Sunday, May 20
Today was another corporate sponsored work outing! I had been invited to join the Bus Tour again. The destination this time: Kamakura (鎌倉). I woke up early and took an assortment of trains to Tokyo Station (東京駅) and made a rendezvous with the staff. We briefed and boarded the bus with our students. It would be a day of adventure!
Truth be told, I’m a bit jaded when it comes to Kamakura. Because I can get there in an hour, I’ve visited the ancient city a half-dozen times. I knew the area better than almost anyone on the bus. But because I was working, I had to keep my lips shut and play the role of the bumbling foreigner. Yawn.
We spent the morning on the bus and at the Great Buddha (大仏). Lunch was at a snazzy hotel. And the afternoon was spent in small groups at Enoshima (江ノ島). We rallied again at the station and took our bus north back to Tokyo.
The highlight of the trip came at a rest stop on the way back. We saw midlife-crises on showcase. 12 Ferraris and Lamborghinis had parked their cars on displays. We all ogled the cars. But what I found the most interesting were the owners of the car. 12 men in their late 40’s and early 50’s. Each with too much weight around their belly and a not enough hair on their head. Each man had a girlfriend, half his age, who looked fresh from the red light district. Woof!
On the way home I visited the Ono (相模大野) and met with Mari for a fast dinner. We ate at a family restaurant and I ordered a club sandwich. If they want me to act like a foreigner, I’ll eat like one too!
Monday, May 21
I woke up early to see the solar annular eclipse (ring of fire). I climbed on top of my apartment for a better view. No luck, the huge apartment building next to mine blocked the sun. I climbed down and scaled up the sister apartment next to mine. It was overcast and I couldn’t find the sun. I looked around and saw people hanging out of their apartments pointing in the sky. I followed their fingers and found the sun hiding behind the clouds.
The clouds parted a few times through the minutes to allow a partial view of the sun blocked by the moon. It looked like a ring of fire, pretty sweet. I gazed at the sun through squinted eyes and two pairs of sunglasses. I snapped a few pictures and went inside to make coffee. Good start to the morning.
Monday afternoon I was fortunate enough to see Kabuki (歌舞伎) for the first time ever. It was an unplanned excursion but a delightful one! I highly recommend seeing a show if you have the chance!
Kabuki is a traditional form of Japanese art. It is a dramatic theatrical play. Elaborate sets and makeup are used. Only men can perform in it. And the Japanese language that is used is very old and dated. So much that modern Japanese people cannot understand all of what is said. Kabuki is an important part of Japanese culture that has shaped the character of nation as much as it reflects it.
The preceding Tuesday I was offered tickets to the show by a students. She couldn’t go and though I might enjoy it. Of course I said yes. She gave me the tickets and I found a friend to take, Elisha. Elisha and I met in Ginza (銀座) and made our way to the show. We both picked up an English headset that provided commentary during the show. We had a seat in the western style theater. The lights went down and the curtain went up. Show time.
The show started with a quartet of men singing in classical Japanese setting up the story. Five minutes of singing was summed up in my headset; “It is the year 1600. This leader has been cast out from Kyoto and is very upset.” The actors on stage came to life. Their makeup and costumes were astonishing. I watched with fascination.
My attention was broken on several occasions during the first act. The house lights were not fully out. They stayed on to provide necessary lighting for the audience. Many of whom were eating their box-lunch dinners (おベント) during the performance. An elder man near me cracked open a can of beer. In the aisle next to me a steady stream of tardy audience members came in for the first 30 minutes. My jaw resided on the floor the entire time. This was nothing like theater in the West. I found such acts to be thoroughly annoying and classless. But then I remembered that kabuki was formerly for the commoners of the country. Commoners don’t often have the best manners. And hey, when in Rome…
The first act concluded and we enjoy a thirty minute intermission. Elisha and I made a quick walk down the street to purchase a beer and a light dinner. We ate, drank and chatted. We were both enjoying the show very much.
Back in our seats the second act played out. The story & tension began to build. Three suicides and two beheadings took place on stage. A man was slowly stabbed to death ten times. Blood soaked many of the costumes. Such violence.
