Sunday, September 28, 2008

R.I.P., Frank

For thirty minutes, as I watched the Japanese bureaucrats enthusiastically stamp official vermilion stamps within official vermilion stamps on Frank's Death Certificate (Junking slip), I felt a surge of grief. But then, I smelled our new car. And I got over it.
In our defense for jettisoning the ugly (but lovable) monster, it would have cost us a lot more this time for the Japanese Insurance. That's why everyone has a brand spankin' new car here.
After 5 years, the cost to insure an older car just gets too prohibitive.
Which reminds me...we went to eat brunch at a hotel in Tokyo a few weekends ago for the first time in a long time. The lady glanced at Claire and asked her age. I told her and she informed us that she would be the adult price now, a whole ten dollars more. I guess that's fair because the girl can eat.
Lily looked at her sister and said, "Jeez Claire, you are getting really expensive. Maybe we
should junk you too."
In broad daylight, in front of God and country, she was smacked upside the head by her costly older sister. Karma is a killer.

The Pleasure of a Thousand Autumns

These colorul banners depict the names of the sumo wrestlers taking part in the Tokyo Sumo Tournament (Basho), held for two weeks every September. Tim and I had the good fortune to snag tickets for the last day of competition. We took a tour up to Tokyo BY OURSELVES, which made the trip quite peaceful. Not knowing how long the day would be or how much we would understand of the spectacle, we left the girls in the care of friends so as to escape the inevitable chorus of "I'm booooooored."

What a spectacle it turned out to be. Mesmerizing, zany, intensely suspenseful, solemn, rowdy--I have never experienced anything like it. Watching two obese guys go at it on TV just doesn't do the experience justice. It is so much more.

Sumo is an ancient sport, if you could call it that. It's origins, yes, you guessed it right, are Shinto. Because it originally was a contest between two wrestlers to predict whether good or bad spirits would control the harvest, each and every moment is dictated by ancient shinto beliefs and tradition. When the two wrestlers raise their legs up high and thunder them down on the ring, they are trying to stamp out evil spirits. Throwing handfuls of salt before the match helps purify the ring and protects the athletes from injury. They ceremonially rinse their mouths out with water before the match, which is still done as well in the tea ceremony and before people enter a shrine.

The actual matches oftentimes last only a few seconds or sometimes as much as a few minutes. The pageantry before is mesmerizing. By the time the contestants have finished stomping their feet, rinsing their mouths, and crouching and glaring at one another several times, the crowd is completely stoked. Everyone is on the edge of their seats, waiting. The wrestlers finally lunge at each other like two linebackers, with speed and dexterity belying their enormous size. Whoever forces his opponent first to touch the ground with anything besides his feet or forces the other to step outside the ring, is the winner.

The crowd reacts with gasps, moans and shouts of approval for each move. I had as much fun watching the people as I did the sumo wrestlers. They can go from shouting at the top of their lungs to complete Library Mandated Silence in a matter of seconds.

I had particular joy watching the PCFs (private crazy fans) sitting next to us. A gaggle of young Japanese girls were pouring over the wrestlers' glossy pix in a book. (It was like a scene out of Sex and the City except they were downing beers instead of martinis.) Everytime "their" man entered the ring, they started screaming, rock groupie style. Although I couldn't understand fully what they were saying, I heard the words OKI (Biiiiiiig!) and KAWAII (Cuuuuuuute!) quite a bit. "Big" I can relate to, but "cute" wouldn't be the word I would use to describe these gentleman, although I am sure it's an acquired taste. I am told that if a woman snags one of these guys, it is the ultimate female victory.

Strangely, or maybe not, a Fantasy Sumo League exists here. I think it's the "Fantasy" part that trips me up.

Like sports' enthusiasts in the states, people of all ages follow sumo like it's a religion....well...because it actually is a religion. I can not think of another sport on earth that is a fascinating blend of modern day hoopla and ancient solemn rituals. The tea ceremony, sumo and many martial arts are this country's Holy Communion. People do not go to "church" every Sunday to reenact holy rituals, they do it in their everyday lives, as a nation. Sumo is just one outward and visible sign of their inward and invisible faith.

