Saturday, November 27, 2010

Oishii, ooimo

You may remember last fall that I mentioned the Yakiimo man, who is sort of the Japanese autumnal equivalent of the ice cream man. It's basically a guy who sells hot-baked sweet potatoes on the street out of the back of his truck.

Usually, it's around 9 or 10 PM when we hear the strangely ominous noise of the Yakiimo song. It's always some old guy singing in an odd warble, a capella, about how he has many delicious potatoes (oddly enough, each song seems to be unique to the individual seller!). The problem is that we hear the song, but the guy simply drives by our place, and doesn't stop anywhere nearby.

As it happens, a Yakiimo truck went by around 10 PM last night, and actually stopped across from our building! I decide to seize the opportunity, since I've lived in this country for damn near a year and a half but haven't actually had the chance tried the stuff yet.

Here's how it works: the guy's parked in his truck. You signal to him that you want some of his wares, and he gets out. You let him know whether you want a small one (300 yen, about $3.50) or a big one (500 yen, about $6). He pulls one out of his janky-looking grill, wraps it in some newspaper (!), and hands it over.

My reaction? It's pretty tasty! You can pretty much eat it as soon as you buy it, skin and all, and it (predictably enough) is sweet, and has a crumbly but soft texture. If you happen to be in Japan in the fall, I encourage you to give it a shot, but I don't know if I can recommend buying newspaper-wrapped snacks out of the back of some weird old guy's pickup truck in any other context.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Oh Yoshimi, they don't believe me, but you won't let those robots eat me

A month ago we sought to book a cheap hotel in Kyoto for another Kansai region adventure the weekend of November 13th only to find none with any openings. Why? People go crazy about leaves. We're more interested in food than foliage, but we still had to pay more for a room than we would have liked.

Our only touristy activity in Kyoto was to head to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, famous for its rows of torii gates.

inari torii

We headed to Nara as a day trip. The park there is brimming with tame deer, who were declared sacred ages ago. We shot a little bit of video:

The shrines in Nara had quite a few little girls decked out in kimonos for the Shichi-Go-San rite of passage celebration.

first shrine visit

On Monday I had two of my goals fulfilled. The more short term goal was to see a concert in Japan. The second goal, which I've had since I was a wee little one, was to see a Flaming Lips concert.

Stray observations on the Japanese concert going experience:

*Japan's lack of debit cards and my lack of a credit card often leads to some interesting ways of buying things. We purchased our tickets by going to a convenience store in Kanazawa and entering the concert code into a machine. We paid at the register and the clerk gave us paper tickets. The price was as listed (no Ticketmaster-esque fees!) but there was one catch…

* The venue (the Nanba Hatch in Osaka, a medium sized theater shaped like a UFO) forced you to buy a 500 yen ($6) drink voucher. My most expensive bottle of water ever.

* The concert itself wasn't cheap either, and I've skipped going to other shows because they're almost double what you'd pay in the states.

* Japanese men seem to think nothing of going directly from work to a concert, still wearing a suit. Many of them will not even loosen their ties or take off their jackets. I'm pretty sure there are several men in Osaka who will be finding hidden pieces of confetti in their suits for weeks.

* The crowd was very well behaved. The only distractingly annoying people shouting things were gaijin, of course.

* First concert I've been to where not a single audience member smoked pot. It was likely also the first Flaming Lips show with zero pot.

For the uninitiated, the Flaming Lips are known for their loud, extravagant, punk meets acid meets theater shows, and they did not disappoint. The concert started with singer Wayne Coyne crowd surfing inside a plastic bubble, scores of giant balloons dropping, and an unbelievable amount of confetti firing from cannons. At one point I started watching a five year old girl(!) attempting to grab a balloon seven times her size and when I returned my gaze to the stage the singer was riding the shoulders of a man in a realistic bear costume and shouting through a megaphone. It was wonderful. Don't think that the theatrics are there to make up for a lack of musical ability, as they've actually managed to become talented over the years. The only slow bit of the show was when they overestimated the audience's English ability and willingness to act abnormally. A lesson I've often learned in class is that if you ask somebody here to act like monkey they're simply not going to do it. It's what the gaijin are for.

Flaming Lips Hong Kong
A visual summary of a Flaming Lips concert

Unfortunately I couldn't take Tuesday off because most of the English teachers had to go on a business trip so I had to run classes solo. (There's nothing I want to do more first period than teach my rowdiest, lowest level first year students on four hours of sleep…) Sadly, this meant we had to catch the train back up to Kanazawa when it felt like the concert just got going, meaning that I'm not entirely sure goal number two was fulfilled. It was nice that the venue was on the small side compared to where the band normally plays at, but the next time the Flaming Lips are around (and I have a better schedule), I think I'll have to check them out again, because I don't have nearly enough confetti and space bubbles in my life.

I'd like to conclude this excessively long blog post with one minor factoid: in Shin-Osaka station there was a robotic trash collection cart that played "It's a Small World" as it made its way through the halls.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Rushi in za sukai wizu daimondozu

Today at school I saw ikebana, a Michael Jackson impersonator, and multiple students in drag. It can only mean one thing: the school festival! These are the biggest annual events at Japanese high schools, and they're basically the only times the students get to show a little creativity. The main events take place up on the stage in the gym, where much singing, dancing, and theatrical performing occurs. Some skits were just plain inexplicable, such as the guys who wore skin-tight body suits and pumpkin masks while gyrating to an Outkast song. Other skits neared meditative performance art level. I could see the group of girls who created a giant frying pan whose skit consisted entirely of them playing the role of popcorn being popped performing at some Lower East Side theater right after a Marguerite Duras film.*

I was more than just a spectator this year, as I lugged my Wii video game system and various peripheral instruments to school so that the students could partake in a little Beatles Rock Band. You see it was the culture festival, so I exposed them to the current American culture of young people obsessively hammering away at plastic instruments in front of television sets for hours on end. I spent a lot of time Katakana-izing the words to a bunch of Beatles songs only to have absolutely nobody volunteer to sing. And I was so looking forward to hearing various iterations of "Haroo, Goodobai." The drums and guitar, however, were quite popular. Inexplicably, they assigned me to the same room as the library's book sale. At least the librarian was pretty enthusiastic about my extremely noisy activity. At one point I showed a student how to control the menus so I could hop out and attend the tea ceremony I had signed up for. I guess he didn't let anybody else play because by the time I returned he had gone from beginner to Ringo equal. I may not be getting very far with trying to teach students to speak in full English sentences in class, but I'm pretty sure they've got "press the green button" down.

*Film school nerd's note: please don't try to watch a Marguerite Duras film. It will almost make you long for the excitement of Warhol's Empire. That's right, I just explained a pretentious film reference with a slightly less pretentious film reference. Gotta use that degree somehow.