Naked Man Journal

volume 6

There's No Place Like Japan for the Holidays

by Thomas Fast


My first winter in Japan was a strange one. I made the decision to stay here while most of my foreign friends went home or off to island paradises somewhere out in the China Seas.

My thinking was that for reasons of cultural adjustment and language acquisition, it would be crucial for me to spend at least 6 months in Japan uninterrupted. Besides, there must be something cool going on here over the holidays. If nothing else, New Year's will be rockin,' right?!

"We eat soba" (buckwheat noodles) was my Japanese teacher's reply. "After that, we watch TV. There are many interesting programs on New Year's Eve."

Eat noodles and watch TV?! Is it too late to get a ticket to Thailand? Oh well. I'd made my decision. I was going to be in Japan for the holidays...

Excerpts from my Xmas:

12/6: Mini-Skirts In Snow Build Character

Every morning they breeze past me on my way to work, rain or shine, 10 months out of the year. I'm talking about schoolgirls in skirts on bikes. Their apparel wasn't inappropriate back in the summertime (depending on the length of the hemline), but now that it's full on winter, these shivering girls with their exposed pink and blue legs are seeming a little out of place.

What's the reason behind such insensible fashion sense? I decided to ask Sawaya, my closest Japanese friend. He wasn't sure what to tell me. In primary school, he too had to brave subzero temperatures as he rode to school in shorts (all grade schoolers have to wear them). As my Japanese was still petty bad, he had to pantomime this for me, including the part where snot ran out of his nose and became hardened on his face by the freezing winds. It reminded me of an English expression I used to hear in Oregon: "So cold you could piss and lean on it." Sawaya couldn't quite grasp this at first, but after I did some hand motions of my own, I could see he understood and was very impressed (Sometimes it is very important to use gestures when you're living abroad).

The following day I found myself staring at my own breath while I stood on the sidelines of our school grounds. The principal was delivering his monthly speech to a frozen student body. No one was really listening, including the teachers. We were all just trying to stay warm.

After the speech ended, I asked a young English teacher, Ms. Andoh, "Why do we have these speeches outside in winter?" By the look on her face, I could see that this question had never crossed her mind. She stuttered as she searched for a plausible answer. "Perhaps because the gym is too small?" she said. Surely, this was not the case as the students had assembled in the gym before. Finally she said, "Because of... tradition? It is sort of... preparation." She was about to explain further, but I told her I understood perfectly and that there was no need. It is the Japanese Way.


12/15: Rollover Beethoven: "Ode to Joy" Japan-Style

Does anyone remember the opening ceremony to the Nagano Winter Olympics? If you'll recall, there was a section where choirs all over the world sang Beethoven's 9th Symphony in unison via satellite. It turns-out that Japan has a nation-wide obsession with this musical work. To the Japanese, it is perhaps humanity's theme song. I have to say, I couldn't think of a better one myself. It certainly beats that awful '80's blunder "We Are The World" which unfortunately lives on in many Japanese English Text Books.

Ironically, Beethoven's 9th was first introduced to Japan during World War I by German POWs. At that time, it seems Japan was still fighting wars according to "gentlemen's rules." German POWs, from what I understand, lived quite comfortably in their camps and were even allowed to form an orchestra. One of the pieces they performed for their guards was "Ode to Joy."

General Mac Arthur was the next person to come to Japan humming Beethoven. During the American occupation after WWII, Mac Arthur saw to it that the 9th Symphony was promoted throughout the country as a song of "peace and brotherhood."

Today, Beethoven's 9th has become Japan's answer to Handel's Messiah. Every December, local community choirs around Japan perform "Daiku" or "Big 9" as it's known here, and anyone can join in. Having just sung it back in June with the New York Choral Society and Brooklyn Philharmonic, I decided to see if the local Daiku Chorus could use an extra baritone.

I don't know if it was my voice that impressed them or the idea that my grinning face in the group might really drive home that "international brotherhood" message. Either way, I was immediately accepted.

