Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Bromance on Ontake

Mt. Ontake recently erupted and still smolders.
We climbed a volcano close enough to Mt. Ontake to see the smoke rise from the recently erupted volcanic sister. As the tour bus rounded a bend in the road and the plume of smoke appeared, the passengers all gasped and shamelessly snapped pictures. I was sitting next to Raquel and a seat over from the other half of a budding bromance. Had I known that the proposal would lead to undressing and bathing with fifty other Jpanese men, I might not have accepted the offer to climb Mt. Norikura. But I didn’t know where this bromance was going to take me, so away we went.  
I am no stranger to the bromance. I’ve had them start in high school classrooms from shared chuckles or in a bus when a bearded man noticed I was reading his favorite book. My most recent bromance began at work when a coworker mentioned he had nine pets at home. I simply had to know more! I typically think of bromances as two men try to feel eachother out to see if there’s more than just sparks and if a true relationship can be kindled. Sometimes a bromance blossoms into something longlasting, but what happened with Mr. Tomodachi was something different. It was all over so fast, and I have nothing to show for it but memories.
After agreeing to climb the mountain together (We had already forgotten about our wives) we ate a bowl of noodles to build up our strength. Tomodachi-san and I both ate are soup much too fast and were forced to make small talk and giggle while our wives finished their meal.
We set off after that, Tomodachi-san plowing ahead and me trying to keep up. We’d wait for the women ever so often, I’d snap pictures, the women would catch up and with a cry of ‘daijobu!’ Tomodachi-san and I would set off again.
The bottom part of the trail up Norikura is a breeze. It’s all gently rising switchbacks that take hikers past fields of shrunken pine bushes and snow hiding from the end of summer in the shadows of boulders. Tomodachi-san told me he’d once bicycled up from the very bottom of Norikura, the part of the journey where we’d rode the bus. Needless to say, I was impressed.
The trail grew steeper and became little more than a pair of guide ropes framing volcanic gravel and boulders in a jagged line towards the peak. Tomodachi-san never slowed; he only paused to wait for his wife now and then. He told me he was sixty-three and I simply couldn’t believe that he still looked so young.
But you have no gray hair! I exclaimed
He smiled, tickled that I’d noticed.
We reached the peak and snapped pictures of Mt. Ontake on the horizon. We were a little unnerved watching a recently erupted volcano while we stood on its sister, so we headed back down.
We stopped only to have a snack once the trail levelled out. While we ate Raquel spotted a stoat and Tomodachi-san’s wife saw a magnificent bird that only lives in those mountains, but Tomodachi-san and I only had eyes for eachother. 
Back on the bus, Tomodachi-san asked if we’d like to go to an onsen together. I had been looking for an excuse to go to a traditional Japanese bath, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. What better way to cement a friendship than getting naked together? Raquel was less enthused, but still agreed that at least we’d have genuine Japanese people with us, and there was less of a chance we’d get thrown out for our tattoos.
At the onsen we separated to go to the respective gendered pools. I shucked off my clothes, and Tomodachi-san led me to the showers. I found a stool and a showerhead amongst dozens of other naked men who were all eagerly soaping their pits and rinsing their balls. They all scrubbed with unbridled enthusiasm. It’s taboo to bring dirt into the spring-fed baths, and they’re serious about it. Scrubbed clean, we headed outside for a hot sulfurous bath.
A pool in the crater of Mt. Norikura. Onsen are spring-fed
pools heated by the volcanoes everywhere in Japan.
“Atsui! Atsui!” Tomodachi-san said as he sunk into the steaming water. We soaked in the bath as naked Japanese men gossiped around us. I don’t speak much Japanese and Tomodachi-san didn’t speak much English, so we just sat in silence, enjoying the fall colors and each other’s company. An older patron rose from the pool as we entered. His balls dangled so low I could see them from behind.
After a few minutes I understood why so many men were getting up, shamelessly stretching and moving to other pools. The water temperature and mineral composition of each pool was different. We were in one of the hottest, and it was filled with white mucous-like flecks that made it look like egg drop soup. We ambled over to another pool that was cooler and looked more like ocean water. It was there that Tomodachi-san asked me who my best friend in Takayama.  
I told him it was Kensei-san, the most badass bartender in all of Japan. Tomodachi-san didn’t know him though. He revealed that he knew my boss Iwamaya-san, and seemed relieved that he wouldn’t have to share me.
“Friends?” he asked me, and touched my shoulder.
Friends, I agreed and clapped him on the back.
We finished our soak and headed to the waiting room to meet our forgotten wives. They weren’t there yet, so we sat down and waited.
I went to get tea and returned to find Tomodachi-san laying down, staring up at the ceiling. I laid down too, relaxed by the mineral springs and the warm light coming from the rafters of the hotel.
“Joe-san?” Tomodachi-san asked, and I rolled over to find him staring at me, his head propped up on his arm, like a tween at a sleepover ready to reveal her big crush.
“Today, a secret?” he asked, and put two fingers to his lips to ask for silence. “Iwayama-san” he said, and shook his head no. I was confused, but hadn’t been planning on revealing my intimidate day in the mountains to my boss anyway, so I agreed.
Our wives returned, Tomodachi-san swore them to silence as well, and we parted ways. Though I have his phone number, I can’t imagine actually calling him. But maybe that’ll change the next time I need some fresh air and a good soak.
Joe Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama, Japan with his darling wife who’s his actual best friend in town. If you enjoyed the homoerotic vibe of this piece, you might enjoy grunting with gaijin, if you want more about the natural splendor of Japan, why not find out the insects of Japan.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Horror of the Lion-dancers

