Saturday, July 28, 2007

Heso Matsuri, Hey!

So, I have to begin with important information. I will not be in Japan starting tomorrow. I will be in another place. I will leave exactly where as a secret for now. Anyway, I'll be in California starting on the 13th of August. Sorry about the late notice, but plans came together rather last minute.

So on to a very quick account of my recent activities. Jeff is leaving Japan, so we went on one last trip. To Kusatsu.
And this time, for the first time I tried the Kusatsu baths. Over 45 degrees C with a PH of 1.5! Boiling acid basically. It hurt very badly at the time, but felt really good when the pain went away two hours later.
And here I am at the Heso Matsuri, the big festival that my town puts on once a year. Shibukawa is the belly button of Japan, so lots of people get faces painted on their chest and dance down the street.
Showing here. I got a kappa.
I danced with a large group of foreigners, and got interviewed by the TV News.
See, the mouth is supposed to be the belly button, then you put this hat on and it should look like really short person.
When a really short person actually puts on the hat, there isn't much left.
Here I am dancing. Now why is this fun? Well, I thought it was cool to go dancing down the street with a Kappa on my face, but most of the other people were having fun because of the beer, which is supplied by the city and is consumed frequently furring the dance. However, no one informed my that the parade that we were in would go on for 2 hours. Very sore today.
And here is Shibukawa, the belly button of Japan.
Alright, sorry for the rushed blog entry, but I really have to go get packed.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Nikko Edo Mura

Well, my one month summer vacation finally started. Hooray!! If you thought summer vacation was great as a student, try summer vacation as a teacher. I have to say, I was feeling a little worn down toward the end there.

Saturday saw me head to Tochigi-ken once again with Yuri, Kentaro, Sayaka and Hide. My Japanese has been very weak for the last month and a half, probably because I have been so tired, but being on a trip with all Japanese speakers and without school to worry about on Monday, my Japanese came back with a vengeance. And it is a good thing it did, because the place we were going was Nikko Edo Mura, a.k.a. Edo Wonderland.
Let me tell you a little story about Japan. This story is about the bubble. In the 1980's and early 1990's Japan was on top of the world. There was tons of money to be spent. Or at least that is what people thought. And that money got spent and mis-spent by private organizations and city governments. Well, the Japanese economy shrank, and now there is billions of dollars worth of poorly thought out, half-finished, or unmaintained stuff all over the country as a result of this expansion and subsequent contraction. One of the things that got built literally all over the country during the bubble was theme parks. Almost every city you go to has a theme park. Shibukawa has one, and Shibukawa only has 85,000 people. Lots of these theme parks went out of business. Some are still around. One of these is Nikko Edo Mura.

Nikko Edo Mura is a medieval Japan themed park where actors run around dressed as people from that period. We were greeted by a rough looking samurai that promptly drew a real looking sword and started slashing at us. In a sense it is like those places in the US where volunteers dress up like they are from the old west and walk around town, except these actors were paid. Now, I had been under the impression that we were going to Nikko to see the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu. If I had understood before we went that we would be skipping a trip to the tomb, a World Heritage site and one of the most famous places in Japan, and instead paying $40 to go to a fake Japanese village where actors pretended to be samurai, ninja and geisha, I would have passed. But I'm glad I didn't. While historically inaccurate, fake looking and dilapidated, Nikko Edo Mura has a world class crew of actors. It is better cast than any movie, TV show or play that I have ever seen.

(I have no idea why the rest is underlined. Sorry, Blogger still has some issues.)
Nikko Edo Mura is basically a series of plays that you go and watch. All are based on history, but liberally stretch historical fact in order to make the experience more enjoyable. For example, in the first play, one about the old Red Light district in Tokyo, one of the actors came out on stage and asked for a volunteer to be the customer. In Japan, no one volunteers. So then he said whoever met his gaze would be selected. I thought he said whoever didn't meet his gaze would be selected, so I stared right at his as hard as I could and before I knew it I was up on stage as the customer. And looking quite terrified as I had only a vague idea what he was saying (they sometimes use very old words at Nikko Edo Mura, and if I haven't ever heard it before I don't have much of a chance of understanding).
Well, he put an awful hat on me, told me my one line, which translated as "What the hell is this!!?" and told me to look rich and grunt a lot. Done and done. Hard to keep in character though when the women dressed as a geshia starts to ask you questions and expects a response.
At those times I just tried not to smile and grunted.
Very fun.
Our group and the cast.
This was the next play. Hilarious. The story was the Shogun needed a body double, and the only look alike was this Kabuki actor, who was very hard to teach manners to. The old man in the back fell down in exasperation every time the actor said something outrageous. So every other line.
This is one of the haunted houses (there were three haunted houses at Nikko Edo Mura, and they really were the weak point of the experience).
This is another.
Here is the live combat show. Very, very, very well done.
As you can see.
And here is the villain of the Ninja show holding me hostage.
Me in the Ninja house.
This is the part of Nikko Edo Mura that they occasionally use to film movies and commercials. Rather dilapidated, sadly.
And the final play, "Playboy Kin". Absolutely hilarious.
At the beginning of every play the actors handed out white sheets of paper, then in the middle they explained that these sheets of paper were for wrapping money in to throw at the actors. Which we all did with relish at the end. Here is the closing ceremony. Maybe half of the staff of the park assembled to see us off.
Everybody at Nikko Edo Mura seemed to be trying their absolute best to make sure the guests had a good time so that we would tell our friends and they would stay afloat. Even this really strange mascot.
Unfortunately, Nikko Edo Mura is one of those places that has no appeal if you don't speak Japanese. There is no English in the park.