Already having the music memorized, our Friday evening rehearsals proved to be pretty boring for me. Still it was all worth it in the end to sing with an all-Japanese chorus before a full house and receive a standing ovation. Our performance was not at the professional level that my June concert had been, and it wasn't at New York's Lincoln Center either. But it was significant enough for us to make the front page of the local news: there I was amidst a sea of Japanese faces. The picture was taken from the back of the hall, but you could see me plain as day. My bald head stuck out a full foot above everyone else in the back row. I was a beacon of peace and understanding.


12/29: "Merry Christmas! Have a CD Burger!"

"Tom, What'd you get for Christmas this year?" Well I just got a space heater for one thing, which feels great right now. It's the only source of warmth I have in my whole apartment! I also got an assortment of gifts from my students: photos, about 300 cards, a calendar featuring the "Trains of Japan," battery-operated toys, and a bottle of wine from a 12 year old girl. But perhaps my most coveted gift (besides the train calendar) is my "CD Burger."

It was a present from Okayama City Hall for my first 6 months of "valuable service." It's a portable CD player with its name stamped on it in the form of a Burger King Whopper. Somehow I doubt it's marketed the same in the US.

I now see Okayama in a whole new light as I ride my 3-speed through town with Wes Montgomery "BUMPIN" in my ears. I really wish I had a videotape of me cruising down the windy streets, grooving violently on my bike and singing out loud. I admit I probably wouldn't do this back home (well maybe when no one's around), but something about the reserved ambience of Japan prompts me to act out in this manner. Perhaps I'm like the crazy people on the subway in New York, who burst into song for no apparent reason other than to shock everyone out of the stupor of their daily lives...


12/29: So This is Christmas...

Last night I went on my 4th date with Ms. Fuji (see NM 4 & 5). I dare say it was our best, although a little awkward at first. The hip, international Xmas Fiesta at Okayama University that I'd invited her to turned-out to be about as exciting as one of my former college's Campus Crusade parties.

I was about to call it a night after a curly-haired, round-glassed gaijin (he must really stand-out in a crowd here! The guy looked just like Gene Wilder) forced everyone to put on party hats, shout "Happy New Year" and sing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" in that order. As people fumbled with the words, it became clear to me that I was the only person there who actually knew the song. Indeed, I was the only native English speaker in the room! I began to wonder, "Is this for my benefit?"

I had really hoped that for the first time since I'd arrived in Japan, I could attend a social event where there weren't so many rules, introductions and speeches. Where there was no official beginning and ending and people could relax, get to know each other and come and go as they pleased. Ms. Fuji looked pretty uncomfortable as well. I told her we could leave anytime that she was ready, but she said she was willing to stick it out. Apparently this party, full of foreigners, was less foreign to her than it was to me (On a side note: I'm formulating a theory that Japanese people are comfortable feeling uncomfortable). Despite the fact that the crowd was over 50% foreign, the party had developed a very Japanese feel. It seems with all the Peruvians, Spanish, Mexicans, Russians, Bangladeshi, Taiwanese, Chileans and others present, Japan (not Christmas) was the one thing we all had in common.

This was all fine and well I suppose, but being a little homesick, I'd come expecting an "American Christmas" party (as advertised on the flyer). The most frustrating thing about the evening was the fact that they were playing good music from all over the world, but no one would dance! Only very "controlled" dancing was taking place. For example, salsa required way too much skill and intimate body contact to attempt for most of the Japanese people present, but the "Macarena" was safe. Any dance that comes with specific steps that all must follow as a group is Japan-friendly and something I totally hate (except the "Hustle." That's a cool song. "DO IT!")

People had a tendency to do 2 things on the floor: either form a conga line for every song (it's a group thing); or make a big circle and force people to dance in the middle with a broom. This fascinated me. I was reminded of Japan's love of karaoke. In both cases, you perform alone and make a fool out of yourself for your friend's entertainment. It's ironic how they're comfortable with this sort of self-degrading display of emotion, yet they're afraid to dance freely together. They would rather "get down" on the dance floor with a broomstick than dance with someone they actually like (too risky?)