A Lion-dancer nibbles the brain of a defenseless child.
This weekend we witnessed the horror of a Lion-dance festival. Thirty beasts moved in unsettling synchronized steps, then turned their snapping jaws on the crowd. Some of the adults offered their own flesh, but the most delicious morsels, the children, were unwillingly sacrificed to the monsters. Kids watched in mute horror as parents carried screaming children to the jaws of the hungry, dancing lions. Dazed, the children didn’t think to protest until their own parents lifted them and carried them to their doom. They’d scream, punch with their tiny little fists, cry for help, but to no avail. The only escape was through the jaws of one these beasts. The Lion-dancers would nibble at the screaming child’s brains, their parents would laugh and maybe snap a picture, and then the ordeal was over.
Do you want a snack? Parents would ask their traumatized little ones.
I needed this festival. As the trees turn orange, and Halloween approaches, I’ve been feeling a bit homesick. There’s still bags of cheap candy in the stores in Japan, but everyone assures me that, no, there will be no trick-or-treaters. I always hiked miles as a kid, jacked on high fructose corn syrup, daring my friends to go grab candy from the abandoned house with a strobe light flashing eerily, only to pee my pants as a masked killer rushed us from the hedges. Later, too old to trick-or-treat I dressed as a scarecrow on my front porch and grabbed unsuspecting victims or simply hid inside the door, waiting for the perfect moment to strike as my wife doled out candy.  So alas, I was quite sad I wouldn’t get to scare any children this year.
It seems that duty lies with the Lion-dancers.
My first experience with the Lion-dancers was at the kindergarten where I teach. The teachers stopped class and dragged the kids out to playground while the principal locked the doors to prevent the kids from hiding in the building. Six men came out, dressed in traditional Japanese garb. They played an eerie melody on shrill flutes that wormed its way into my head. One child was already crying, and soon the whole school was sobbing. They knew what was coming. Only I was ignorant of the terror.
The Lion-dancers made their entrance. As for costumes, I’ve seen far more convincing at Haunted Houses. A Lion-dancer is obviously two men, a sheet, and a red lion/dragon/dog mask with a moveable jaw that one of the dancers snaps in time to the music. The Lion-dancers hopped and their jaws snapped to the beat. The kids tried to scoot away, but their cruel teachers, (myself among them) didn’t let them.
“They’re just people,” I cooed in a foreign tongue.
Then the Lion-dancers rushed forward. The kids ran. Teachers stopped as many as they could. I managed to snag a few and held them down as the Lion-dancers approached, jaws snapping. We took turns dragging the kids forward towards their hungry jaws. The Lion-dancers would politely nibble each child’s skull--melting them into a sobbing wreck--then abandon them for their next victim.
I actually had to teach them English after this traumatizing experience. The kids looked like hell. Their hair was tangled, their clothes dirty from running and falling in the path of the Lion-dancers. They sang the alphabet through tear streaked faces. They needed a nap or a stiff drink.
I told this story to one my most gifted students and she explained the horrific custom. A bite from the Lion-dancers bestows wisdom, so schools hire them to terrorize the children and parents drag their children to festivals to be bitten. Lion-dancers were soon going to visit her high school and she doubted she’d be able to face them. When she was little, a Lion-dancer came to her door and chased her through her house until it cornered her under her bed. Her parents dragged her out and offered their screaming child to the monster. This student is seventeen years old and she’s still terrified of the things. The terror of the experience must be proportional to the intelligence bestowed, because she’s one of my brightest students, and I have heard no story more terrifying.
Back at the festival, the Lions left and were replaced with a slow procession of children. They moved
The young samurai of the festival
across the stage in a hypnotic dance. There were tiny girls in kimonos, boys with spears, hammers and umbrellas, and samurai. After the trauma of the Lion dance, their performance was relaxing and absorbing. They moved with the surety of tradition, each verse another step in their dance.
These weren’t the same kids whose parents drag them to these festival. These were performers, a part of the festival, perhaps the children of the Lion-dancers. These were the children who made the festival exist, the kids carrying the tradition. But there were only so many of them. The rest were from all over the city, brought here to experience the purest of emotions, terror, and in doing so, perhaps plant the seed of distrust in their parents that would one day grow into full-fledged rebellion and drive them from their homes. After all, they weren’t part of any traditional dance, they were victims of the slaughter. City kids with videogames and ramen noodle shops and no roots to their past, save this one, the one that might drive them farther from tradition than their own terrified parents already are.
But I don’t think it will.