The awards assembly at the end was pure modern hoopla, though. The Basho Champion not only receives a ridiculous amount of money, but each sponsor (about 50 in all) awards him a trophy or prize. Many of the trophies were life-sized. Sumo life-sized. The very diminutive Japanese Deputy Prime Minister tried to casually pick up one of these and walk it over to the champion, his back bowed from the effort. The champion took it from him and lifted it up as if he were bench pressing chopsticks. Hilarious.

The awards ceremony only happens on the last day of the basho. When we got home, I had some questions about some of the rituals so I did some research online. I discovered that the last day of the September basho is called senshuraku, or literally, the pleasure of a thousand autumns. As I have explained before, the Japanese are particulary fond of the changing seasons and the temporal joys found within them.

Not only did we get to experience something new on Sunday, which is always a pleasure, but it was also the first day that it felt like Fall in Tokyo--the heat and humidity seemed to be taking their final curtain call of the year. On the way to the sumo stadium, I saw the first leaves starting to turn pale yellow. Our morning glory has died back and left swollen seed pods on its red vines. Nature is preparing to close up shop. It's gently warning us that Winter is Coming.

I guess that's why I love Fall so much. Even though I know the cold and darkness are on their way...there are thousands of pleasures to experience yet.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Storm Warnings

What a crappy weekend, weather-wise. The whole base shut down Friday night for The Typhoon That Never Was. I swear, on the military's part, it's like the Boy Who Cried Wolf. All the restaurants shut down early and the front gate closed at 10PM, which meant no traffic coming on or off base. I went out in the pouring rain to get water and poptarts (more important than a flashlight) at the minimart in case the electricity went out and waited in line for 15 minutes with all the typhoon revelers buying booze. I cleared off our decks and brought everything inside. We hunkered down and then at 4AM it came in all it's glory...some gusty winds that rattled the doors. Whoooopeeee.

Thankfully, since the storm was brief and wimpy, we were able to go out for sushi with Onosan (see earlier post). Tim and I hit some of the antique stores around Yokosuka. So the weekend wasn't a complete wash.

Sunday brought pelting rain. We watched movies and cleaned house. Ah, boredom and hormonal pre-teens...The Perfect Storm. By 5PM, the girls were at each other's throats. Most of their fights progress as follows:

Claire bursts out of her room, head on fire.
Accuses Lily of going into her room without permission.
And messing with her stuff.
Lily protests vehemently.
But is ALWAYS guilty.
I have to intervene before neighbors call security.

So this is precisely what happened on Sunday except Claire comes screaming out of her room that Lily has been using "her" cell phone.

Lily can't protest because she and her friend have recorded little movies on it, "The Bob and Joe Show". Lily counterpoints that Claire gave her the phone. Claire rages indignantly that she said she could use "her" phone to call the friend's mom, not record video. I step in and remind Claire that the phone, in fact, is not hers. "Uh (eyes rolling), YES it is, Mom." Uh, Claire, did you pay for the phone? Uh, do you have the 35 dollars to pay for the phonecard?

She conceded that she did not. I then reminded Lily that she was only to use the phone to call, not record. They both silently retreated to their rooms.

Just as I'm sitting my behind back in my chair to read, Claire flies out of her room for Furious Fit, Part 2 (she's our family's own little weather system). "Not only did she record stuff without my permission, but she snuck in my room after her friend left!" Lily protests vehemently. Okay, Claire, how do you know that? She shoves the phone in my face. Well, there indeed is a video short of Lily's feet "having an argument" on Claire's bed. Lily smiles sheepishly and runs into her room.

Claire is so pissed. I am laughing too hard to mediate any further. Come on Claire, THAT was funny. She smiles slightly.

After I regain my composure, I lecture Lily about going into her sister's room without permission and promise Ultimate Doom if she does it again. I also make a mental note to get that kid a video camera for her birthday.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Paying it Forward

Hi Everyone,

I am so stuffed.

