Taketa Best

IMG_2050There was recently an article online about a poll conducted by a Japanese publishing house. The poll listed 137 small towns across the country and asked people to vote for the one they most wanted to live in. Not only were the top three all in Kyushu, two of the top three (well, four actually since third place had two tied entries) were in Oita. And among them was my town, Taketa.

Number one was Usa, in Oita. I’ve been to Usa a few times. It’s a lovely town with a great big shrine, and supposedly the first karaage takeout stand in the country. But I can’t say I thought it was the best city in the country. Number two is Takeo in Saga, a prefecture known more for being the butt of jokes than anything else. I’ve been to Saga (though not the town in question) and I found it to be provincial. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Tied for third place are two more Oita towns, Bungotakada and my beloved Taketa. Bungotakada is up by Kunisaki Peninsula. It also repurposed its downtown area into Showa Town, a tourist destination that looks like a small town from the 1950s. It’s certainly cute but is it really that great?

And so we come to Taketa. Of course, I know it’s a great place but that’s because I live here. Why would someone who had never been here choose it from a list of more than 100 other countryside towns? The article mentions Taketa’s historical buildings and locations, of which there are quite a few. It also says that Taketa has become a mini-Mecca for artisans and craftspeople working in traditional arts like fabric dyeing. I had no idea. It also said that Taketa has set up an office in Tokyo to encourage people to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city and move to their town.

This is the first small town I’ve lived in Japan. I sort of assumed they were all like this but I guess Taketa really is something special.

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Regular Exorcize

koutouThere are bad luck years in Japan. Called yakudoshi 厄年, they’re supposed to coincide with changes in one’s life that can lead to misfortune in health, finances and any number of categories. For men, the years are generally 25, 42 and 60, and for women they’re 19, 33 and 37. As I’m turning 42 in a few weeks, I thought it couldn’t hurt to get some special protection against whatever calamities might be waiting for me in the coming year.

Known as a yakubarai 厄払い, the ceremony is essentially an exorcism to ward off any bad spirits that might be hanging around and make the local kami (god) aware of your special needs in the hopes that it will offer extra protection. I had mine done at a Shinto shrine but apparently Buddhist temples can also do it. This is not surprising as shrines and temples coexisted for a thousand years and were only separated in the late 1800s to weaken Buddhism as part of the Meiji-era push towards emperor worship.

I decided to go to the biggest shrine in my town to have my yakubarai done. Ogi Mori Inari-jinja (also known as Koutou-sama) is an Inari shrine, which means it houses the god Inari, which is actually a collective of multiple gods. Inari-sama (to add the honorific) is in charge of rice and agriculture and prosperity in general. Its symbol is the fox. Inari shrines are characterized by their vermillion color and tunnels of torii (shrine gates). Although I don’t feel a great affinity for Inari-sama, I am trying to be more fiscally responsible these days. And anyway, it’s my town shrine and I’m asking for year-long protection so it makes sense to stay local.

I went on a Sunday morning. The shrine was busier than normal, what with people still doing hatsumode (first shrine or temple visit of the year) and taking care of other beginning-of-the-year business. Shinto strikes me as a very practical religion. There are no existential crises of faith; you have a problem, you go get it fixed. I like that.

This was my first time to do anything at a shrine other than stop by and pray outside so I was pretty nervous. I asked at the area where they sell protective charms and they directed me to the waiting area, which was inside the actual shrine. I took off my shoes, ascended the short flight of stairs, and I found myself inside the shrine building. Behind me was the offertory box and rope and bell, and I could hear people clapping and ringing the bell behind me as they prayed. In front of me was a raised area where a family was receiving some kind of blessing from the priest, who faced an altar with a circular mirror on it. The mirror was flanked on both sides by wooden sticks bearing lightning bolt-shaped paper streamers called shide. I sat on the carpeted floor and waited to see what would happen.

As the family finished and a pair of men, who had been waiting next to me, took their place at the altar, a man sat down behind a low table to my left and motioned me over. I told him I wanted a yakubarai because I was turning 42. He wrote my name and address down on a piece of paper and circled the number 42. I told him it was my first time in a shrine, gave him 3000 yen (around $30) for the service, and went back to wait.

A new priest entered the shrine and took my paper from the clerk, who explained that this was my first time and that I didn’t know what to do. The new priest came over to me and gave me a little primer on what was going to happen. He instructed me how to properly bow, and how to receive the sacred evergreen sakaki branch. We then ascended to the altar level.

Sake blessed by Inari-sama.

Sake blessed by Inari-sama.

