Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bump of Chicken and Super Mattress Games

Tim and I enjoyed two amazing days in Kyoto last weekend for many reasons that you might easily imagine:

a) The sight of Mount Fuji in its winter kimono from the Shinkansen
b) The ancient temples and shrines in the snow
c) The delicious noodles and tofu (Kyoto is known for its creative use of soy beans)
d) The shocking lack of children whining (ours, in particular)

You can't walk 60 seconds in this town without encountering a sacred space...Kyoto has 17 World Heritage sites, 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines as well as several castles and major gardens. It's truly the Rome of the Far East.

These visual delights are indeed mesmerizing in their own right, but holding equal rank are the more profane and less well-known pleasures of Japanese culture, namely Japanese Pop (J-Pop) names and hotel porn titles.

On the way back down from Kiyomizudera, a profound temple nestled in the hills surrounding the ancient capital, snakes a narrow street of souvenir shops and eateries. I was admiring the local pottery when I spied a bumper sticker of my favorite J-Pop band, BUMP OF CHICKEN, in a tiny music shop. Granted, I've never listened to their music, but how can you not be a fan of that name?

I must have picked up some good luck in the temple, because they also had one copy left of HIDE (pronounced heeday),currently touring with...SPREAD BEAVER.

Hide AND Spread Beaver on one stage? Wow. The awesomeness cannot be contained in two hands. It just can't.

I silently wondered all weekend if PETA continually picketed their concerts. When we got home, Claire questioned what Spread Beaver actually meant: Was it something you smeared on crackers or something more...well...? This, of course, brings me to the topic of porn movies in Japanese hotels.

Since we are not into the club/karaoke/"hostess" bar scene that dominates the local night-life, we opted to get some dessert after dinner and head back early to the hotel. We could have gone to the pool...but that cost $21 per person. (I am thinking of writing a small note to the hotel CEO that simply says, "REALLY?! Sincere regards, Nancy B." (I would frame the response.)

Unfortunately, the in-house movies cost the same as the pool. The NEW releases were Harry Potter and Spider Man 3. The free channels consisted of CNN and endless montages of "relaxing" underwater vistas. Okay, on to the Adult least that might be worth 21 bucks because I was pretty sure we hadn't seen them yet.

Here were our choices, verbatim:

The Undergarment of Sister-in-Law

The Beautiful Hip of Neighbor

And my personal favorite, Super Mattress Games. (I think this might be a Nintendo game, too. Although a release date currently doesn't exist, I can't wait for Super Mattress X-Games for the Wii.) In the end, paralyzed with indecision, we ended up just watching Stripes on the computer until the battery died.

Lame, I know. Perhaps, if we could have found out if SPREAD BEAVER were on one of the soundtracks, our choice would have been easy. Perhaps.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Fed up with icy roads and the local idiots driving on them? Ready to stick your head in an oven if the kids have one more snow day? Perhaps you should consider moving to Japan because today's Setsubun celebration drove the last nail into Old Man Winter's frigid coffin. Tomorrow is offically the first day of spring.

Setsubun, February 3rd, marks the last day of the "old" year by ritualistically banishing winter's demons (Oni) while simultaneously welcoming the new, green shoots of good luck that appear in springtime. In ancient times, this occasion acted in the same manner as our New Year's Eve. Instead of blowing horns and setting off fireworks to scare off the bad spirits, the Japanese throw roasted soy beans at them.

Don't ask me why soy beans are frightening. I just don't know.

Although I blogged about this festival's significance last year (see the post, Demons Out...Luck In from last February), today I had the good fortune of seeing the bean throwing (Mamemaki) ritual acted out in a humble shrine by the sea in Hayama.

My friend Hiranosan, his wife Hirokosan and I zoomed into the sand parking lot about two minutes before the ceremony started. We threw our coins into the box in front of the shrine's entrance, pulled the thick rope to ring the bell (in case the gods were unaware of our presence), clapped our hands twice and said a small prayer. We took our shoes off, lined them up (toes pointing out, of course) and promptly proceeded to freeze our tootsies off in the open-aired sanctuary.

Except for the subzero temperature "inside", the ceremony reminded me of Ash Wednesday services in the Episcopal Church--a comforting blend of solemnity and community. A head priest and his assistant blessed the congregation and chanted mysterious words, as mothers with babies arrived late and out of breath, standing in the back in case a quick exit might be needed. We stood up, we sat down. We bowed our heads. An older gentleman carefully brought the offering, a small tree branch adorned with strips of Shinto paper, to the altar.

The toddlers became restless. Although I couldn't understand the words, I could "hear" their little voices pestering their mothers with questions and complaints: "Mama, why does that man have a funny hat?", "What is he saying?", and/or, perhaps, "I can't feel my flippin' feet." (I have a lot in common with Japanese babies.)

They settled down quickly as the priest blessed the beans and started to scatter them around the sanctuary, starting in the northwest corner--the most unlucky compass point since apparently the Oni like to roll in from that direction. I could hear the terrifying legumes ping off the straw tatami mats and under the sanctuary furniture. (I wondered if, like errant strands of Easter grass, the shrine keepers would still be finding them months later in unexpected places.)

The whole experience was over before I knew it. The head priest thanked his congregants for coming. Retired folk and young mothers filed out of the shrine, replacing their shoes and hats, stamping some life back into their frozen limbs and silently going back to whatever they were up to before this short break from mundane living.

Me, I dropped my friends off at their tennis club and went to fill the car...back to the "normal" life where gas costs a fortune and beans don't have the power to strike fear in the hearts of evil-doers.

But, as always, it was fun spending a little time with a community that I don't oftentimes understand but still love to pieces.