||[Jun. 20th, 2006|02:22 pm]
|||||Talking Heads - (Nothing But) Flowers||]|
I walked out of conversation tutorial today, since only a few people seemed to be conversing and I wasn't one of them. I ought to feel a little bad for not engaging, but I'm not in a particularly outgoing mood today, and really, I've never been one to insert myself into a conversation I didn't find truly interesting. Instead I watched a butterfly flex its wings outside the window, and then walked off to the library. There is a buzz on campus today. I keep hearing mention of Koizumi, the Prime Minister, and "Iraku," and "Kita-chosen," which is Japanese for Iraq and North Korea, respectively. People are talking about Koizumi Junichiro's announcement for a total withdrawal of Japanese soldiers from Iraq, where there are, I read, about six hundred stationed, none of whom have engaged in combat but rather have helped to rebuild the infrastructure of a few towns. A positive contribution, no doubt, but the deployment was never popular, and was done, it seems, to appease Japan's American allies and a small but marginally powerful right wing segment of the government who wish to see a stronger military culture, something which was denied to them by the constitution drafted under Gen. MacArthur's protocol during the American occupation. The anxiety about North Korea surely concerns the imminent test launch of the new Taepodong-2 ballistic missile, purportedly capable of striking any Japanese target (as well as the Western coast of the United States). Not that my observations at Seika, essentially the Bard College of Japan, can be read as exact indications of larger cultural trends, but I have noticed that peace and diplomacy are highly valued here, and there is an emphasis on demilitarization in the politics of the youth. Today, outside the cafeteria, some students and faculty were handing out fliers reading "Marines Go Home," alluding to the presence of American Military bases on Japanese territory. Of course no one has said anything to me, but I sense some stigma attached to me to the extent that I represent a country presently at war, and an unjustified war at that. It is something I would like to talk to the Japanese about. I do not anticipate any blame being placed on me personally, just as, I don't think, anyone today can rationally blame contemporary Japanese for the national involvement in WWII, but sensitive issues such as these are intensely interesting to me, and I wish I possessed the linguistic skills to guage the sentiments of students here regarding the sometimes conflicting values of "internationalism" and pacifism.
Incomprehensible as I may be, I have begun to have actual conversations with people here. Yesterday, after a vocabulary-building game of pictionary during conversation tutorial hour, I hung around class with a graduate student named Satoshi, who told me about his thesis project on American-style capitalism (the Starbucks Effect). We discussed, in a foggy combination of strained English and hesitant Japanese, out cultural studies, as well as our appreciation for the music of Paul Simon and Miles Davis. We also talked about drinking, a national pasttime of the Japanese, and how we take our whiskey. I mentioned that I'd bought about a gallon of Suntory premium on Saturday and that I'd like to see it drained by good company, and we sort-of hatched a plan to gather our friends at the girl's dorm on Friday evening, get some tipsy, and head out for a night of karaoke. People seem to like this idea. It would make my weekend to be able to make a fool of myself through song and thus endear myself to cute Japanese girls. Rin-san also seemed to like the idea. I met Rin at the welcoming party last week, where I taught him "bling bling." He happened to be randomly assigned to me as my first English conversation tutorial student, and we met yesterday. In addition to a few useful English phrases and an explanation of idiomatic speech, I taught him the word "schvitz." When I told him it was a Yiddish phrase, he knew immediately that it had its origins with the Jewish people, which truly impressed me. I don't expect most Americans to recognize a marginalized language like Yiddish, and across the Pacific, here's this funky college student in a rasta hat who knows what a Yid is. In part because he was wearing such a hat, and also because he is a cool dude attending a liberal arts college, I asked Rin the Question, which prompted uneasy laughter and a joking search for cameras in the room. No one has yet to satisfactorily answer the Question, and the half of our Bardian group who truly wish for the Answer are beginning to resign ourselves to abstinence. All the same, Rin-san knows what a mizu-pipu is.