I sat seiza, or on my knees, and the priest, facing the altar and the god enshrined in the area behind us, intoned prayers. At one point I heard my name and address, I guess so the god would know who I was and where I lived. The priest also gave me a kind of running commentary between verses, letting me know when to pray, bow my head, etc. At one point he waved a wand festooned with more of the zigzag paper over my head to purify me. And then the big moment for me: he approached me and handed me the branch, which I took as instructed. I didn’t quite do it right so he had me do it again. Then I placed it on a low table in front of me and bowed low, twice, to the god, clapped twice and then bowed again, as instructed. He then said some more prayers, handed me a bottle of sake, and it was over. The ceremony took around 10 minutes.

I stood up shakily, having knelt immobile for 10 minutes, but thankfully my legs hadn’t fallen asleep. I turned around to descend from the altar level and there were quite a few groups of people waiting. Aside from the solemn atmosphere and the fact that they were sitting on the floor, it could have been any kind of waiting room. They all seemed a little surprised to see me.

As I walked back to my car, I felt significantly lighter, like the troubles and stress I had been holding onto had vanished. Rationally, I don’t really believe that Inari-sama will zap away bad spirits as they approach me or my house, like some kind of spiritual video game. But I do see the worth in participating in these kinds of ceremonies. Perhaps I’ll be more careful this year, and will think before I throw away money on something I don’t really need. But more than that, I feel like I participated in something greater than myself, and experienced a kind of awe that is largely lacking in daily life. It’s the same awe you feel standing on top of a mountain, or seeing the sunrise. It’s the awe and beauty of life and it’s why I keep going back to Shinto shrines, seeking them out.

As this isn’t science (obviously), the actual bad-luck years apparently differ around Japan. At my local shrine it was 25, 42 and 60 for men, but I’ve also seen 61 (and not 60) listed as a bad year. Also, are you counting your years the Western way i.e. zero when you’re born, or the traditional Asian way i.e. 1 when you’re born? Perhaps to combat this confusion, most shrines recommend having an exorcism done in the years before and after the bad years as well. Additionally, I was told that I should have the ceremony done before the year started and not during, which seems to run counter to the idea of having it done before, during and after. I guess if bad things start to happen I’ll head back to the shrine for a touch-up, like going to the dentist to have a cavity filled.

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The Cutlery Incident

Recently I was eating in a Japanese restaurant when something happened that made me surprisingly upset, so much so that I had to think about it for a while before I thought I could cogently write this blog entry. Here’s what happened:

I had gone into the big city of Oita to do some shopping at a mall and decided to eat at one of the restaurants before heading back up the mountain. I chose a Japanese-style place, read the Japanese menu and placed my order in Japanese. And then halfway through my dinner the waitress brought me a knife and fork.

I looked at her with an expression that I hoped conveyed that although I was smiling I was in disbelief that I was being insulted in such a way. The message didn’t seem to be getting though so I said in Japanese, “I don’t need them.” I clicked my chopsticks together to show that there was nothing wrong with my manual dexterity. She asked, “Everything is OK?” and, smile plastered to my face, I assured her that it was. I finished my meal and paid my bill and then drove home, seething all the while.

So why did this make me so upset? She was only trying to be nice, I’m sure. But to me this felt like an insult.

Americans don’t like to be patronized and this felt like patronization. When Japanese people tell us that our chopstick skills are good it’s like a slap in the face. Yes, I’m perfectly capable of feeding myself. I’m a big boy with big boy manual dexterity. We absolutely hate being compared to a child in any way. As a society of individuals, one of the hallmarks of adulthood is being able to take care of yourself. Suggesting otherwise is insulting.

Also, everyone I know can use chopsticks to some extent. It would be embarrassing to have to ask for a fork at an Asian restaurant and would be like failing some kind of urban adaptability test. Japanese people eat Western food with a knife and fork, why can’t we eat Asian food with chopsticks? Can you imagine if a waitress brought an Asian person chopsticks in a Denny’s?

I asked two Japanese friends who have lived in the US how they would feel if they were handed chopsticks at a diner in America and their answers surprised me. They both said they would be pleased and surprised by the attentiveness of the wait staff, who anticipated their possible needs and went out of the way to help them.

Well, didn’t I feel like an ass. From the Japanese perspective, this was a helpful thing to do. It was just good customer service. And statistically speaking, Americans really can’t use chopsticks. My California experience seems to be an exception.

No good comes from seething. In the future, I will try to accept these kinds of gestures as acts of kindness. My blood pressure will certainly be the better for it.

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Do You Have Four Seasons?