Promptly at 11:00, the party ended with a speech by Gene Wilder and a rendition of "Auld Lang Syne" (which even I didn't know the words to). All the frustrations of the evening had left me hungry, so Ms. Fuji and I dropped into a small place called "Muchacha." Much to my disappointment, very small tacos were the only thing Mexican on the menu. The place did have one highlight however: the unisex bathroom was wall-papered from floor to ceiling with Playboy centerfolds.


01/02: Journey Deep into the Big Red Dot

Grudgingly, I spent yesterday and the day before doing the same thing as everyone else: Eating soba and watching TV. Actually, I was offered a lot of other special "New Year Foods" but found most of them rather unappetizing. I have to admit the TV programs were worth seeing once though.

After being trapped in a small Japanese home with no chairs for 2 days, today I finally made it out. I, along with possibly half the population of Tokyo, headed for Sensoji Temple in the Asakusa district (the heart of old town). You know that red dot on the Japanese flag? That's where I was. I reached Japan's CORE. Flags everywhere, kimono, incense ASIA. It was so stereotypically Japan, I felt like I'd accidentally wandered onto the set of Spielberg's Empire of the Sun.

It was a beautiful site: Millions of Japanese people converging like one big family -- pushing and shoving (and smiling) the whole way. Down the lane to Sensoji, they fought. Once within range (this was a good 20 feet out for some), they tossed their 5 yen coins into a box in front of the temple. There were so many coins flying that the head priest had to bless the crowd from behind a chicken wire fence (like that Country/Western scene in the Blues Brothers). After launching their coins into the box, they'd clap their hands twice, make a quick prayer for a Happy New Year, and get the hell outta there.

With the New Year prayer out of the way, my friends and I figured it was time for some good theater. I was about to have my first face-to-face encounter with Kabuki.

I'd never seen anything like it... and yet then again, I had. Kabuki shares many commonalities with opera, flamenco, Shakespeare, jazz, hard rock and my crazy friend John's "experimental dances," which he used to perform in the plazas of Spain.

From my nose-bleed seats, the music was the first thing to capture my attention: Minimal, repetitive, austere, vocal chords strained like a tightrope. The voices were sometimes thin, sometimes guttural, fluctuating between high and low pitches, held for a long time or exclaimed in short bursts.

Then came the actors. Today's performance was apparently a very popular story that is rarely performed. It involved two "lions" portrayed by actors wearing huge wigs (one white, on red). With their long manes, white face paint, and elaborate silk robes, they looked more like members of Twisted Sister than big cats. They floated around the stage, baby-stepping under their kimono, occasionally stopping to strike a pose or let out a yell. For their grand finale, they both jumped up on a raised platform in the middle of the stage and twirled their manes around in circles. If I hadn't known they were lions, I would have sworn I was watching Aerosmith live at the Budokan. But then again, I wasn't listening to electric guitar, rather it was shamisen.

I would learn later that not all Kabuki is this action-packed. It's quite the opposite, actually. But just like a Miles Davis trumpet solo, it's what they're NOT doing that is so impressive. Kabuki actors won't even blink if it's not written in the script.

Lastly, there was the audience. Kabuki fans fall somewhere in between flamenco aficionados who know when to shout "Ole" and Yankee baseball fans, who don't know when to shut up. They show their support by yelling "EE DA NE!" (or something like that) at the right times. As the action heated up on stage, people began cheering all around me. I too felt the urge to shout, but held back. After all, what would I say? "I'm a gaijin!" I'd had this feeling once before in Spain, and only screwed up the collective groove when I tried to join in the syncopated clapping. Better just to hang back and be happy to be there.

And I am quite happy to be here, despite the fact that things don't always work out as I expect. I don't know how much extra language skills I acquired by spending my holiday in Japan, but I did seem to adjust a little more smoothly in the following months than my compatriots who'd gone home or to the gardens of Eden in SE Asia. They came back to a very cold, inflexible and unheated Japan. Some had to start their cultural adjustment all over again. Me, I was just hitting my stride.


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