A Weekend of Cultural Woofs

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Sakura season is coming to an end – by the time this goes to print I think all but the sturdiest cherry blossoms will have been stripped by the powerful winds that have been blowing through Yokohama/Tokyo the past few days. I have a sort of philosophy about Sakura and why it’s so popular here in Japan, but I will save that for another post.

Taking advantage of the beautiful weather, I took a weekend to enjoy some cultural events in the Tokyo area.

First, I headed to Naka-Meguro after getting a Facebook suggested post. It said, “Go to the Danish Royal Embassy and see the floral arrangements!” So off I went. I’ve never been around Naka-Meguro that much. It reminded me of Chicago’s North side a little bit, full of boutiques and a multinational collection of restaurants. Just outside the Embassy a giant tree was losing its leaves, so I got the strangest conflict of impressions, as the street, temperature, and scents made me think of autumn, even though spring was all around

The cost of the Danish exhibit “YELL” is 500 yen. And let me say, it’s worth it if you have the time to spare (it runs till April 27).

On the eternal debate between flowers and chocolate, I fall firmly in the flowers camp. There’s more variety with flowers, better smells, and as neither chocolate nor flowers last forever I’d prefer to have the colors and variety. Looking at master arrangements can be just as thought-provoking as more traditional artwork, and Mr. Bergmann’s arrangements evoke a range of emotions, from austere wheat spheres to loud and brash collections of stems and blooms. I was impressed with the sheer variety of plants on display.

I also enjoyed the temporary structure of the gallery – pine and canvas that suggested camping and emphasized the fleeting nature of the installments. I love it when space and purpose meet. I bet I’m not alone in this thought…

There are other pieces as well, as there appears to be an upcoming celebration of Danish-Japanese relations in May (I would link to the websites, but they are all coming up as “suspicious” by my virus software. I don’t want to post bad links). When I get more information, I will try to post it here.

After the Danish exhibit, I headed further into Tokyo to attend the second of my cultural events – the 10th annual Tokyo Wan-Wan Festival in Yoyogi Park! What’s a Wan-Wan?

Why this is!

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It’s the Japanese interpretation of a dog’s bark. I think it’s fun to compare how something as “universal” as a dog’s bark gets translated across the globe. I believe I read somewhere that dogs bark in different languages (*Google search* yep, here is an example). And the Japanese take almost too good care of their dogs. Clothes, strollers, custom grooming – these are the fanciest of dogs.

I miss my own dogs. It’s one of the hardest things about living abroad; leaving all my animals behind. So this was my opportunity to shamelessly pet some fluffy doges, doggos, and puppers. The festival was far larger than I anticipated, with rows of dog-related stalls selling custom treats, leashes, and clothing. There was a space for showing off the well-groomed dogs, a space for demonstrating tricks, and at least two or three other spaces the purposes of which I did not figure out.

This is obviously my shameless attempt to lure readers with pictures of dogs. Here you go:

 

After this, I went to Shibuya to meet up with some coworkers. I took a final photo of another, more famous dog, and went out for a night of carousing. Nomihodai (all you can drink), combini beers, and some mucking about in the famous crowded crossing of Shibuya square. I met some of my former students, and was luckily not so drunk as to agree to go clubbing with them. I also met an “avant-garde” jazz musician who was photographing his cover art along one of the avenues.

All in all, this was a fine day.  Sometimes I fear that I get so caught up in the day-to-day of working in Japan that I forget that I’m actually living in Japan. When I was in China, there were not many means of getting out of my city, but everything was so utterly different that my daily life did not have a recognizable routine. Here it’s different. I have co-workers, a full day of classes, and a pattern that repeats itself. My company enjoys and promotes this sort of unchanging repetition I believe, and that’s alright. Nevertheless, it’s important to take the opportunity to go out into the world, especially when the world offers such wonderful sights.

Finding a Gym

Last semester, I had to walk three miles every day to and from school. I tried joining a 24-hour gym near my train station, but they wouldn’t accept me because I was not fluent in Japanese (yes, fluent, according to my friend’s boyfriend’s translation, who added it was code for “you aren’t Japanese.” Ouch). I did a little bit of yoga, but ultimately I considered the walk to be my “exercise.”  While my weight and body shape did not change that much, I inevitably toned up. Excellent default improvement!

My new company-assigned apartment is significantly closer to work, so I want to go back to working out at an actual gym. They are everywhere in Japan. There are 24 hour fitness rooms, large traditional gyms (like Golds), a growing collection of Crossfit specific gyms, massive community centers that have traditional Japanese sport rooms (martial arts, archery, etc.), all sorts of boxing and martial arts schools, and everything in between. Somehow I’m in a neighborhood with no neighborhood gym, save for a Curves the size of a broom closet. I’m not allowed to use the gym at my campus, so I had to expand my search.