Today, my new student Onosan and his wife invited our whole family to an outstanding sushi bar in Miura, a small coastal town south of Yokosuka. Onosan is a gentleman in every sense of the word--modest, kind and generous. He opens doors for ladies, does his homework diligently and teaches me about sake. He is 75 years old but has the looks and gait of a man of sixty. He brings me or the girls a present, usually some Japanese sweet, every time he has a lesson. I would like to tell him to stop because I feel guilty but I think it would hurt his feelings. He just loves giving gifts. He was referred to me by Akiyamasan, my first student, whose self-professed hobbies are beer drinking and sleeping. I am thankful for having met both of them.

It took us about 45 minutes to follow Onosan by car to the sushi bar. At first glance, it didn't seem like much. You must know that most Japanese restaurants, especially those by the sea, look like dives. Usually I pull up to some dull concrete building with ancient water stains and two parking spaces and think, "I'm eating raw fish in that place?"

This bar had the prerequisite plastic food display outside. After oohing and aaaahing over the life-like sushi (Good God, that salmon should not be out in the sun all day!), we proceeded up the steps of the restaurant. On each side of the bottom step, there were two tiny hills of salt. Just like at the beginning of sumo matches when the wrestlers throw salt to purify the ring and protect themselves from injury, the salt outside restaurants welcomes guests by purifying and protecting the premises. Although I am not certain, I think this is a Shinto tradition. Odds are, if it's a bit wacky and totally charming, it's Shinto. Deeply meditative and serene? Probably Buddhist.

Upon entering, I wasn't too impressed with the atmosphere but I didn't expect to be since most Japanese restaurants tend to be shabby (but immaculate). Down one wall was a long sushi bar, bordered by glass cases full of sea creatures, with 6 chefs at work behind it. Five tatami rooms with large, square, sunken tables made up the other side. We all sat down at the bar and Onosan started ordering from the 2 chefs in front of us, releasing a veritable tsunami of food. First came 3 full plates of sashimi (raw fish, no rice), miso soup and an egg custard dish. Then came all kinds of sushi (raw fish on rice), tempura (fried vegetables and shrimp) and crab legs. And sake. And beer.

I quickly got impressed. I have had many types of sushi, in Japan and the states, and I thought I had tasted some primo quality fish. Nothing compared to this. The tuna was so fresh and tender, it practically melted in my mouth. I didn't even have to make the effort to chew. I try not to be snobby about this kind of stuff, but the sushi in the states compared to this place can best be described with this analogy: Dreaming about sex and actually having sex.

I looked down at Claire and Lily to see how they were doing. Lily, who loves sushi, was chowing down as fast as she could. Claire looked like the Speak-No-Evil Monkey in the picture above. Right in front of her, behind the glass case, was some sort of shell fish. The chef poked it and it faintly shuddered. (Lily said it did The Wave.) The scene was somewhat akin to watching a small child run into a sliding glass door. You know you ought to feel more empathy but it's just too darn funny.

On account of being invited by them, Onosan and his wife payed for everything, of course. This is Japanese traditional hospitality. After leaving the restaurant, we went next door to the fresh fish and vegetable market so Onosan's wife could do some shopping. I filled my basket with some rice, veggies and some snacks for the girls and Onosan offered to hold the basket. Next thing I know, he is insisting on buying my groceries! I protested vehemently but he wouldn't hear of it. At some point, you can't duke it out with a 75 year old Japanese man in public. "The sushi was my present, this is my wife's present," he said. I couldn't believe it. We brought them small presents for hosting us but it seemed so trivial. Is there any way for us to "repay" the incredible kindness we have witnessed here?

Good people, like good sushi, are hard to find sometimes. But I know in my heart that if I keep looking, there will be an opportunity to "pay forward" what I have been given. I just hope that I will recognize it when it happens and be as honorable in my intentions as my role models have been.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Aforementioned Monkeys

On a lighter note from the previous blog (geez, that wouldn't be hard)...