The final act. The story concluded with the main character riding a life-size horse off the stage. The lights came up and the audience offered a raucous applause. The final curtain fell five hours after it had first been raised. Elisha and I left the theater exhausted but very satisfied. I felt cultured for having seen such a show. And I fully plan on going again!
Sunday, May 27
Sunday morning we were up early and on a train out of the suburbs. Back to the mountains. Back to Tanzawa (丹沢). Mari and I started on a hike that should have taken three hours. However we felt good enough that we kept pushing on and ended up hiking eights hours.
I’ve been hiking many times since coming to Japan. The more I hike the more I thoroughly enjoy it. Every part of it. The nature. The panoramic views. Sweat and a pounding heart. The unknown over the next mountain top. Conquering a mountain top. I live for it. I’m glad this girl of mine can enjoy it with me.
We made it back down from the mountain and back home for a quick shower. We dried off and dressed up. One of my students, Shie さん, takes jazz vocal lessons. She invited me to see her singing at a local bar. I took the opportunity and brought Mari along. Before Shie could take the stage, a local saxophonist wailed away. He played his instrument and the three of us chatted over dinner and drinks. Finally Shie made it to the stage and she belted out a number of big band jazz songs, all in English.
“That’s my student!” I shouted.
We said goodnight to Shie and I split ways with Mari at the station. I made it back home to brush my teeth and hit the sack. What a day!
Monday, May 28
Monday was the beginning of something new. I suggested to my girls from training, Lauren & Elisha, that we start having a monthly get-together. We were introduced to each other through initial training. Initially we were inseparable. However we’ve lived here long enough to have assimilated into our local scenes. Gradually we’ve seen each other less and less. Finally I had enough of it and decided we should get together on a regular basis. Each month one of us would orchestrate something. Since it was my idea it was only natural I went first.
We met up and enjoyed a thought provoking exhibit about “the end.” “The end” of our lives, civilization, the universe. It was some pretty heavy stuff and elicited some good conversation. The museum was followed by lunch and a coffee. Sadly we bid goodbye and I was on my own.
I met up with Mari for dinner and found my way home. I fell asleep early only to be woken by a strong and sudden earthquake at 2 AM. Normally I sleep through small tremors. However that night it was like the earth was shaking my apartment saying, “Alex, wake up!” I woke up to hold up my glass of water. The quake subsided and I was back asleep.
Oh, I also shaved my head Monday morning. I got the shortest buzzcut possible. Summer has officially started!
-Play it by the Book-
The Japanese are a textbook people. Rules, regulations and procedures abound. Everything must be done in a sequential order. Deviating from what is written is unthinkable. And it’s highly irritating for a person like me.
A while back I was visiting my cellphone carrier. I was being helped by an English-speaking Japanese customer representative. She was friendly but very uncooperative. The majority of my requests were returned with a polite refusal. Most of my inquiries were met with a blank face and the same line, “… Because that’s the rule.”
In my experience, and in my home country, a polite customer can often receive great care when making request. Even the occasional wish will be granted if it means keeping the customer. Where I’m from, questions are often answered. Even if the answer is just a lip service.
Here in Japan it’s a little different. You taken what you’re given. You don’t ask questions. End of story.
I’ve been told by some of my Japanese friends that I have too high of expectations of companies. Or I’m too demanding.
I’m a consumerist, I tell them. If I pay for something, I have certain expectations. If those expectations aren’t met then I’ll take my business elsewhere. Basic free market capitalism. Common sense, at least as far as I used to be aware.
Welcome to life abroad, I tell myself.
Back at the store, the representative and I are losing patience with another. She can’t believe my insolence. I can’t believe her failure to care for a customer. Nothing is accomplished. I pay the same high bill for a poor service. They will shortly lose a customer to their competition. End of story.
This example is just that, an example. It isn’t reflective of everyone or everything. But it’s a real enough occurrence for me to comment on. This “textbook” philosophy brings a wealth of benefits to a like-minded culture. However it ultimately prevents any pragmatic adjustment to changing times. And ultimately it is a serious weakness in the Japanese culture, and more specifically, their economy.