As a parting shot, this how cheap Japan can be in the countryside. Whole cabbages for 8 cents.
I guess no one wants white produce.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Karaoke, Taifun and Earthquakes

First of all, I have to start yet another post with the assurance that I am alright despite being near the center of natural disasters. There was a Taifun that hit Japan, and it wasn't really that bad (it was nothing compared to the Tornado) up here in Gunma. Then, the next day there was a major 6.7 earthquake about 80 miles from where I live. It was a 4 in my town and my house shook like crazy for about 20 seconds, but there was no damage.

My story begins with my trip to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo the weekend before last.
Ghibli, if you are not aware, is the movie studio responsible for Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and my personal favorite: Naussica of the Valley of the Wind. As such, I was rather excited to go. There was a problem, though. Another famous animation studio also has a place that you can visit, and that place is called Disneyland. Now, I knew not to expect Disneyland, but even when you don't expect Disneyland, Disneyland already raised the bar. And it raised it high. I don't have any real complaints about the Ghibli Museum except the fact that that is all it is: a museum. And, it isn't really a museum about Ghibli, it is a museum BY Ghibli. About half of the exhibits are not Ghibli, although they are still interesting. But the salsa dogs were fantastic!
I guess this epitomized my disappointment. I expected Ghibli to pay the same attention to detail in their museum as they did in their movies. But in the end it was just a building, and at the end of the day I could help but look at this plug and think back to the custom made, medieval style wooden doors that housed fire extinguishers.
By all means, go to the Ghibli museum, but you don't need to spend more than an hour.
After Ghibli, Yuri, Eri, Waka, Honda-san and I went to Shibuya (one of the largest nightlife areas in the world, if not the largest) for dinner. It was there that I saw this sign.
We ate at a restaurant which had a "Prison ER/Torture Chamber" theme. An interesting experience, but the food was not that good.
But then we went to Karaoke!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I love Karaoke!!!!!!!
I made up a dance for "Macho Man" by the Village People. This is everybody dancing a dance I made up to another song.
After doing Karaoke till 1 am, we had no choice but to sleep at a net cafe (a really good deal, by the way). Then I got up a 5 am and went and got in line for Krispy Kreme. "So what, Krispy Kreme." you might say. But here is the catch. There is only one Krispy Kreme in all of Japan, and people line up for 4 to 8 hours to get a batch of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Even though I got to Krispy Kreme around 5 am, I still had to wait an hour once it opened. I got 24 doughnuts. 12 I shared with Yuri and her crew, and the other 12 got taken to the ALT meeting on Monday. By the way, the Shibukawa chief of police came to our meeting, had a doughnut, and looked like the happiest man on earth. I guess police are the same everywhere.
After doughnuts I went to the TEPCO museum. TEPCO means Tokyo Electric Power Company, the largest power company in Japan. I went wanting to learn more about alternative fuels and renewable energy, but as it turned out, TEPCO was using the museum to make a big sales pitch for nuclear power as the green energy of the future. Here I am in front of a giant turbine.
And here is Yellowcake. Wow.
I have to say, TEPCO made some good points. Indeed I agree that nuclear power could be a good environmental alternative if it could be trusted to be safe. TEPCO's museum said it could. But then, during our earthquake this week, TEPCO's Nigata plant (the largest group of reactors in the world) had a fire which they couldn't put out, and suffered a radioactive leak, which they took a really long time to tell anyone about. Naughty, naughty TEPCO.

Good museum, though.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Rafting and Canyoning in Minakami

What do Japan and New Zealand have in common? Aside from being island nations of roughly the same size, not much. But there are places in Japan that remind me of New Zealand. Minakami is starting to.

Minakami is one of the hot spring towns in Gunma (there are about 4 really famous hotspring towns in Gunma). These towns have each developed their own character. Ikaho feels like Gormenghast, Kusatsu feels like Switzerland, and I haven't been to Shima Onsen. Minakami, feels a lot like Queenstown in New Zealand. The reason for this is the large number of outdoor activities that one can do in Minakami. Hiking, Camping, Rafting, Kayaking, Paragliding, Canyoning, Caving, Mountian Biking, Skiing, Snowshoeing, Fishing, with Bungie Jumping starting next year. Another reason is the high concentration of Kiwis in the town.

Anyway, enough comparison. On to the story. Well, last year Keiko and I had so much fun rafting down the American River that we decided to go rafting again this year. However, Keiko discovered a company that would let us do rafting and also do something called "Canyoning", which from the photos online appeared to be floating down a river and sliding down waterfalls. Anyway, we signed up, and when Manabu got sick at the last minute, Yuri took his place.

Rafting was fun. Keiko and I did basically all of the rowing since three of the people in our raft were American high-school students (we were in the English speaking raft), and Yuri, for everything she is good at, is not good at rowing.

It was near the end of the rafting trip that Keiko learned that Canyoning involved not only sliding down waterfalls, but jumping off of them as well. We then learned that she was very, very afraid of heights. Still, she stuck with us and decided to do the canyoning anyway. Here is our group for canyoning.
Me floating down a river.
Me waiting to go off the big 20 meter (60 foot) waterfall.
Me about to go down.
Me going down.

Me jumping off of a cliff.
And our group photo. Keiko on the left, Yuri on the right.
Keiko made it through canyoning, and our plan is now to go back to Minakami and go caving in August.