Doesn't the middle monkey, Mr. Speak-No-Evil, look like he's trying to be polite but is about to puke? Or maybe he's just seen a buddhist/shinto flasher. It's hard to tell.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hearing, Speaking and Seeing

Above is the familiar image of the See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil monkeys. These monkeys are etched above the stable of the Sacred White Horse at Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. Shrines are Shinto in origin. Shintos have always believed that horses belong to the gods and that monkeys are protective spirits. So the author of this beautiful carving obviously wanted to make sure that the gods' prized possession was carefully guarded. Even though this shrine was built in the 1600s, a Sacred White Horse still resides in the stable--a gift from New Zealand. I absolutely love how tradition lives here in Japan.

Toshogu shrine, although Shinto in origin, seamlessly melds both Shinto and Buddhist influences. Shintoism is the indigenous religion of the Japanese people. It is not a "written" religion with a sacred text, but rather a conglomeration of beliefs based on societal rules. Ancestral worship and a strong abhorrence of death are its chief characteristics. Buddhism came from India, via China and the Korean Peninsula. Buddhists view death as a natural part of life that must be shed along with other earthly bonds to achieve nirvana. The samurai developed Zen Buddhism, the uniquely Japanese sect of Buddhism, as their strict ethical code, religion and way of life. By the time Buddhism reached Japan, its sacred texts had been widely dispersed and it was a truly "organized" religion. It became a national religion as the shoguns wrestled power away from the traditionally Shinto Emperor.

Somehow, someway, though, these two very distinct and oftentimes oppositional belief systems became intertwined. They exist and have always existed completely at peace with one another in this country. Sometimes it is very difficult for an outsider to recognize where one ends and the other begins in their influence on the Japanese spirit and culture. Without forcing supremacy of one over the other, the Japanese have found a way to take the best of both religions and weave their teachings into their everyday existence. It's amazing.

I suppose all this came to my mind recently because I have been thinking of my own faith quite a bit. It has been a humbling week. Mostly because I have realized the teachings I thought were woven into my framework have come loose a bit.

Those of you who know me well, know how important religion is in my life. I am endlessly fascinated by what people believe (or don't) and why they believe it (or not). I absolutely love hearing what folks have to say about how faith influences their life or doesn't.To investigate the mystery of faith, I enjoy searching out the "clues" and following these spiritual footprints of faith back to their cultural sources. The grand impressions left by the national culture are usually obvious, but the more delicate and faint lines, the ones left behind by the personal-familial culture are ultimately more engaging. As with any relationship, one's relationship or lack thereof with God is complex. And complexity is compelling. Scary sometimes, but compelling. So, oftentimes when I go out into the world, I am on an awkward quest to try and "understand" this beautiful chaos called humanity.

Unfortunately, I have an Achilles heel that really lays me up sometimes. I just absolutely hate spiritual arrogance. You know, the My God is Better Than Your God mentality that pervades cultures. I find that the American culture is especially prone to this. As a self-professed "Christian Nation", we oftentimes try and make sense of the chaos by imposing our particular world view, our order, on it. Some believe that this order is best achieved by a literal approach. Frankly, I don't have a problem with someone being a Biblical Literalist. If somebody finds comfort in believing that the Bible was telepathically faxed to Mankind and then copied and pasted into the Greatest Word Document Ever (with no editing), more power to them. It's not provable, but that's what faith is about. It's belief in the unprovable.

So when I hear someone state as fact that which is unprovable, it literally drives me crazy. When I hear the statement from a girlfriend that it's "so sad that the poor Buddhists will never know what it's like to spend Eternity with the Lord" or when a person uses scripture as a weapon to intimidate others into believing what he believes, I can't think straight. That type of arrogance MAKES ME NUTS. Using fear (whether subtle or overt) to bully others into being "saved" is so contrary to what I know in my soul that I instantly get angry at the offense.

So to make a long story short(er), I got in a theological, ahem, "discussion" with one of these folk on an online forum discussing a recent bestselling work of fiction. He felt the book was "demonic" because it didn't follow the Bible to the letter. Trying to convince another person on the site that his interpretation was The Truth, he pulled out all the Biblical scripture standards as "proof" of his superior view. I called him on his arrogance. He responded that I didn't love God's word. I called him a Bible Bully. He assured me that I would perish in the Lakes of Fire. I told him I wasn't scared of him and his lakes of fire--my relationship with God was based on love and compassion. Other people chimed in and staked their ground.