There’s something about terror that transcends culture; people the world over value fear. Be it the Brothers Grimm, Freddy Krueger or Lion-dancers, adults get a sick pleasure from traumatizing their children. Parents, camp counselors and big brothers the world over recognize this. Some part of us wants to be scared, that’s why we ask to hear ghost stories and to see scary movies. Fear awakens something in us, something primal, but perhaps it must be balanced by silly masks and obvious costumes, so we can still sleep at night in a house with the true masters or terror: our parents. 
Joe Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama Japan with darling wife, and looks forward to carving pumpkins and handing out candy despite the lack of trick-or-treaters, damn it. Read more about a genius Japanese students, or other weird Japanese festivals. And please +1 if you liked this story!  

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Takayama Matsuri

The shrill trill of flutes, ancient yatai, and the greasy smell of festival food all competed for my attention. I had been looking forward to this festival since we arrived in Japan.  

The story goes the emperor of Japan hired carpenters from Takayama to build his palace, as they were the best woodworkers in all of land. And though they built his beautiful home, they were still required to pay heavy taxes. Unhappy with this state-imposed robbery, the carpenters melted all of their money into gold leaf, traded their skill for silk, and made the most beautiful yatai in all of Japan.   

And yet, something about the festival, like much of Japan, is an unspoken bond between the ancient and the modern, (another contradiction for my regular readers). In the states, there are no festivals like this, no ancient rituals to the gods. In the states, people crowd around to see musicians play guitar, while at the Fall Festival, they crowd around to see puppets. And when the puppet fails to swing out to the last rung of the monkey bars, a man in a hood carefully moves it, strings be damned, and the crowd giggles at this failure of ancient technology and snaps pictures on their cell phones.