After searches for “Gym,” “Sports Center,” “Fitness Complex,” and such, I found four good candidates for my new gym. I avoided gyms that were focused on Crossfit or offered any sort of “complementary” metabolism programs, since the advertised programs jumped in price once the complementary periods ended, and my Japanese is too weak to negotiate that kind of language.  I really wanted a pool, and my maximum budget was 10,000 yen/month (roughly $100/month).  From the map search, I started researching websites.

Research was difficult, as not every site had a good English translation. And comparing price points and distances, not to mention thinking ahead of my possible commute to and from work, I got frustrated. In the back of my mind, I remembered that the glorious spa and onsen complex in Tsunashima, Prime Fitness & Spa, has a gym. It was over my maximum budget, but only by about 2,000 yen a month, and I would get unlimited access to the beautiful on-site onset.  I tried to convince myself that I would happily go out of my way to access a gym I recognized, and that the onsen would be enough of a draw.

Then I cleared my head, and remembered what I learned from watching a lot of “House Hunters: International” back home. Going over budget is not a good option. While I enjoy onsens, I’m not a worshipper. And there was no way I was going to commute out of my way several days a week.  The price might guilt me into action, but I like having money to spend on other things (like my toaster oven, and the bread to put into the toaster oven).

The solution was to go and do some on-site visits – again, much like “House Hunters: International.” I do enjoy binge watching that show back in the States.

Gym 1: Jexer Fitness: Just under budget, had a pool, off a train line – I found this one by myself, after a bit of a walk. The place was friendly, very crowded, and just under by budget. I got a tour, and it was packed with people. I think this is because I visited on the weekend. Even so, I got a positive vibe from this gym. The women who worked the front desk were quite friendly, and were very patient with my lack of language skills.

Gym 2: Konami Sports Complex: Over budget, pool, six stories of options, closer to home – I took a friend who spoke Japanese with me to the Konami sports complex. This place had everything I wanted, but it was cold and lacked personality. That might sound like a strange thing to say about a gym, but nothing about this place made me want to go. And the price was almost comical – unlimited access cost about 15,000 yen/month. The cheapest monthly option allowed access to the gym four times a month. Yes – 8,000 yen/month to visit the gym four times a month.  So I said no to Konami.

Gym 3: Renaissance Lite: Under budget, old, has pool, ten minute walk to major train station – this was my last visit, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Removed from the train station, sort of tucked next to a school, this gym was old but immediately welcoming. Not as new as Tipness, not as big as Konami, Renaissance Lite gym had a pool, a training room (fitness center), an aerobics studio, and a rooftop driving range. What’s more, it had an included onsen in the locker room. Best of all, the price was only 6,500 yen/month.

Gym 4: Tipness – Modern, new classes and facility, recently renovated after the earthquake: I did not visit Tipness after I decided that I liked Renaissance. The website did not have an English option, and the price points were all over the place.

Hooray! I have a gym! It would not have been so painless if I did not have someone to help me. I’m glad that I did the research and the leg work. And in a fine twist, I’m now walking about 3 miles a day to and from the gym (which I do just about every day, as I want to save on my transportation budget).

I anticipate joyfully dumping EFL stresses in my gym’s pool/ cardio courses…

 

 

 

 

St. Patrick’s Day Samba

In an effort to get out and find low-cost things to do in Tokyo (my job gets a month’s labor from me before I get paid. I know, it’s rough.), I asked one of my coworkers about St. Patrick’s Day. He said there was a parade.

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Now, I lived near Chicago. Chicago dyes the river a bright green shade, and everyone drinks to excess starting at sunup and going until well past sundown. It’s a ridiculous amount of revelry and vomit.

In perusing the advertisement for the parade volunteer requirements, I saw the following in bold print : “No smoking. No drinking. No high heels.” Well, at least two of those make sense to me (smoking and heels). Still, it looked like a small, humorous event. If I am being honest, I had no idea what to expect when considering the relationship between Japan and Ireland, if such a thing existed in any depth.

I invited my friend Sharon with me as an “interpreter,” and we went to Omote-sando on Sunday. The weather was perfect – sunny, not too cold or hot. I told her about Chicago, and at one point I had to admit that while there’s a chance an ancestor of mine came from Ireland, I had no proof and had never claimed Irish ancestry on St. Patrick’s day.