But then, he said something that stopped me in my tracks. A total stranger told me that he knew he had The Truth on his side because he had been "kicked out" of his family for his views. I got the distinct impression that even though he saw himself as a modern day Christian martyr, he hadn't chosen to leave his family. Rather, his family left him.

Kicked out of his family because of what he believed.

Shunned by those who should love you most in this world, because of your relationship to God. Can you imagine? In an instant, everything I held dear about my own demented but loving family rushed over me. And I could imagine the absence of that love...and it broke my heart.

Of course he was a bully. Because he had been bullied. And my girlfriend, the one who felt sorry for the "poor Buddhists", she broke our friendship because my beliefs "deeply disturbed" her and she felt I wasn't the Christian I ought to be. But she had been through hell this past year and was only trying to define her own chaotic world, a world that had lost all its definable borders. I believe now that it was a matter of necessity for her to define her world the best she could so the chaos wouldn't overtake it again, so she could be comforted in a time of trouble.

Maybe it's not the Chaos we should fear, though, but our attempts to order it at all costs...Usually I love getting lost in the chaos, it's one of the reasons I enjoy traveling so much. I enjoy witnessing how my understanding of the world is pretty small. Traveling has a way of rearranging a personal sense of order: On a small scale, I have eaten rice and fish for breakfast. On The Grand Scale, I am seeing how two "opposed" religions are united in their love of what is good...but distinctly different in their approach of how to live out this goodness in this world.

Which brings us back to the monkeys. This image got me to thinking. Most of the time, I can abstain from hearing, speaking and seeing Evil. It's difficult, but as far as these three senses go, I can control them. Yes, not always successfully, but at least somewhat consistently. But what about that pride, that anger that rises up when I think my own beliefs and sense of order are being assailed? What about that hypocrisy that dwells in my heart? I define my relationship with God by love and compassion and an absence of fear--the Order in the Chaos. Yet, I still walk down that road of pride and anger all the time, without even THINKING about it. With strangers or loved ones, I still seek out what is different rather than what is unifying.

Perhaps the creator of these monkeys was as blind as I am. Perhaps there should have been, in fact should be, a fourth monkey, carefully covering his heart:

Feel No Evil.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Proof That I Don't Make This Stuff Up

Here's the picture I was talking about in the Festival and Fireflowers post....It was taken at the airport in Taiwan a few years ago on our way to Bangkok. The restaurant sign above the girls says, "Beef, Noodles, Gruel & Dishes".

Um, I would like a large order of Beef, a small Noodles, one of your Dishes and...Is your gruel really that good? Okay, a large order of Gruel then...Wait a minute. What, darling? Oh, hey, can I super-size my gruel order? Great! Uh huh, that's all....oh, sorry, wait just a second... Now what? I'm so sorry! My daughter would like to change her small Noodles to a McGruel Meal. Alright, baby, I'll ask. Does she have a choice between the Medieval Emaciated Prisoner and Dickens' Destitute Orphan doll toys? Oh perfect, thank you so much!

The best part of it all was that, after you got your Gruel to Go, you could mozey next door and get a "Foots Massage".

No kidding.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Livin' la Style Free Vida

A sad, but inevitable piece of news from Japan: Frank is not long for this world. His JCI (Japanese Insurance Tax Thingy) is due in November and I'm pretty sure with the two windows that won't roll up (unless you count the duct tape intervention), he won't pass inspection. They are bound to notice a few things.

Also, no way, no how I'm shelling out $800 to keep an embarrassing car, even if by some miracle, he passes. To add insult to injury, with the warm weather and humidity, a formerly subtle odour (did someone pass wind, maybe?) has now become a quite rude stench (what frickin died in here?). It's bad enough that the car is hideous on the outside, but as passengers, hey, gazing at Frank isn't OUR problem. But now we are constantly reminded that he is an unmitigable disaster with no redeeming qualities. How did we not see this all along? We were so blind. And greedy.

