Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ebisu festival, Avatar, and Kyoto

The weekend of January 10th-11th was quite eventful! Originally I was planning to go to my writers` critique group in Osaka, but the other members were out of town. But I also knew about a big festival in Osaka, so I called up my friend Kayoko and together we decided when would be the best time to go, and see the new movie Avatar afterward!

So I stayed home and wrote, then headed out Sunday morning for Osaka with my Chinese friend Li (Lee). We got there around 10:00, just in time for worship at J-house (Jesus house) church. Li seemed a little uncomfortable with the very enthusiastic form of worship; he`s much more of a sit down/stand up sort of guy, but he found the message very intriguing. It was given by the Japanese editor of the devotional guide Our Daily Bread. It`s a very new magazine in Japan; devotional books are kind of rare. She preached in Japanese so Li could understand her (after living here three years he`s almost fluent in Japanese), and I had an ear-bud translator with someone in the back whispering the translation so I and the other foreigners could understand. If there was something Li didn`t understand, I would whisper the English to him and he would usually get it then.

She talked about the importance of daily devotions and how through the Bible and prayer, we have a direct connection to God. She stressed that it doesn’t matter whether you use a devotional guide or read straight from the Bible without a guide; the important thing is to have a routine of Bible reading and prayer and to stick to it. Li said that the talk motivated him to read the Bible more.

I was worried all through the service about Kayoko, because she was supposed to meet us at the church before the service started. (She quit her job that she didn`t like in Iga and lives in Kyoto now with her family, looking for another job.) But we found her afterward! She just slipped in a little late. So we stayed for lunch and chatted with the J-house folks. I got to see my old friends Christina and Jennifer. Li seemed excited to meet Christians and wants to go back there some time.

Next we went to the Ebisu festival. There are “seven lucky gods of fortune” in Japan, the most popular being Ebisu (god of fisherman and merchants) and Daikoku (the god of wealth, commerce and trade) which are often paired together as a single, fat and happy god wearing red, covered in gold, and holding a fish. Every year in early January, millions of merchants and business people flock to the Shinto shrines to pray for wealth and prosperity. What does that tell you about human nature? Nobody even believes in the gods anymore, but they rush to buy their trinkets, touch and rub the statue, stand in ridiculously long lines to clap in front of the shrine and get waved over by a paper stick so that maybe they’ll get lots of money this year.

OK, so maybe I’m no better. I wanted to see the spectacle, so I went to Osaka which has one of the biggest festivals. There were so many stalls selling food and souvenirs. Here’s a typical one:

Everything was soooo overpriced. Thirty-five dollars for a reed stick. I don’t know if that’s because they’re supposed to be “sacred” or they just figure people are willing to pay that much. Suffice it to say, I didn’t buy one. I’m telling you, festivals are a huge industry in Japan. There were literally millions of people packed in the streets. Here’s what it looked like on video. At the end you can see the green branch vendors, sort of like Palm Sunday branches, hailing the god:

I’m not sure who the vendors are, but there seems to be a difference between the ones selling souvenirs and food on the street and the ones inside the shrine selling “tokens of the god” like the palm branches, prayer paper to write prayers on and hang them from the trees, and golden good luck charms for wealth. For one, the people selling stuff inside the shrine are all dressed up, and are perhaps employed by the shrine itself. I’m sure the shrines must hire extra help at this time, because these people sure don’t work there year round. Most of the shrine vendors were young women, and wore white robes and golden hats. Here’s one of them:

I’ve been told the street vendors are really in competition with each other for the best places (like corners and nearest the shrine) and that many of them have deals with yakuza (Japanese gangsters), bribing them for the prime spots. Some of them are actually yakuza themselves, some say. I’m a little more inclined to believe that at a huge event like this, where a vendor could very easily make half a million yen ($5,000) in one day selling $5 corn on the cob that costs 50 cents at the grocery store, probably less when they buy it in bulk. (That’s a cob every thirty seconds; believe me, they were selling faster than that.)