The old and the new blend together seamlessly in japan. Even the crowd seemed a mix of the centuries; there were tiny children and doting grandparents, uniformed teenagers daring each other to dip their toes in the river, Tokyo fashionistas in too-high heels, and Europeans crowding around the only gyro stand in all of Takayama. Though we were all there ostensibly for the yatai, I think that we, like people throughout the ages, truly enjoy festivals for the food.

This is what my students told me after all. “The best time to go is 10am.”

Really? Why’s that?

“That’s when the food stands open.”

The food was also part ancient tradition and part modern artifice. I, being the foolish foreigner that I am, headed straight for the enormous spiked sea snails an elderly man was grilling. Shocked that I wanted one of these horrifyingly large mollusks, he carefully picked a juicy one and handed it over with a tiny wooden spear for me to gore it with. I wandered off, cradling my meal and looking for my wife. I founder her grinning ear to ear as she held a big, round orange and sucked the juice from it. Drinking orange juice straight from the orange looks like something traditional, but it requires a specialized blender to liquefy the fruit’s insides and not damage the peel. The ancient and modern blended yet again. Eager to show her up with my far more bizarre festival fare, I speared my snail’s firm flesh and took a bite.

It was the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten. Ever. I am not one to be squeamish. I dine on all manner of sea creatures, from unagi to urchin. I’ve eaten cartilage, raw scallops and garden snails by the bucket. I once slaughtered a guinea fowl only to dine upon its heart and gizzards. So I think I’m more adventurous than some (certainly than my wife, who thinks a cucumber on a stick is the epitome of exciting food) but this sea snail was horrible. It was bitter, bitter as the smell of burnt matches. It was huge and impossible to tear apart with my teeth. I’ve had snails before, and always the intestines are removed, but not for this guy. As I gnawed at the snail’s flesh and attempted to force it down my throat, I saw centimeters of curled up blackness approach my mouth. It was too much. I spit it out, ashamed of my shortcomings, and begged my wife for a drink of orange juice.

I gave up on traditional food after that. I queued up with the Europeans for a gyro, bought a bag of tiny pastries that are somewhere between a baked donut and a funnel cake, and a skewer of delicious hida beef. The gyro was strange, the sweets gave me a bellyache, but the hida beef… oh yes. Hida beef is richer than the emperor. Hida beef is succulent rivers of fat between tiny islands of muscle. If hida beef is the solar system, the planets are the meat, and the enormous space in between is grass fed, pampered perfection. Satiated, we went off in search of the parade.

The parade is a fantastic blend of the ancient and the modern. Around a dozen men haul each yatai down narrow Japanese streets. People lined up, eager to see this procession. One man screamed at the rest to get out of the way while a bumbling police officer continued to let cars drive towards the approaching yatai.

Some of the elaborate floats have children perched atop them, some venerated members of the community, but the tallest float had the greatest rider. He perched atop the very tip of the yatai, and did not come down, not even when they tilted the entire structure back on two wheels so they could maneuver it around a corner. He carried a pronged stick, and used it to prevent electrical wires from snagging on elaborate gold sculptures or electrocuting anybody. His presence, more than anything else at the festival, made me appreciate the blend of the ancient and modern. This route has changed little over the years. And yet the festival evolves. It has too. Water damage and theft might have once been the greatest threat to the gods within the floats, but now
this man must ride the yatai to prevent death by electric wire.

And the festival participants take all this in stride. There is no contradiction between the old and the new, no need to silence your cellphone in the presence of the divine. There’s a coexistence between the ancient and the modern here that is as puzzling as it is refreshing. I can see a seven eleven from the temple near my home. Apartment buildings fight rice paddies for space; neither is willing to move, and neither has to. Instead both ways of thought, tradition and progress, grudgingly accept each other and force each other to evolve.

