little boy who waves bye-bye to the demons at the end.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


The cherry blossoms have come this weekend to North Japan, just as the TV predicted, bringing with them a pile of eager "petal-peepers" from all Japan, who come to famed sakura beauty spots to wander among the flowering trees, and (again, according to my Japanese textbooks), contemplate how perfectly the falling petals reflect mono no aware, the glorious sadness of impermanent existence.

Members of the audience who send emails instead of elliptically written waka poems inscribed on fans will be happy to know that in practice hanami consists mostly of "drinking socially and hanging out", and thanks to the AIU Aikido club, whose former president, Shugo, is a native of the noted sakura area Hirosaki, I had a perfect place, time, and crew to do my flower-viewing with.

Hirosaki, well north of Akita in Aomori Prefecture, is noted for its apples, product of the brisk northern climate, and for its modest but handsome castle, whose grounds are planted with thousands of cherries. It's a long morning's ride out there from Akita, the train a two-car local affair with bench seats and a nattily-dressed engineer with a pocket stopwatch for his station-stops.

The train passed through what seemed like endless miles of Akita's famous rice paddies, the line elevated on an embanked right-of-way that let us look over the fields, worked by weathered looking, aging farmers, to the steep wooded hills and mountains beyond. We stopped to change trains in Ōdate, the birthplace of Hachikō, Japan's most famous dog, enshrined on the station platform in a Shinto altar to match his more famous memorial in Shibuya.

Our hotel in Hirosaki couldn't have been better-located, it turned out-- we were steps away from the station, the castle grounds, and, as it later turned out, a late opening izakaya or two.

The sakura were better than I expected-- every tree in the park was in bloom, the flowers at their evanescent peak (ああ、この浮き世!), dropping a blizzard of petals that filled the air with color and blanketed the surface of the former castle's moat with floating specks to the consternation of the resident well-fed koi. A shamisen player, busking on the bank, saw us coming and switched from folk songs in the Tsugaru style to a quite serviceable rendition of the Super Mario Brothers theme.

Inside the park a festival atmosphere prevailed-- vendors selling yakitori, fried squid, smoked duck, cherry-blossom soft-serve, and whole fish-on-a-stick.
Save the head for last--it's the crunchiest.

A local Buddhist temple sold sealed horoscopes by date-of-birth-- unfortunately, it seemed that they'd sold out of mine. A bad omen?

Lots of spring babies around here, it seems.

The secrets of the future revealed.
We wandered the castle grounds together all afternoon, sampling each others' fried noodles, okonomiyaki, and snow-cones, rowing on the moat in rental boats (controlled chaos, but I turn out to be a quick study) and taking pictures till our camera batteries gave out, the northern rainclouds rolled in, and, footsore and belly-full, we decided to take a public bath before we hit the pubs.

-- Postscript: The title of this blog post would be written "弘前にて”in Japanese, meaning literally "At Hirosaki" in an elevated style. There is a similarly titled novella, "Kinosakinité", ("At Kinosaki") by author Shiga Naoya, set in a tourist town (in the south) with a similar name. I have removed from this account the times when this fact caused me to flub the name of my actual location in conversation to the consternation and amusement of my buds.  I hope I haven't been abusing my blogger's prerogative to include self-serving jokey references  in my posts-- sorry to all of you who are getting tired of clicking all that underlined blue text!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Coffee Break

I've had a busy day (and will be having a busier one tomorrow and next week.) In the meantime, here I am, sating my unhealthy canned coffee habit.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Time and Distance

So, apparently some interesting stuff went down this afternoon.

I looked up from my rice n' veg at lunch today and saw a tired-looking Wolf Blitzer on the CNN Japan Edition (which plays on constant loop in the cafeteria) saying something I didn't catch-- but got the drift soon enough from the news crawl at the bottom of the screen.

By 6 JST, most all of the gory details of the whole operation were out, and I was watching footage of Americans dancing in the streets at the dinner table with my friends.

Bin Laden's death marks the second time I've had an opportunity to witness major world news events from both the Japanese and American perspectives-- on Friday, I watched part of the Royal Wedding on NHK, finding myself distracted not only by the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury looked in bad need of a shave, but also that, simultaneous interpreters apparently being in short supply, his dialogue had been dubbed surreally by a middle-aged Japanese woman. I noticed also that the camera roamed about, lingering on the elaborate set-dressing in the Abbey, suggesting that viewers were being given the opportunity to see their fill of the exotic liturgical goings-on, perhaps with an eye to their own wedding plans.

The death of Bin Laden, needless to say, had a darker tone. Watching the TV at dinner, my tablemates seemed visibly disturbed by the news, and seemed relieved when I expressed some discomfort at the presence of chanting crowds at Ground Zero. All at the table wished aloud that the mastermind could have been tried in court instead of being cut down by a black-ops snatch-team. Reading NHK later, I got the same impression-- where American headlines read BIN LADEN FINALLY DEAD or variations, NHK's piece intoned <AMERICAN SPECIAL FORCES IN PAKISTAN KILLING> burying Osama's name on the third line and using the word satsugai, which my dictionary translates as "murder, killing". Most were equally bothered by America's apparent arrogance in not alerting the rest of the world in advance--Kazuma, my roommate, described the operation, with a sort of nervous laugh, as <a little cowardly...>. 

All of which is more than enough to give this American pause as I sit and think about world affairs (and impending homework) in a narrow dorm in rural north Japan.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Touring the Facilities

 I remembered that some of you may want to see a tour of AIU itself. Luckily, I also remembered this afternoon that my camera takes video.


I'll see if I can get some time together and get some pictures and videos up of the rest of the campus, which is, generally speaking, defined by its insularity (the buildings are all close enough to be connected by a network of pedestrian overpasses, which I'm sure come in handy during the winters), and by its architectural variation, which is alternately beautiful (the better stuff reminds me of Louis Kahn)

The justly acclaimed library and its interior
 and pretty bleh, a standout here being Komachi Hall, the combined freshman dorm/cafeteria that's ironically named for one of Akita's most famous beauties (and a poet to boot). Whoever redid some of the academic buildings also decided to go with some perplexingly cheap materials (unsanded pressure-treated plywood, chipboard, exposed 2x4s, unsealed reinforced concrete) to do so. But what the heck, it's a welcome change from Flemish bond. More later.