“Do you have four seasons in your country?” This sentence causes endless grief for expatriates living in Japan. It seems like such an asinine question. Of course we have four seasons. Even if the trees don’t turn red and gold, or it doesn’t snow, we still call it fall or winter or whatever. They may as well ask us, “Do you eat food in your country?” or “Do you breathe air in your country?”

Of course, what they’re really asking is, “Do you have four distinct seasons in your country?” Japan has seasons that arrive with a suddenness that is shocking. One day you’re sweating through your shorts and the next day the leaves are turning orange and there’s a chill in the air. I’m always surprised at how quickly the seasons change here.

More than this, though, Japan has long had a culture of seasons. There are all kinds of season symbols that matured in classical poetry and today they’re a kind of shorthand for representing the passing of time, and thus the impermanence of life itself. Cherry blossoms herald the start of spring and are in bloom when students go back to school from winter break. They’re also a symbol of the transience of life, and have been likened to samurai and kamikaze pilots. Summer is hot and green and full of fresh fruits and vegetables. The fall is cool and beautiful, and the winters a chance to get cozy inside with the family.

It makes sense that Japanese people would want to talk about their seasons. The weather is also a common topic of conversation in that it’s safe and something that everyone has in common. But it seems to me that there’s more going on here, more than just a topic of conversation.

Stay in Japan for more than a few hours and you’ll likely be asked, “Do you have such and such in your country?” I have answered similar questions about the seasons, food, chopsticks, school events, clothing, and on and on. The question was invariably if I had some Japanese thing in my country. The other day I realized that all these questions are not about my country at all. They’re about Japan. The question is rarely, “What is your country like?” It’s almost always framed in opposition to Japan.

Japan seems to need to constantly define itself against some other. This starts to make sense when you consider the way Japan thinks of the rest of the world. There is Japan and there is the gaikoku, which means “outside country.” There is a tendency not to think of the world as a collection of varied peoples and cultures but as a single unit, a non-Japan. I am often asked, “What do gaikokujin (foreigners) like?” I can answer for Americans but am I expected to know what Cambodians, Iranians, and the Dutch like, too? Although I teach English my classes are often called gaikokugo (outside country language). I feel like I should show up ready to teach Spanish one day just to see what happens.

There is Japan and not-Japan, and Japan must continuously define itself against non-Japaneseness. So they repeatedly send camera crews to Narita Airport to ask foreigners why they came to Japan, marvel that foreigners can use chopsticks (never mind that this invention came from the gaikoku), and ask if we have four seasons even though our countries are on the same planet as theirs and also subject to the effects of the Earth’s changing proximity to the sun.

I would also wager that these questions aren’t asked because the asker really wants to know the answer. I think he just wants to be validated in his presumption that Japan is different. Many of the Japanese people I work with have been exposed to ALTs before, some for years and many from my country. Yet they still ask me if America has four seasons even though the last ALT likely also told them yes, it does.

I have yet to have had any epiphanies as to why Japan needs to define itself thusly. I welcome any recommendations for literature on the subject.

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Where Are You From?

I recently wrote about compliments that can upset, and how I’m trying to take them at face value rather than read something sinister into them. Living in another country can often be challenging because things that your home culture considers rude or an invasion of privacy could be just fine where you’re living now. But one thing that really bugs me is the “Where are you from?” question.

It happens pretty often, often enough that it’s prompted me to think about its deeper implications. It goes like this: I’ll be out and about somewhere, either alone or in a group, and a Japanese person will come up to me and ask, “Where are you from?” It can be worded in any number of ways but it’s usually polite enough. Sometimes the questioner will just say, “Where?” In Japanese, context dictates that what is mutually understood doesn’t need to be stated. So while I’m often caught off guard and have to think about what it is they want to know, the context (obviously, to them) is “you are not Japanese so I’m asking where you’re from.”

Sometimes they’ll follow this up with where they thought I was from. One guy (it’s almost always a guy, and older) asked me if I was Russian. Just yesterday a trio of older men, who turned around in their seats to watch me sit down at a restaurant, thought I was from the Middle East.

While this can be annoying I’m really not bothered by the question itself. I realize I’m unusual in my town. There are only a handful of white people in Taketa. We do stick out. The fact that people think I’m anything other than white is laughable but also demonstrates how insular it is here. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of these people had never even been to Tokyo, let alone another country.

