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:
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!>
Demon: <WHAT ABOUT NAUGHTY CHILDREN?!!>
Small children: <SCAAAARRYYY! NOOO! SCARYYYY!>
Stick around for the brave little boy who waves bye-bye to the demons at the end.