“That’s refreshing!” She said. “Most people try to claim Irish heritage, when it’s some second cousin’s uncle. Sorry, that doesn’t make you Irish.”

“Well, my patron saint is Saint Brigit of Ireland – and I don’t make crosses out of river reeds on her day either,” I added in full disclosure. I know my lineages pretty well, but I really only claim the ones in which I actively participate.

The parade started off with about as much awkward happiness as I expected, with the Irish Ambassador, Miss Ireland, and a tall man dressed as St. Patrick, complete with a fake beard, leading the parade. They were followed by bagpipes (“Scottish.” Was all Sharon said upon seeing them). Then came dancers, fiddlers, pubs advertisements, and giant inflatable Guinness pints. There were also samurai, cheerleaders, samba dancers, and a bunch of traditional Japanese…tap-dancers? I mean, it was the most glorious hodge-podge parade I have ever seen. Everyone was bedecked in green, orange, and white, and they were having a fun time.

And it was a lot longer than expected. There were no floats (the closest thing were the Guinness balloons), but there were a lot of Irish-appreciation groups. There were the Irish Setters club, the Druidic society of Japan (?!), at least three dancing schools, and of course the travel abroad and foreign exchange student programs. The parade went on a large loop between Omote-sando and Harajuku, so that at one point the samba dancers were competing with the bagpipers every time the parade stopped (usually coinciding with the crossing guards allowing pedestrians to pass through).

As the last of the emerald clad parade groups walked past, we decided to go on to Yoyogi park to check out the Irish festival, which had been going on all weekend. Sharon and I are both fans of hard ciders, which are notoriously hard to find in Japan (the closest thing I’ve found are some of the apple beers – not the same thing). We were in luck, and found that Magners (imported from Australia via Ireland we hope) was ready in cold bottles for just over $5.00 a bottle. I justified this by reminding myself that beer costs more for less at a baseball game. Magners is not my preferred cider (Angry Orchard or Woodchuck), but it was just what I wanted on a warming spring day. Too poor to buy souvenirs or actual food, it was a fleeting souvenir.

All in all, I am very happy I went to the parade. It got me thinking a little bit about the debate over cultural appropriation back in America. As Sharon and I watched the “Irish” band warm up – where only the fiddle player looked “Western,” I tried to build a theory. Irish fiddle music exists all over the world, but I have never encountered an Irish person upset at this idea. I theorized to Sharon that perhaps it’s because Ireland is seen as a partially “occupied” nation that it gets such acceptance into other cultures. The Irish are distinct from the English, and the English have an Imperial legacy that the Irish do not, even though technically they are both part of the same “United Kingdom.” Sharon agreed in part, citing that Irish music is distinct from Scottish or English music, and as such might travel better.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery, they say. Judging from the festivities, this was high praise indeed!

 

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Red Rock Canyon: Hiatus, then Hiking

I took an unexpected and rather abrupt hiatus from this blog, as you might have noticed.

Perhaps it was the election. Perhaps it was my sudden bout with sore throats and abdominal pain. Perhaps it was the conclusion of my Japanese contract. Perhaps it was all of this that crippled my desire to write.

If it makes you feel any better, dear reader, I didn’t write anywhere else either. I didn’t work on my book. I wrote no poetry. I kept no dream journal. I barely touched my actual personal journal. By all measurements, my ability to write simply dried up like a desert streambed in summer.

Speaking of…

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Before my recent re-relocation to Japan (having gone home briefly), I visited one of my favorite places in the United States: Red Rock Canyon just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. I don’t know if Red Rock Canyon is my favorite spot – I love the Sequoias in California, the Hudson River Valley, and the tumult of Chicago – but it certainly ranks. If I had to give it a number one rank, it would be “Favorite place to go in the winter.” The desert in winter is something alien and unexpected. There is snow in the mountains, and in the late winter the melt swells the streams.

I’ve been going to Red Rock Canyon since I was a child. We’d always go in the late summer or mid-spring, coinciding with spring breaks and the end of summer vacations. I remember finding the small spherical stones that had fallen off the sandstone like pimples (I learned later they were vaguely magnetic, attracting particles around them). It’s not a national park, but it is protected under the BLM’s National Conservation Areas, specifically for the tortoises. When I was young, there was nothing leading to the park – a sparse collection of old gas stations and parched houses. Now, Summerlin abuts the park almost to the inch of the protected space.

When I visited in February, it was with the intention of seeing the sunrise. Unfortunately, it was a rainy day in the desert, so there was no sunrise to watch. The sign at the gate warned against climbing on the sandstone (already a slick stone). Though I didn’t get the sunrise, I got a bounty of other sensations. Desert plants must act fast, and the aromas getting out of my car hit me like a wall of spices. Mesquite, yucca, agave sage – these are the plants that opened up to welcome the brief morning rain, and the scent was cleansing.