What really bugs me is they rarely say hello or excuse me first, they just launch into their question. Not saying hello is considered pretty rude here and by not doing it they’re letting me know that they (unconsciously) don’t think of me in the same way as other people. The men in the restaurant came right up to my table while I was eating and just asked. How should I interpret this? If you did this in America, with no hello or excuse me first, it would likely be taken as an act of hostility, or at least the precursor to one.

Sometimes they follow it up with, “And how long are you staying?” It’s like they need to define some role for me, some identity to fit me with before they can move on. “Here is a foreigner. We must establish his country of origin and how long he will stay.” There are rarely any more questions after that, at least not for these on-the-street questionings. (Bars are a different story.) Once having affirmed my nationality and length of stay, they just walk away. They don’t say goodbye or nice talking to you or enjoy your stay. They just leave me bewildered and a little upset at having been suddenly interrogated.

A little common courtesy in these situations would go a long way towards making me feel less like some unwanted vagrant. Even just a hello would make a huge difference. I realize I’m different but I’m still a person. Please treat me like one.

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Media Cafés

img3The other day I found myself in Fukuoka with a lot of time to kill before my bus and not a lot of desire to walk around for four hours. The night before had gone bigger than usual and after limping through a quick trip to Dazaifu to see an exhibition of Tokugawa treasures at the National Museum, I was ready to go back to bed. The trouble was, I didn’t have one.

And then I remembered Media Cafe Popeye. Popeye is a chain of businesses that basically rent cubicles by the hour. It’s like an internet café but with the added bonus of privacy, should you want it. It’s also similar to Korean DVD bangs but there’s more of a variety of media on hand.

How it works is like this: you choose a type of cubicle and a block of time to rent it. There are open cubicles, like study areas at libraries. There are also closed cubicles with a sliding door. The chair you get differs too. There are recliners, massage chairs, couches for couples and even chairless cubicles with raised floors that looked good for sleeping. I opted for a recliner because I really wanted a nap.

The main media available are manga. I don’t read manga so I didn’t check them out but there are shelves and shelves surrounding the space. They also had magazines and newspapers. Inside your cubicle you get a computer, which has the internet, online games and a small selection of movies. I tried a Western film but it was dubbed in Japanese and I didn’t see an option for changing the audio track. (Actually it was Ted so it’s probably fine that I didn’t get to see it.)

You also have a place to charge your phone. Coffee shops in Japan are oddly resistant to this service. I was in a Starbucks the other day that had actually blocked up its one outlet in the seating area. The only place I’ve seen that is really into it as a service is the maid café in Tenjin.

Although there are a lot of cubicles crammed into an area the size of a grocery store people tend to stay pretty quiet. About the only noise you’ll hear is typing and the occasional cough. People are using headphones or else sleeping. There’s a pleasant white noise in the background that seems too loud to be just from the climate control system. They may pipe it in to make it more comfortable and to mask the sound of other people.

You could even stay in one of these places instead of a hotel. There are showers, snacks and free drinks, plus blankets and slippers and even tanning beds. It’s not any cheaper than a hotel if you pay for 24 hours but if hotels are full up it’s not a bad option for a few hours (I paid around $12 for three hours). If you’ve missed the last train and need a place to crash until the trains and buses start again, it’s perfect.

I’m going to try to remember that these places exist the next time I’m caught out with no place to stay and need more privacy than a coffee shop.

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Nine Common Myths About Japan

There’s an article going around the web right now called Dazed and Confucius: Nine Common Myths About China. Aside from the clever (if grammatically poor) title, it’s worth reading because it sheds some light on long-held Western beliefs regarding the Middle Kingdom, some of which I admit to believing myself.

I posted a link to it on Facebook and a friend commented that he’d like to see one on Japan. Seeing as these kinds of articles get written when countries’ economies are in their ascendency (and Japan’s is decidedly not) this probably won’t happen in any official capacity anytime soon. But I could always take a crack at it.

So here are my nine myths about Japan, presented in no specific order and with little to no research on my part other than having lived here and read a lot of books about the country. Some of these I’ve covered before in my blogs but hey, people have short attention spans.

1. Japan is the most technologically advanced country in the world
This is probably the most prevalent myth I hear from people in the West who haven’t actually lived in Japan. I first came to Japan in 2004 with these same expectations and was surprised to find everyone carrying a Mini Disc player instead of an iPod or some other MP3 player, which was already a few years old by that point. Fast-forward 10 years and a lot of my school stills use Mini Disc players. Hell, they still use cassette players, not to mention CD-ROMs and floppy drives in their computers running Windows XP. Japan is a country that loathes change. I’m surprised we’re not still using fax machines to communicate. Oh wait, we are. (I covered this myth in more depth here.)