It’s strange and a little unsettling, but it’s beautiful and makes for better festival food than sea snail.
Joe Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama Japan with his darling wife. If you enjoyed this story, why not drunkenly tell your friend about it at the bar, or hit the +1 button?

Read more about Festivals, food, or fun in Japan.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Cultural Contradictions.

“Does Japan have any contradictions?”
My brother asked me this a while ago. I shrugged in reply, not sure where he was going with this.
“You know like how America is obsessed with freedom but has more people in jail than China.”
Ah yes. Cultural contradictions. Like how Americans spend time and money on their front lawns and then hide inside their homes.  Japan has them in spades. They love nature here, and also everything being individually wrapped (and I mean EVERYTHING. I've opened a bag of peanuts to find bags of peanuts inside.) But the most obvious contradiction is their relationship with gambling.
Ask a Japanese person about gambling and they all say the same thing “Gambling is illegal in Japan.”

What about pachinko? 

“Eh… that’s different.” My boss told me gambling with pachinko works something like the electoral college system does in America, its participation by proxy. If you win at pachinko, all you can do with your tub of ball bearings is trade them in for a Pikachu doll or a tea set. You leave with your doll, confused by the whole experience. Why was it so stressful? Why were there people chain smoking at eleven am? What just happened to your money? But on you way out a man from the small store next door calls you over and offers you a nice stack of cash for your doll. You hand it over and thus, gambled by proxy.
Contradictions are everywhere, and not just perpetrated by the Japanese. Most of the ex-pats here pine for the home they’ll never return to. I'm guilty of this as well. I spent last Saturday with a man from Holland complaining about how lousy the beer is in Japan while we drank delicious shochu- Japanese moonshine- that his wife had infused with sour plums. We always want what we can't have. Maybe that's the contradiction of desire.
Safety is a contradiction in Japan. Japan is a very safe place, but never have I felt more consistently in a state of danger. Takayama is supposed to be very safe, it's not near any fault lines or in danger of being hit by a tsunami, yet they use emergency broadcast speakers every day, a safety feature that would do little to save my English speaking ass. And yet, when Mt. Ontake erupted, less than 30 kilometers away, all my Japanese friends told me not worry, we were upwind from the deadly plumes of ash. Finally, a genuine threat, and for once I felt safe.
There’s even a religious cult (hey that’s what the locals call it) that is centered in Takayama because its perceived safety. They picked a city an island plagued with tsunamis, typhoons, earthquakes and volcanoes, for safety. Maybe they worship the contradiction.  
One of my students, an incredibly gifted girl explained it to me.
“Do you know this place?” she asked, and drew its recognizable roof and the peach atop it. I nodded. It was hard not to know it. The temple is huge and is visible from almost everywhere in the city.
“They believe it is like the story of Noah, do you know it?”
I feigned ignorance and sat in amazement as a Japanese high school student told me a parable from my own culture.
“Noah got two of every animal and put them in his boat . It rained, and everyone died, but Noah and the animals were safe.”
I got chills. I’m not religious, not in the least, but it was amazing to hear a story I'm familiar with told to me by someone who didn’t grow up knowing it. It gave it a certain magic that fairy tales possess. 
“They believe their temple is the boat.”
Wow. Bravo. A perfect parable. Made magical to me because it was told in a foreign land. Contradictions abound.
But what do you think? I asked her.
“Well, Takayama is very safe.”
“Yes, yes, yes but do you believe these people were chosen by god to be safe in their ark?” Hey, its not often you get to talk about metaphysics with a high schooler. She smiled devilishly. This is what she had been waiting for. 
“No. I think they’re just the animals.”

I just set her up for the punchline. This enchanting story of religion and survival was just a rouse, another brilliant contradiction,  made sweeter for involving a familiar ancient religion and the fools that believe it.

Joe Darris Mitchell lives in Japan with his darling wife. If you liked this, why not read more about foreigners or the floods he barely survived?