To add to the case of junking Frank, our neighbor, who is moving soon, offered us a nicer, newer, and get this, FREE CAR. I know what you are thinking: We could be God's Chosen People and He is rewarding us with Vehicular Manna from Heaven. But Caveat Emptor. Just like the real manna, this stuff gets the job done but isn't too palatable. You just have to throw out all preconceived ideas of taste, close your eyes and gulp it down.

Which reminds me of a funny ad I saw the other day. I'm in my zoning-on-the-train mode, when I look up and see a beer ad, mostly in indecipherable Kanji, but some English: "New Asahi Beer--Style Free!"

Huh, wha? Is this a selling point? Did they mean, no style at all? Refreshingly free of style? No style has been added? Oh sweet mystery of life...

In any case, it pertains to our car "purchases" in Japan. Our new car, which we get at the end of the month, only has one giant scratch that is oozing rusty goo. No problem. Although I am not sure about the smell, at least the doors are all the same color. BOOOOONUS! In any case, we are used to living the style-free life over frees up money for travel and to waste on kooky snacks and drinks (Jello Juice, anyone?).

We are so committed to this way of life that we have formulated a pledge: We will hereby continue to be 1oo% Style Free. No unnecessary style will be added to our product. We will actively promote all things style-less and generally lacking of said style whilst in Japan.

We hope this message inspires everyone, everywhere, to become style-free in the very near future.

So we won't look so dang ridiculous.

Back to Reality, For Better or Worse

Hello Friends and Family, (and Friends of Family--thanks for fowarding my blog, Leen!)

It has been a busy, "confusing" week here in Japan. Note: One of my students, who runs a hotel, when asked how his week went, always responds, "Velly confusing". He means "hectic". But I like confusing better. It fits so well with having two kids, working two jobs and navigating the lunacy of military life. I so get what he's saying.

Anywho, school is in, of course. My blissful, zen existence of the first day was brief and zen experiences tend to be. I am back as a substitute teacher and working pretty regularly. I have also added on another private student, as well as begun teaching two classes at a Japanese school. I really adore my new student. He is 75 years old but looks and acts like he's 60. He reminds me of my dad--robust, snow white hair, super kind and enjoys his grandkids. Living on a military base, you just don't see a lot of "old" people. I love being around Japanese seniors--they are just like their american counterparts in so many ways. They have "seen it all" and "done it all", but don't pretend to "know it all". Refreshing.

My first week back at subbing reminded me why I love that job. First, I get paid more than many of the full time aides. Second, the kids are hilarious.

My first gig was with the Special Ed preschoolers. Normally, this is a special rung in Dante's hell. However, as luck would have it, only TWO kids showed up the first morning. Most of the children are autistic, which means they are stubborn as hell, but easily distracted. As we were swinging on the playground during some well earned "distraction" time, one little girl started freaking out about some flame-colored dragonflies that were swooping over our heads. I explained to her that dragonflies were not bees, they did not sting and there was nothing to be afraid of. "They are friendly," I said. "They love to play," I said. "They are lucky," I said.

Next thing I know, she is chasing after one with her arms spread wide to the sky, yelling, "Come here Mr. Dragonfly, I want to hug youuuuuuuuu!" Then, she ran after another one making kissing noises (mwah, mwah, mwah, I love you Mr. Dragonfly!) across the expanse of playground. She and the little boy sprinted after them for 15 minutes, calling for the dragonflies to "come back" when they disappeared over the fence. They obliged. Which sent the two shrieking and giggling in another direction. (There was no end to the dragonflies...apparently these bright orange ones are a harbringer of Fall, according to my friend Keiko, and they just happened to pop out for the first week of school).

After 15 minutes of wind sprints and general hilarity, I look over and the little boy is face down on the cement with his arms and legs splayed out in all directions. He looked like preschool roadkill. I asked him if he was all right. He replied, "I'm hot." And didn't move. It's amazing how we don't notice discomfort when we are really enjoying the Joy Luck Club called life.

Yes, dragonflies are very lucky, I think.