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Looking out over the vast living landscape, full of cacti that would dry out in a few months, pools of water that wouldn’t last, I felt free again. There is something so…fragile about the desert. I find it almost unbearable to be in Red Rock in the heat of the summer, when everything is bleached and dry and desperately holding on. But in the winter, the colors deepen and the whole place comes brilliantly alive (the desert is always alive, mind you, but its much more practical about it in the summer).

So I hiked around Calico Hills, the patchwork sandstone mounds near the entrance of the park. I kept a lookout for animals, but saw only hummingbirds and a hawk. I met a nice Naval man on the trails, who proved good company and thankful hiking buddy (I kept my distance from him for awhile at first, uneasy at being alone). From Calico Hills, I went back to my car and started the long scenic drive through the park.

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Note: Make sure you get gas before you arrive at the Park. There is no access point out of the park once you start the scenic drive – it’s a big loop.

I’ve hiked part of Pine Creek Canyon, about three-quarters of the way through the 13 mile scenic drive, but I’ve yet to hike the whole thing. I get too interested at the beginning, where they did a controlled fire. There are Ponderosa pines there, and I’ve seen the wild burros once as well. It’s a forest that doesn’t belong in the desert, which is why it’s so fascinating. Much like the geological face of the mountains, which feature old rock pushed on top of younger rock (due to the fault lines), it’s sort of out of place. I love it.

Sitting on a rock, I watched the stream/almost river flow across the road, and felt the tuggings of inspirations again. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to feel the desire to write and describe. I had been feeling isolated and numb. Much like the riverbed, I felt the great need to open up again, and let the life in.

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Addendum: I worry, as I have been worrying for months now, about how Trump’s environmental lethargy is going to hurt places like Red Rock Canyon. I’ve watched Summerlin’s cookie cutter homes encroach more and more on the space, and I’m genuinely worried that in this new administration that does not care about protecting anything except their own wealth, spaces like these will fall victim.

So go buy this shirt from Cotton Bureau, or one similar to it. Maybe some good will come of a “gentle” visual reproach…

…And into the Incinerator

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I got a letter from Japan Post, after failing to get that package.

I felt convinced it was going to tell me that I needed to go to Kawasaki to get this mysterious package. After asking and acting like a hopeless dope, I finally confirmed that the package was not my government ID card (my MyCard), which would have also required a signature. Turns out I got that weeks ago and filed it away so quickly I didn’t even realize I had gotten it.

Here is the essence of the letter:

“Someone is sending you bacon. You can’t import bacon into Japan. Do you want to return the bacon, or incinerate it?”

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…….

…….

…….

Yes, my father had sent me pre-cooked, microwaveable bacon. Japan found out, and Japan sent me all the friendly documents about what is ok and not ok to send to Japan. Shouldn’t they have sent this to my family? Also the meat wasn’t raw, or alive. It’s like sending someone jerky – I wonder if it’s illegal to import jerky into Japan…The brochure doesn’t say. It’s full of friendly looking officers and lists of “cloven hoofed” animals that can’t enter Japan, not to mention fish. Also “foul broods” of honeybees.

But here was the kicker – it was up to me to decide what to do with this illegal bacon.

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I do like bacon a lot. I’m not a bacon fanatic, though I do know a few. I felt a certain…internet pressure not to harm the bacon in any way (unless it was to eat it – that’s ok). However, as some of my friends here pointed out, if I sent it back my family would probably have to pay the cost of return.

The choice weighed heavy on me. It looks so final, doesn’t it? Return it, or INCINERATE IT. I pictured this gentle, unassuming package of pre-cooked bacon being thrown into an Orwellian furnace, wondering what it had done to deserve such treatment.

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I bet you can, you little snitch.

(I keep saying “pre-cooked” because it’s important that you understand that my family does not send me raw meat. I’m not a huge fan of  pre-cooked bacon myself, but in terms of practicality it’s one of the few bacon products that doesn’t require refrigeration, aside from bacon jerky and bacon bits, one of which I do like.)

I gave myself two whole days to decide what to do with the bacon. I asked co-workers their opinions, which varied once they stopped laughing at me. I considered what else was in the package that I would eventually get after I told them what to do with the meat.

Then, with heavy finality, I sent the bacon to the fires. What would you have done? Launch a daring raid on the Kawasaki Customs building in an effort to rescue the bacon? How many lives would you be willing to risk? HOW MANY – for BACON?!

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