As we were leaving, we saw a guy dressed like a geisha. He was one of the temple staff, but I have no idea why he was dressed up. He looked pretty convincing! Here’s Li beside him:

On the way to another shrine we passed through an underground garden near the station. Here is Kayoko amidst the fountain and flowers:

Then we went to the REALLY big festival a few miles away. Wow, talk about a lot of people! There were over five million, according to the reports. We were pretty hungry by then, so we got some food from the vendors. They sure had some interesting fare! Here’s octopus on a stick, right beside the raw mollusks:

We avoided that stuff. Kayoko and I shared a beef kabob and I got a candied apple. It was so crowded near the shrine that people were stopped in the wide streets, packed like sardines from building to building with no place to walk. I got impatient of just standing and not knowing why, so I did something really stupid. As I munched my candied apple, I weaved my way through the crowd to see what was up ahead. Li kept close, and I was planning on coming right back to Kayoko, but just when I could see the shrine, we started moving again. We couldn’t fight against the flow of traffic. We totally lost Kayoko. We tried calling her again and again, but her cell phone kept dying. Also, it was getting close to the time when we had to leave to see Avatar, but there was nothing we could do to break free from the swarm, so we had no choice but to follow it into the shrine.

Here`s the trash heap of “god souvenirs” just as you`re entering the outer gates to the shrine.

Further in, they were selling golden bamboo. Here`s what that looks like:

Finally we got to the end of the massive mile-long line, and for what? To be shaken over by a paper stick, one person at a time. Here`s that:

I decided that was silly and bypassed that line, going right into the inner shrine. Nothing fancy there, just more souvenir vendors. If that`s most people`s idea of religion, it`s no wonder anyone with real faith is scoffed as silly, superstitious, and unscientific.

On the way out, there was a man dressed up like the god. Here`s what that looked like.

We finally broke through the crowd back into the street, but still no sign of Kayoko. We had a little bit of panic as we tried to decide what to do. We had no idea where the theater was where the movie was showing in 3D and English. Kayoko had the map. So Li and I finally decided to go to one he knew of that was pretty close, and hopefully that would be the one. At first we were disappointed that it wasn`t, but the good news was that while we had missed the beginning of the other showing, (6:30), we had plenty of time to catch this theater`s 8:30 showing, which also happened to be in English and 3D and miracle of miracles, wasn`t sold out. And we had time to call Kayoko, and this time her cell phone worked, and she came to meet us. Because the last train to Nabari left at 10:30, while the last train to Kyoto left at 11:50 (the movie was three hours long), we decided to stay with Kayoko that night. So it all worked out in the end. We enjoyed a nice relaxing dinner at a café and then went to the movie. We were afraid we would still have to leave early, but before it started Li found the quickest way to the train station and figured out it would only take six minutes, and bought our tickets ahead of time for us. So we got to watch the whole thing.

Wow! I haven`t seen a movie that good in a really long time. The special effects were incredible, the world well-built, the 3D amazing, and the story phenomenal. It`s always hard to get complex sci-fi concepts to fit and makes sense without disrupting the overall story. They did it well, with just the right amount of explaining. The pacing was also really good, and there was a great deal of poetry and symbolism in the camera shots and the metaphors (both visual and spoken) within the story itself. I really loved the part when Jake was able to run the first time in his new avatar body. That really showed just how much freedom this mission would give him, how it would change his life, and really make him a new person.

The one and only thing that brought me out of the movie was the floating islands. Really? How the heck is that even possible? Sure, I have a floating island in one of my stories, but I have a scientific basis for it. How did they explain dozens of them? Some sort of magnetic field? Then it would have interfered with the ship`s sensors. That was purely there for the “wow” factor, but they already had plenty of that, so adding the floating islands was just dumb.

The aliens were well made, in that they were tall and skinny in a lighter-gravity environment, with tails to counteract the resulting instability (and would also help in jumping from tree to tree like they always did). But, of course, they were waaaaay too much like South American tribal peoples, (what are the chances that they would evolve like that on a totally foreign planet), but the “message” of the film depended on that point. It was obviously an allegory for destroying the rain forest, global warming, etc. But honestly, the metaphor wasn`t overdone. It was sort of refreshing to see the humans as the bad guys this time. One thing I really liked was the avatar idea; besides it`s obvious essentialness to the plot, it made the aliens falling in love and becoming “a mated pair for life” actually believable. (Come on, humans and vulcans mating and having healthy, fertile offspring? First of all, we don`t even have the same hormones! Second of all, law of extra-species incompatibility! That`s scientifically impossible. Ligers, for example, have compensated pituitary glands, and mules are sterile. If it can`t be done by two species on the same planet, how much more impossible would it be between planets? Who didn`t do their research, Gene Roddenberry?)

