The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Kyushu and Back

Yesterday, I got back from a 6-day trip to Kyushu. This was made possible by Tokyo University of Science having a "Cultural Festival" for the last few days, meaning my English classes were cancelled. I bought a ticket from Tokyo to Fukuoka, and headed out last Friday morning.

As soon as I arrived in Fukuoka, I started feeling kind of nostalgic, and this feeling heightened as I rode the bus towards Sasebo. I was so happy to see that those crazy, primeval-jungle-covered mountains are still there, and the twisting mountain roads, and the tunnels, and all the physical geography of Kyushu that is so very different from Canada, and even from the Tokyo area. The two years I spent there before seem almost like a dream to me now, so it was reassuring to know that all those places still really exist.

I arrived in Sasebo and spent some time wandering around the arcade, the covered shopping area. I saw tons of foreigners, way more per capita than I'm used to seeing even in Tokyo. After a while, I met up with my friend Jeroen, who is a dutch guy married to a Japanese woman, with a young son and a daughter on the way. He let me stay at his house for an extended period, and drove me all over the place, making my whole vacation possible.

On the first day, we went to Hirado and dropped in on my old calligraphy teacher, as well as an old retired martial arts teacher who has been very kind to me in the past. Both of them were happy to see me, and gave me more gifts I don't deserve. We then did a whirlwind tour of some of the old places I used to go, and I fired off a few snapshots. Then we had some dinner at one of our favourite restaurants, and a few drinks at a local bar. It was very "natsukashii" ... nostalgic, and a little bit melancholy.

The next day we drove to Saga, and I dropped in on a friend who has been living in Japan for over 20 years now. He's a teacher at a Buddhist high school, and he's planning on retiring soon. I might be next in line for the job (if his bosses accept his recommendation) but I don't want to get too excited just yet... Anyway, he was selling a sword, and I was buying, so I'm now the proud owner of a twenty-year old sword, with a 400-year old swordguard!

The next day, it was off to Ikitsuki to revisit my old stomping grounds. The place was just like I remembered it, and the weather was perfect. I took a lot of pictures, but the flat medium of photography never seems to convey the depth and scale of, for example, the huge cliffs on the west side of the island, or the immensity of the stone pillars at Shiodawara. I'm waxing poetic (which is dangerous for me) but seeing these things makes me get a little bit inspired, I guess. I also was able to stop in and visit (very briefly) some of the teachers I used to work with. Unfortunately the kids had already gone home, but I did see a few students who remembered me.

The next day was a bit more of the same, with some relaxed sight-seeing and visiting. Then I hopped the bus for Fukuoka, and met up with my old Jodo teacher. I stayed at his place for the night, and the next day we puttered around his dojo before he took me back to the airport.

All in all, it probably doesn't sound like much, but it was really a terrific time. Part of me wishes that I could live in the past forever, and of course that's impossible, but it still feels like I was able to jump back a couple years and at least those people won't forget me, at least not for the next couple years... I definitely want to go back to Kyushu soon. There's just something about Kyushu that seems like the "real" Japan or something...

By the way, I suggest that everyone read a great book by Alex Kerr called "Lost Japan". If you read it, I think you'll really understand a lot about the appeal that Japan holds for so many people, myself included. The author is obsessed with Kabuki, but substitute iaido for kabuki and you'll start to understand my fascination with this crazy place. That's all for now... talk to you soon.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Long Time No Bloggee

Sorry I haven't written for a while. I got chastised the other day, so I'm here for another installment. The problem with this blog thing, I guess, is that when something happens to me, I have to ask myself, "Does this affect anybody else?" Usually, the answer is no, but I'll assume that you're curious and really do want to know about the minutiae of my daily life.

Living in Japan, I have a bad tendency to swing from one extreme of "I love this country!" to "God, I hate this place." Last week was a good example of this. My student mentioned that she was going to join a dance exhibition with her dance club. I mentioned that I'd like to see it, so she sold me a ticket. I met her at the hall, and it turned out to be a hip-hop dance show featuring various groups from around the region. The crowd was very uniform, with everybody wearing "appropriate" hip-hop and urban style clothes. I felt really out of place, also considering that I was the only foreigner in the place. My friend said goodbye and went to prepare for her show. She came out later, and did her routine, which obviously had required a lot of practice and coordination with her group members. It was quite impressive, but at the same time, I was kind of left shaking my head at the wholesale cultural appropriate going on... here are a bunch of kids who, for whatever reason, have decided to emulate the clothes, style, dance moves, and music of an America sub-culture. Where they could, they also seemed to be imitating some of the more superficial attitudes, like gestures, and body language and so on. It was kind of weird to say the least.

But then again, I thought about the North American martial arts culture, and how we wear Japanese clothes, bow, obey orders in Japanese, eat rice balls at lunch and drink green tea ... and there is no shortage of people who readily admit that they wish they were Japanese. I was surfing the web the other day and there are plenty of deluded teenage kids who believe that they are modern-day samurai. It's kind of scary. In any case, I guess I'm guilty of the same kind of "cultural appropriation" I mentioned earlier.

After this dance competition, I hung out by myself (my friend was nowhere to be found) and started feeling really lonely and alienated. I kept thinking to myself about how common these feelings are in Japan, and the same old questions kept cropping up: What am I doing here? Why do I like this country so much, when it seems that it doesn't really want me around? I'll never fit in here, even if I learn to speak Japanese fluently, and I'll always be a "gaijin", an alien, even if I live here for the next 40 years. With these thoughts circling around in my mind, I left and went home to my empty apartment, watched Japanese TV for a while, understood less than 5% of it, and went to bed feeling pretty sorry for myself.

The next day was a speech contest at Tokyo University of Science. I had been invited to participate as a judge by one of my students. I was met at the train station, taken by car to the speech building, lavished with snacks and coffee by students who waited on me hand and foot... it was absolutely ridiculous! Everyone was bowing and scraping, because I was a judge for the contest, and the only reason I was a judge was because I am a foreigner! So here's the flipside of the same coin - there are people who afford us a great deal of respect (much more than we really deserve) just because we're foreign. The whole day continued in the same pattern. The audience applauded when we entered, and when we left the room. We were asked to give speeches about the contest. We were presented with gifts and money. We were guests of honour at a reception following the contest. As you can imagine, after having my butt kissed for about 6 straight hours, I was floating on an "I love this country!" high.

But what's the real situation? I'm not sure, but I often find clarity in my iaido classes. When I first showed up, people were a bit skeptical because I'm a foreigner. But as soon as I was practicing, people saw that I know what I'm doing, and they immediately had to grant me a level of respect. I outrank a lot of them, and even if they don't respect me personally, they HAVE to respect my rank, or else they appear rude in front of their own teacher. So, my juniors bow and scrape to me, and I bow and scrape to my seniors, and none of it has anything to do with who's Japanese and who's not. And I gotta tell ya, I really like that.