Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ancient Japan, Ketchup Cup Urine Test and KimuTaku's Mom

So once again, I’ve been shirking my duty of reporting all the interesting things that befall me here in old Nippon, but I’ll do my best to catch up before anything else new and interesting happens. The first thing after the Alice Nine concert that’s worth writing about was going to the Chakai with my host mother and her friend on the 11th, which admittedly was some time ago. We got on a train line I’ve only been on once in my life and rode it for about 45 min. (it being the super express) and made our way out of Tokyo completely and into another prefecture, though where exactly we ended up, I’m not entirely certain only that the name had ‘Chikatetsu’ in the title. This chakai, or tea meeting, was particularly special as it’s only held a few times a year and the ink painting/calligraphy master and his wife make their way all the way from Nara, where they live in the mountains, to Tokyo just for this nice little event. The entirety of the festivities are held in a very, very high dollar kimono shop that’s stood in that same place for the past 200 years (no joke), and while parts have been renovated to accommodate the times, most of the structure is the same as it always has been. This kimono shop was the embodiment of what I, and most westerners, think of when they think “Japan.” The room where one of the tea ceremonies was held, and where the calligraphy tables were set up was, of course, a room of tatami mats, wooden beams and paper sliding doors. That is, except for the one ‘wall’ which wasn’t in fact a wall at all, but rather a large window the size of a wall which could be slid back to open out onto the traditional looking Japanese garden/stream. Yes, they have a stream in the courtyard. The building is built sort of like an O with the middle open, and through it runs a stream and a pond (complete with turtle), over which hang lazy sakura (cherry blossom) trees whose petals, when their hour has come, drift in droves like summer snow, down into the quiet pond below. There is vegetation everywhere, plants of all sorts growing out of the soil and stream alike, and you have to use stepping stones to get anywhere. And there were the large, standing stone lanterns one gets used to seeing in such places. In the large, aforementioned room, there was, of course, the god shelf, though the Japanese name for it I’ve since forgotten. As is always the way, within it was incense, a large ikebana display (this one happened to be of still-green, Japanese maple leaves), and then a large calligraphy scroll, naturally given as a gift from the visiting master. The master himself was quite a character, but I shall get to him presently. The last space I got to explore, and where we received our first tea ceremony, was in the tea room, or chashitsu, This room is actually it’s own separate structure, very small in size and square. All of the grand houses in the old days in Japan had these rooms. They usually fit either four or six tatami mats, have a god shelf and sometimes a removable piece from the floor for people wishing to practice macha (powdered green tea). I might mention that tea ceremony and all other manner of bowing from the seiza (sitting) position, both long ago and now, is built around lines on tatami mats. For example, depending on your rank, you sit on a certain mat at a certain place and bow this far or that far from the edge of the mat. Thus, these tatami mats are not placed in any room willy-nilly, but all according to some ancient plan. This tea room was got to by a narrow walkway skirting the garden, covered by a bamboo veranda.

The tea ceremony here, in contrast to the other ceremonies I’ve been to, had a third person (besides the person doing the ceremony and her helper), who attended. It was a man whose sole job was to sit and explain various things to the guests (us), to be conversational, and to overall create a nice atmosphere. He explained about the tea, the tools being used, the ikebana display and then read and explained the writings on the scroll (which are often written in such a messy and mysterious way as to be unreadable to most Japanese people).

Now, to the character I met. First of all there was the guy who worked there. And by that I mean as a part time job or what not, and he was the only person present (minus me), who was not dressed in a kimono. His job was mainly to greet guests and take pictures, but he was quite exceptionally friendly to me and I found him a pleasant sort of young man. Then there was the owner of the kimono shop and heir of the place, and I took to him quite expediently. He was dressed in lovely, grand evergreen robes and looked like he could have been the crowned prince or something. That’s not to say he was exceptionally good looking or young (late 30s perhaps), but he had that regal sort of air about him, and dressed as he was, it was as though he’d stepped right out of the past, or that I’d stepped into it. Even so, he was a pleasant fellow, kind and quick to smile, not at all stuck up, nor did he have that feeling that many really rich people do. There was a woman (who I assume to be his wife), who skirted by us a time or two, but didn’t say much. She gave the second tea ceremony and she was dressed in the most beautiful kimono I’ve ever seen. Of course, if she’s married to a Kimono maker, she should be. But it was so gorgeous. It was a light, powder-blue with pink Sakura petals here and there on it, and the Obi was so elegant, embroidered to look like a painting of pastels, almost like a spring mountain scene so that, to look at her from the back, her entire ensemble could have been a grand painting on a wall. It was magnificent. There was the calligraphy master’s wife, also in green who we didn’t talk to much, and in our group a lovely, thin older lady who was all smiles and humility. And then there was the master.

Oh if he wasn’t a character. He had long hair, pulled back in a ponytail and gave me a cheery speech on how samurai of old kept away from the sins of drink and women and achieved balance and strength by practicing tea ceremony, calligraphy and ink painting to quiet their soul. It was these practices that renewed them for the next days discipline. He was dressed in yellow robes, and a very interesting man indeed, and not near so old as I’d imagined him to be. To know his personality, is to understand what my host mother means when she says, “He lives in the mountains in Nara.” Indeed.

