Culture

A Sunday in Nagoya

Although it’s the fourth biggest city in Japan, Nagoya always feels incredibly peaceful to me. Even on the weekend and in some fairly popular tourist spots. It’s a nice three and a half hour drive by bus from Toyama, winding through the Japanese alps. I’m a big fan of sleeping on buses, and that plus Nagoya’s laid-back atmosphere means it’s a nice weekend (or even day) trip. A few weeks ago I went to Nagoya and ended up spending the Sunday by myself. I didn’t have much of a solid plan, but I wandered around and went to Ohsu Kannon, the science museum, and the castle. Not bad for a Sunday. Although I like traveling with friends, spending time alone in a city like Nagoya can be a nice escape.   _DSC0213 _DSC0214 _DSC0219 _DSC0221 _DSC0270 _DSC0228 _DSC0241 _DSC0257 _DSC0288 _DSC0306

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Halloween in Japan

In Japan Halloween isn’t really a holiday or celebrated the way it is in North America. But, there’s a general awareness of the event with all the merchandise and marketing that happens in the season. Walking into a grocery or convenience store you’ll find Halloween Candy and Halloween flavoured versions of typical snacks and sweets. Trick-or-treating happens on occasion, but only when it’s specifically organized by an individual or group providing the experience for kids. I went to two trick-or-treating events, one organized by an English teacher for her young students and the other organized by city hall in my town.

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Halloween is really fun to teach in school. For some of my classes I told a scary Japanese story in English, “Kuchisake-Onna”. It’s about a split-mouth woman who wears a surgical mask and goes around asking people if they think she is beautiful and then cutting them with scissors. Because face masks are pretty commonplace here, I wore one to class and told the story, ripping it off partway through the story to reveal I had drawn a split mouth on my face in red. It went over pretty well but the comments I got were “very cute!”… when really I wanted them to gasp in terror.

Throughout the year, many students have said “Trick-or-Treat” to me at various times, trying their luck to see if I would give them candy. It always took me by surprise but I can’t be surprised that if you’ve learned saying a certain sentence results in free candy… you’re going to use it. I showed some of my students a clip from “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”. (On a related note, the comic series is called “Snoopy” in Japan). I was surprised how funny they found it. It must be a classic for a reason.

On the actual day of Halloween I wore a No Face (Kaonashi) from Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away. I was excited to be a recognizable character but I greatly underestimated the reaction I would receive. At the Trick or Treating event I heard people calling out “KAONASHI!!” as I walked by and caused some little kids cry when they’re parents tried to force them to shake my hand. Later in the night I wore the costume on the train. The train conductor who patrols the cars came over to us and I thought maybe he would ask me to take off the costume, but instead he said “Please say Trick-or-Treat” and when we did he gave us train stickers and candy.

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Me on a Toyama train 

Feats of Strength: Maibara’s Kabuki Festival

It just so happens that the Japan’s “Sports day” holiday falls on the same weekend as Thanksgiving (in Canada, that is). So, at the time when I would normally be eating my way into a food coma, I was headed to Maibara to spend the long weekend. The reason for my visit was Maibara’s annual Kabuki festival.

I arrived and immediately headed over to see the stage being pulled across a bridge. The float has people positioned at the front pulling by rope, and people pushing at at the back. And although there are wheels, they’re pretty old and made of wood, so some lucky guys were given the task of levering them into movement. They were pulled for over an hour over the bridge and through the streets to the performance location. It was pretty funny to see people driving by slowing down to stare and take pictures.

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After the first performance we followed the float to the next location. We were in more of the city streets, so we could see the men on the top pushing telephone lines out of the way of the float. By then, I was impressed that anyone could still stand, let alone pull the float again. But after the last performance at around nine, the float was pulled all the way back to the Yutani Shrine, which is basically all uphill. This was the most fun, because everyone who was watching the performance along with the families of the performers helped pull. It was exhausting, but I couldn’t help but think (just like I did at Uozu’s Tatemon Festival), that we were only doing about 5% of the actual work.

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The next morning, we went back to the shrine to see the morning performances and to see the floats be pulled again to their new locations. This is a good action shot of the guys on the float- they yelled out instructions and kept rhythm with their arms and by stomping. The second, larger float below had a bit of more trouble turning onto the sloping path, there were a lot of eyes covered for fear it would tip over. In the end it all ran smoothly and everyone seemed pretty chill about it, which makes sense since most of them do this every year.  _DSC0340

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Being mixed-race in Japan: “Hafu” Film Screening in Toyama City

In Japan, the word “Japanese” is used as an all-encompassing term: signifying one’s nationality, race, culture, language, manner, and more. Ethnically half Japanese people in Japan are called “Hafu”, which literally just means “Half”. Because so much meaning is wrapped into the word “Japanese”, a label for your ethnicity therefore implies you must be fundamentally different inside, too. That your mannerisms, beliefs, culture, must not be “Japanese” like others, that you must not feel Japanese in the same way as others. What we see in the documentary “Hafu”, is that the experiences of Half-Japanese people can often be isolating. You might feel completely “Japanese” inside, but never be treated as such. Maybe you resent your mixed heritage, or associate more strongly with one of your “halves”. As the film-makers point out, the population of half-Japanese people in Japan is growing. And with it, a better understanding of what it means to be mixed-race must also grow.

Personally, my experiences are much different than those of someone born and raised in Japan. My story is most similar to Sophia, who grew up in Australia, except for me it’s Canada. This Friday, there is an organized screening of the documentary in Toyama city. I’ll be speaking at the end of the film with other panelists, I’m interested to hear what they have to say, and especially what the audience’s reaction is to the film.

The documentary isn’t available online, but I found some really interesting videos associated with the project. The first is one of the film-makers, Megumi Nishikura speaking TedxKyoto in 2013. The second is a compliation of interviews at an event in Yoyogi Park (Tokyo) organized by Hapa Japan.

Image at the top of the article is from hafufilm.com

 

 

 

Sumo Wrestling in Osaka

Sumo is perhaps one of the most well-known images of Japanese culture. And yet, Sumo is also one of the most misunderstood and ill-communicated aspects about Japan, as it seems to be treated rather comically by Western media. Not being much of a sports fan, my expectations were more of a “let’s see this interesting event” rather than focus on the sport itself. Five minutes there, and I realized how wrong I was.

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Seeing Sumo wrestlers in person makes you appreciate how powerful their bodies are- not just because of their size but how much speed and flexibility they posses. The stakes and anticipation for these events are high, because they’re so quick! Most of the matches lasted under 10 seconds, which were moments of pure energy and adrenaline from the crowd. There’s also a certain element of danger, as there were a few times when either one wrestler or both would fall off of the raised platform and land below.

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There were also clearly some crowd favourites, with some wrestlers receiving enormous cheers as their names were announced. We realized that most of the favourites were from Osaka, raising some city-pride from those in the audience. One wrestler had a group of fans in the crowd who had dressed as cheerleaders and would chant and spell out words with their pompoms. This drew a lot of attention and applause from the crowd.

Below you can see one of the final matches that was quite longer than most!