An unnerving fact is beginning to settle upon our group: we do not have enough time. At lunch today Stephanie brought up this truth. Last semester, the prospect of five weeks in Kyoto seemed like So Much. To the extent that we are all very fortunate to be here and to have an opportunity to flirt with another language and culture, it truly is So Much. But the cliche that time flies when you're having fun is magnified in its significance when there are just so many things one can be doing with one's time. I've been here a week and I have not visited a single temple, when this city is renowned around the world for its multitude of astoundingly beautiful, intricate temples and shrines. Is it a base, consumptive urge for me to want to take in with my eyes (and my camera) the edges of the ancient castle and the glint of the golden pavilion? Just as I want to gorge on sushi delivered to me by a conveyor belt, so too I wish to know all the ways to all the shrines, all the art museums, all the public parks stocked with enormous koi and graceful cranes. And there is simply not enough time. It is difficult enough to resign my stay here to a single city when Tokyo calls to me from the novels and cinema etched into me, and the sea surrounds the whole nation, wet and warm and probably free to the public. I may go to Nara to dip myself in the hot springs and stand in the shadow of the peaceful Buddha, but even that is a compromise, one less day in Kyoto.
My exploration of the city so far has been limited by my bike-less-ness (to be entirely honest, I never learned how to ride, but certainly will before I return here) and my ignorance of the mass transit system. Saturday was a little shitty. We're here in the middle of uki, the rainy season, and while I wouldn't say that the weather here is as wet or as erratic as it is in Florida, in Florida I am less inclined to adventure. It rained all of Saturday, but all the same, Pavel and I set out from the Kino-ryo in the afternoon, intending to locate the post office, an important circuit of Japanese life, since the post office also functions as a bank, cashing traveler's checks and such. It turns out that it our local post office is only open for an hour and a half every day, and we'd missed our window. A little down the street we saw a clothing store called Right-On and, hoping to find something wacky and unique, went in, only to find that it is about the same as the GAP. Heading back towards campus, we stopped by the Life Is Wonderful liquor store, which offered for sale the tallest, thickest bottles of hard booze either of us had ever seen. I went with a relatively small model, the aforementioned gallon of Suntory, with which I expect to make it a relaxing time.
Sunday was a little better. Gen, Georgia, Max, Bethany and myself left in the A.M. by foot for central Kyoto, and after two and a half hours of continuous walking (with intermittent experimentation with vending machine beverages - Bikkle is my new favorite, followed by Qoo, and then C.C. Lemon, with the equivalent of 70 lemons' worth of Vitamin C in every bottle) we found ourselves at the point where the city's two main rivers converge. We spotted a Pachinko Parlor, one of the agreed-upon destinations of our sojourn, but decided that nothing else could be done until we had eaten lunch. After polling and vetoing a few vendors, we found a quaint, sit-down restaurant where I ordered a big bowl of saucy rice with unagi (eel, a favorite of mine) on top, which came with some amazing Japanese pickles which really ought to be exported as a national treasure. After having walked for so long in the breezy heat, the simple dish, with a few glasses of iced water, was probably one of the most satisfying meals I'd ever had. While we digested our meals we also had to digest what we were seeing on the TV mounted toward the rear of the restaurant, on which a petite Japanese girl was shown eating a mountain of rice with curry sauce about the size of a road cone. She probably finished it, but I had to look away, so I will never know. Considering that a skinny Japanese dude has out-eaten his obese American counterparts at the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest for the past five years, I'm going to guess that she succeeded in her task. I sure hope she won something nice.
We left the restaurant and went straight into the Pachinko Parlor, which was about as loud inside as a shooting range. Pachinko is a game similar to "plinko" on the American afternoon life-waste The Price Is Right, sort of a combination of a slot machine and pinball, wherein one pays money for a large quantity of steel ball bearings which are fed into the machine and rapidly propelled through it. The object is to control the force by which the balls are propelled (by a trigger or dial) so that they bounce along a series of pins and into a slot. Get a ball in the slot, get three back. Gambling is technically illegal in Japan, but the proprietors of Pachinko parlors have cleverly skirted the law. If one has sat at a "lucky machine" and has acquired more balls than he put in, he may take his bucket of spheres to a counter in the back of the parlor where he may exchange the heavy mass for any number of "gifts", such as cigarette cartons or leather goods, which he can bring to another shop next door, where these "gifts" will be purchased back for a set price. In this way one can break even. None of us did. After a few ten thousand yen notes we all decided to call it quits, admiring and envying the small, chain-smoking men and women who had accumulated around them bucket after bucket of ball bearings, stacked like loot from a raid. We did some shopping and got our daily recommended requirement of ridiculous English from a store called "Bruce-Pee: Ill Store Kyoto, Extra Dope Select Wear". Lipton Teas has a cafe in the enormous multiple-city-block covered mall where they serve the most amazing deserts you are likely to ever find. There is also a store there which sells bladed goods of every imaginable variety, from hair trimmers to throwing stars. I shall return.
All for now.