2. Japanese women are passive
There is the idea of the passive Oriental woman, the one who massages your shoulders after a long day of work, brings you a beer and flatters your ego as you regale her with tales of the day at the office. Japanese men have this fantasy too, and fantasy is what it is, for to get it they go to a hostess bar and pay for it. Japanese women simultaneously run the house and take care of the kids as well as work (sure, there are lots of housewives in this country but many also have part-time jobs) while the men go out drinking. Women also run the household budget, with Japanese men famously turning over their paycheck to their wives, who in turn grant them an allowance. I know a lot of Japanese women and none of them are meek or timid. Like women all over the world, they are strong and they are awesome.

3. Japan is an aesthetically motivated culture
Once upon a time, Japanese things were beautiful. They were made exquisitely with a craftsmanship that required a lifetime of study. The Japan of today, though, is frustratingly tacky. Houses are concrete blocks, people walk around in tracksuits emblazoned with gold English lettering, and they upholster their car dashboards in pink shag. It’s shocking just how busy and loud things can get in the country that invented ikebana and the haiku.

4. Japanese people are all skinny
It’s true that Japanese people are fairly slim when compared with some other nations but to say that they are all skinny is just wrong. The visitor to Tokyo might be forgiven in thinking this, just as the visitor to Hollywood might say the same thing about America. These places are not representative of the countries at large. They are exceptions. Japan is full of humans who are all different sizes and shapes.

5. Japan is a small country
The Japanese themselves like this one. Japan is the 62nd largest country in the world by landmass. That doesn’t seem so big but it’s actually larger than almost 4/5ths of the countries of the world. When looking at population, that number moves up to 10th. Suddenly it doesn’t seem so small. Would a small country be the 3rd largest user of oil and electricity? The 5th largest consumer of natural gas and expeller of carbon dioxide? Would it have the 5th largest military budget in the world, ahead of France, India, Germany, and Israel, despite not having an actual military? Would a small country consume 1 in 10 of the fish in the world?

6. Japan is crazy
It bothers me when people say this because usually what they’re using as justification for this statement is some commercial or TV clip that has been completely removed from context, both thematic and cultural. What seems random and unexpected to the Western viewer makes perfect sense from a Japanese cultural point of view. Or else it’s satire and isn’t immediately recognizable as such, like the “I have a bad case of diarrhea” exercise video clip, which is often presented as a real thing and not a clip from a late-night comedy show. Can you imagine people in Japan watching a clip from The Onion site and mistaking it for a normal news broadcast? Another example is the crazy Japanese game show, which shows people being forced to do bizarre and humiliating things. These are not normal people but celebrities who are being paid to make fools of themselves.

7. Japanese people are always buttoned down and don’t know how to have fun
Anyone who seriously believes this has obviously never been to Japan. The cliché of working hard and playing harder is pretty apt in Japan. I remember seeing businessmen vomiting in the streets of Shinjuku at 7pm. It takes dedication to get that drunk that fast. I think this myth is pervasive because the Japanese have a bigger divider between formal and informal than Western countries do. They know when it’s time to be serious and they know when it’s time to let loose. I love going on field trips with my schools because it’s a chance to see the kids outside the classroom, when the formalities break down and they act just as goofy and silly as kids anywhere else in the world.

8. Japanese people love anime
Like most of you, I watched cartoons on Saturday mornings when I was young, and in the afternoon after school. I stopped sometime in high school because I outgrew them; I came to see cartoons as for kids. Anime is exactly the same thing. Sure, some adults are really into anime but I’ll bet you they don’t watch what elementary school kid watch; they watch what they liked when they were young. OK, yes, there are otaku types who like modern anime but they are the exception, not the rule. Your average Japanese adult doesn’t spend a lot of time watching cartoons.

9. The Japanese are wealthy
For nearby Asian countries and maybe even some Western countries, there’s the myth that all Japanese are wealthy. A strong yen doesn’t hurt when visiting overseas but many Japanese are not swimming in cash. These older myths, like people preferring the more expensive option or automatically buying the latest consumer gadget every year, are holdovers from the Bubble Era. Two decades of economic recession have really made an impact on the way Japanese spend money. People are much more likely to hold off on large purchases in the hope that prices will go down, if they can afford to buy at all. Many people have lost their pensions or are working two or three part-time jobs for less than living wages. The English phrase “working poor” has sadly entered the language. One of the major reasons young people have disposable income to travel at all is because they live at home until they get married—if they ever do. This is why Japan also has the English phrase “parasite single,” a person who sponges off their parents even though they might be making a decent wage.

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