Saturday, January 22, 2011

Today's Brain Fart

I suffered another brain fart today, a total reality dislocation. One that probably every parent understands, but with a bit of a twist.

My son has discovered music, and is constantly renting CDs to add to his IPod via my computer. So I have his growing collection of slightly nasal JPop, some good KPop, some really good Japanese rock and only a little American music. It has a different sound than American pop, kinda like the BackStreet boys on helium after drinking a 12-pack, like in this commercial or in this fan homage to JPop band Arashi.

So, anyways, my son is heading to the shower this morning, whistling. And I find myself singing along. Not whistling, not humming, but actually singing the words. Then my brain seized up. You see, I wasn't singing in Japanese. He was whistling... John Denver*. "Leaving on a Jet Plane". Suddenly I was 5 years old again, hearing the Peter, Paul and Mary version of the song which really came to symbolize the loss and pain of the Vietnam war in my mind.

*to add to the mystery, he got the song from his friend, which just begs the question: Why do they even know about this song? It's not exactly Oricon Top 40 (Japan's Billboard)...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Bath Time!

Aaaahhhh, the Japanese bath. "Big deal!", you say? "I take a nice, hot shower every day."? Phhppt! You just haven't taken a bath until you've experienced the sybaritic pleasure of a Japanese bath.

Over the New Year's holidays, my family went with their cousins to the nearby bathhouse for a soak. This isn't the neighborhood bathhouse of Kurosawa movies, mind you, or the bathhouse from Nintendo's Street Fighter, but a huge hunking place, with 6 different baths, TVs behind plexy inside fake rocks, even giant amphora the kids can climb into together and pretend to be olives. Oh, yeah, and parking for 500 cars. There are also sand baths, Korean massage (the first time the lady masseuse meandered through the locker room while I and 30 others were butt-naked kinda freaked me out!) and a restaurant. With beer.

So, anyways, you pay your dime (9 bucks, actually), then drop off your shoes and head upstairs to the locker rooms. Strip and shove your stuff into lockers and go to the bathing area. Now, the key to the baths is that you sit down on a little stool (not that kind of stool, Herr Doktor) and wash yourself thoroughly, making sure to rinse off completely, before heading to the baths to soak until your head spins. Remember this, because it really ticks off the Japanese when furriners don't do it right, and they will watch you like a hawk to make sure you do. [Which is why it rags me so-o-o-o much when many Japanese men will go straight to the bath first, and soak their sweaty, poopy behinds before cleaning off and taking a longer soak.]

Mmmm-hmmmm, anyways... Then you head to the baths and hot-water heaven! Imagine hot tubs the size of your living room at a toasty 105 degrees. Some have high iron content and look like mud (God, I hope that's the iron). Others may have high sodium content, and are supposed to be good for your skin (just don't stay in too long, or even your butt will look like a prune). Another one has seats with back panels that feed small electrical currents into your back. This doesn't strike me as a good idea, electrical shocks in hot water. "Clear!" Zapp! Nope, no thanks. The place we go even has a lying bath ("I'll respect you in the morning") - or is it a laying bath (sounds like a chicken coop)? - which is an even 4" deep. Yeah, nothing like seeing a bunch of naked fellas lying flat on their backs in 4" of water... I wanna go to the ladies' baths... Or maybe not.

Oh, and did I mention that most of the baths are outside? I soaked in the big bath inside, displacing an unfortunate amount of water, I'm afraid, then headed outside. On New Year's Eve. At first, I couldn't figure out why I couldn't see clearly, then I realized that my whole body was steaming like crab fresh out of the cooking pot (which we ate for dinner that night - yummy!). Watching guys walk around was pretty cool, they all had a cape of steam following them around like their very own Casper. And all the baths were full. I'm talking about 15-20 guys shoulder-to-shoulder around the outside bench, with 5 or 10 rugrats swimming around the middle like miniature Jaws, and your dingle is the bait. Standing there waiting gets cold, quickly.

Oh, yeah, that reminds me. Now I understand why my buddy always rolled his eyes when we teased him about the black-man stereotype. J-men will constantly check out my junk, it drives me nuts. Feels like some of those bad comedies we watched as kids. You know, the "Dude, if you turn any further to look, you're gonna piss on my shoes!" kind of thing.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The New Year's Shrine Trip

As I said in the last post, most Japanese go to a shrine to pray for good fortune in the coming year. We go to a relatively small, but popular, local shrine near my in-laws house.

First, you head in the main gate:

Then join the line that snakes its way to the shrine's front entrance, where you toss your donation into the collection box out front, grab the robe hanging down from the bells, and give them a shake before clapping your hands once (to get the gods' attention) and praying:
After your prayer, you can get a New Year's shot of sake, buy good luck charms (which are very popular with those about to go through Examination Hell - high school and college entrance exams), and buy your New Year's fortune:
After you've read it (mine was Dai-Kichi, the highest level), you tie it to the ropes or to a tree in hopes that it will come true.

Then we always (actually, Grandma N always) buy castella, a Portuguese mini-cake that is very popular in Japan. Our shrine, being small, has only one vendor, but large shrines like Ikuta Shrine in Kobe might have as many as 30 or more different stalls, selling cakes, grilled corn-on-the-cob, yakitori, frankfurters on a stick, dried octopus 'kites', even superhero masks.

It's fun, and, strangely enough, the atmosphere reminds me of the summer auction/chili fest' in Buffalo Creek way back when I was a kid (other than little factors like language, hair color, food - picky picky!)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Japanese New Year's

So, New Year's is over for another year. Hopefully your hangovers have become unhung, and your short-term memory is coming back. I said, "Hopefully your hangovers have..." Oh, just forget it! Again.

New Year's is a time when it really comes home that me and Toto (and Journey, and Styx) ain't in Kansas no more. If I were single, I'm sure I could still find folk to get hammered with and do a countdown, but there's no ball falling, no "Auld Lang Syne" (except at closing time everyday in any large department store). Instead there is a holiday which has become my favorite time of the year in Japan.

On New Year's Eve, most folks eat Toshikoshi-soba, buckwheat noodles in fish stock (it's much better than it sounds) with deep-fried prawn, and watch "Kosaku Uta Gassen" on TV. Kosaku (Red & White Singing Battle) is a show which invites popular singing acts from Jpop, rock, Japanese enka and other styles and divides them into 2 teams (the Red team and the White team, hence the name - duh!) who sing their hits of the year. The whole family watches together, channel-hopping from Kosaku to one of the myriad comedy/variety specials until midnight.

Now, if you're in young love, adventurous, or just plain masochistic, you head out to the shrine. At midnight on New Year's Day. When it's bloody cold. Along with 10,000 of your best strangers. Or you can climb a mountain in order to watch the first sunrise of the year, and pray that it isn't cloudy, or you've sat out and frozen your tush all night to see - clouds. Whoopee-shit!

We wait until daylight. But first we go to the in-laws for zoni (miso soup with rice cake) and some pickled secchi foods. Then we head to the shrine, where we toss money in the collection box, ring the bell and pray for a good year. Then get a little free rice wine, and get in line to buy your New Year's fortune. Mine was top level this year, with things like "Childbirth will go easy" and "Your current love is the best possible". Good to know. I'd hate to have it say "Your current love is a friggin' mistake, bail while you can!"