He seemed a quite spontaneous fellow and on a whim had us all sitting around him and he determined to make each of us an ink painting. And then he pulled out a piece of paper, a brush and began. And it was like magic. To do it, one would have to know exactly how much ink was on the brush and how it would come off the paper, and have a very clear idea in mind of what they wanted to paint. But without a pause for thought, he would start moving his hand over the paper, and as if by magic, by some enchantment, what seems like random scribbles and scrawls from a brush running out of ink, suddenly transforms into a mountain scene or a river with boats or whatever else he can think up. There were paintings of Sakura, and mountain streams and even tea ceremonies and it was lovely. And he was insistent that we all write whatever thoughts (or words) came to mind to express our feelings. He was insistent about this because he wanted the day, the experience, and the painting itself not to be just about him, but about us all together.

In other news, though not necessarily good news, our school (as I suppose all Japanese schools do) had a mandatory health check day on the 15th. Now, I had to have a freaking physical before I came, so I assumed myself exempted from this (you need one per year). No one said a word to me and I thought I was in the clear. And then, true to form, my school leaders e-mail me around 9 pm the night before saying I need to be there the next day at somewhere around 8:30 am. Now, it takes me an hour and 20 min. to get to school. You do the math. I was ready to murder someone. But, as they say here, shoganai (It can’t be helped), so I dragged my lady butt into the school bright and early and had to begin the regime. First there was the form to fill out (all in Kanji/Japanese of course) and you don’t know the humiliation of having a nurse explain tuberculosis, diarrhea, constipation, etc. to you via charades in front of the whole student body. That being done, I was then instructed to go find a bathroom and pee in a cup. We’ve all done this, right? Not in Japan you haven’t. The Japanese urine cup is a bit behind the times. Unlike it’s modern American counterpart (unpleasant but fairly easy to use), the Japanese urine ‘kit’ consists of a… to explain the ‘cup’ I must call to your mind the small paper cups at McDonald’s into which people squirt ketchup for their fries. Have that in your mind? That’s what they give you. And a small squirt bottle reminiscent of a tube of lotion, only empty. Thus, if you’re lucky, you get a western toilet, and if not you get one of the toilet’s in the floor (my school is old and backwards and retarded so we have mostly all toilets in the floor). So you’re squatting, or sitting, trying to somehow aim for a ketchup cup, and once you’ve succeeded in that, you must then squeeze all the air out of the bottle and suck the urine up into it to a line (mostly full).

This hurdle thus overcome, I proceeded to an Xray machine in the back of a van, then height/weight and gave blood. Next a vision and hearing test. Then I was told to sit on a conference table and hike my shirt up so they could stick little nodes on my for an EKG. Last was the old, ‘breathe in deep for me,’ and then I was out. Out but irate. Man I hate that school.

The last bit of news is quite the most interesting in my eyes. I’ve often blurbed about KimuTaku at this point. Mr. Takuya Kimura, the veritable Brad Pitt of Japan. One of the biggest money makers and a man with so much pull in the entertainment industry here that planets have started revolving around him. He even got to sing “It’s My Life” with Bon Jovi. Yes, well, he’s been my newest interest lately, and as I was walking with my host mother the other day to the Lawsons 100 (dollar store) just around the corner which I never knew existed, she told me that Mr. Kimura’s mother was coming to our shrine on Friday (the 17th). Of course, my jaw dropped to the floor. It seems she’s to make a speech about motherhood on June 26th and wanted to have it at our shrine, thus she was coming to check the place out. My host mom was fairly blasé about the news, but my host father and I both went ape. So, Friday afternoon at 1 we were down on the first floor, ready to receive her. She was a very beautiful lady. She looked somewhere around 40 though she’d have to be 60 or so in reality. She had that elegant, opulently rich and refined air about her, like a lady who might go to the races in a big hat. Her makeup was light and flattering and her clothes probably designer. Even so, she was polite and gentle and kind in her speech. I introduced myself and brought her some tea and she complimented my Japanese (as everyone in this country does, even if you can only say one word), and went so far as to say I had very pretty Japanese, prettier and more refined that most young people today. After that I went off and was set at the shrine’s main office window where I received a very handsome man, tan and tall and obviously (as was later confirmed) a surfer. He’d driven all the way from IbaragI (which is quite a long way), to pick up the Daruma dolls we hadn’t sold at New Years. It turns out he makes the dolls himself, which I find to be very interesting indeed. He was humble to everyone and only slightly embarrassed when my host mother harangued him about not being married yet and then he packed up his boxes and left. Around then, KimuTaku’s mom finished her discussion with my host dad, we all posed for a picture and then she was on her way out the door like a Hollywood actress walking the red carpet.

Well anyways, that’s all I’ve got for now, though I’m off to a baseball game on Friday, so that should be fun/interesting. Who knows when I’ll post again. I won’t make any promises, but I’ll get back to you when I can!

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