Anyway, on a more sociological analysis note, it`s interesting to see the phases films go through. A few years ago, on the heels of the “War on Terror,” we were bombarded with films about the enemy being “out there,” foreign, sneaky, cheating invaders and yea for the American military! Low budget films were also doing pretty well, and sad endings were OK, especially dystopian in nature, showing us what we “should be afraid of.” Now that everyone is eager to bash the old Bush administration and bring in the new, films tend to show military in a negative light, that the enemy is just as likely to be “us” as “them,” and the more flashy, fun special effects and humor to distract us from the economic downturn, the better. A film like Avatar, while good no matter when it is released, would probably not have been so well received a few years ago. And now, try to release a low budget film exemplifying the U.S. military and attacking outsiders, with a sad ending to boot, and you`d probably be jumped in the street.

What I`d really like to see is a novel fleshing out so many of the great ideas in Avatar. How did the neuro network evolve? How does it work exactly? How did the native people come to find out the humans were using avatars? How about the social hierarchy among the native people? How long have the humans been at this? Did it start as pure study or was the “let`s see what we can get from this planet” mentality there from the beginning?

As soon as the movie ended, we rushed out of the theater ahead of everyone else to catch our train. We had plenty of time, it turns out. On the way back, we all chatted about our impressions of the film. It was interesting so see three different cultural perspectives. Kayoko had never seen a 3D movie before, and she loved it, but fell asleep during the first part. Li, however, did not seem to like it much. He found it too fast-paced with not enough breathing room and a little hard to follow. (I don`t think it was a language thing because it was in English with Japanese subtitles, two languages he is fluent in.) I`ve seen Chinese films and they tend to be very slow, with long, silent pauses between characters and scenes of silently strolling through gardens. This has to do with the Zen Buddhist concept of space and time, like a rest in music or a “beat” in a play. These are not simply empty moments, but filled with all kinds of thoughts, dwelling the simplicity of the moment, what came before, and what will come after, etc. I have a lot of respect for this kind of art form, but I must confess I find it quite dull. As an American I have been brain washed to want everything right now, including stories. Too long a beat or pause feels like a waste of time, whether or not it really is.

American films used to be like this. Just think of the great epics like Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments and you`ll see what I mean. Camera shots, for one, used to be about ten seconds long. Now they`re an average of about two seconds. The camera is moving constantly, and actors don`t pause between lines, and scenes are cut very short. We have commercials and MTV to thank for that. Give it to me fast, give it to me now, in thirty-seconds or less, every second means money. The MTV and commercial directors of today are the one rising up to make tomorrow’s movies. But that “every second counts” thing is also making movies longer to shoot, and more expensive to make. Interesting oxymoron.

OK, film major rant over. We got to Kayoko`s house around 1:00am and stayed the night there, which was very comfortable. We never saw her mother; she was already in bed when we got there and already at work when we got up around 9:00am. (Monday was a holiday, so we didn`t have to go to work.) We had a nice, slow morning, discussing the history and spread of Christianity (or more like Kayoko and Li asking me questions and me doing my best to answer them) over miso soup and oranges for breakfast. About 11:00 we headed out to see a nearby temple. Kyoto streets are very old, narrow, and charming. Here`s what one looks like, notice the modern touch of pikachu (that`s a popular cartoon character for those of you older folks out there):

Normally it costs money to enter the temple, but that day we were lucky and it was free! The inside was very beautiful, much more ornate than the temples I`d seen in Nara. I wonder if it has to do with the time period it was built in. Nara temples are much older (Nara was the first capital of Japan, Kyoto the second) and the later period of Japanese history is known for it`s more flowery poetry, splendid geisha, and performing arts.

But the temple grounds were fairly plain, with several buildings; some you can go in and some you can`t. Here`s what they look like:

Inside one of the buildings you couldn`t enter were chanting monks. Their music was a capella (no instruments) and sounded a lot like Gregorian chant. Interestingly enough, Kayoko told me it originated about the same time. Very beautiful. Here`s a video of what they sound like. Notice there is a leader and then the others follow. The man in the beginning is Li. I tried to peak inside, but suddenly felt very weird about that, as it seems that would be disrespectful.

We continued to wander around Kyoto for several hours. Here was a rather interesting shrine we found. It looks like an old, Samurai warrior`s hat, and all around were the traditional red posts. There used to be deer, but they were getting eaten by wild dogs, so they were moved to Nara, Kayoko said:

We wound up at Kyoto university. We looked around there for awhile and enjoyed seeing all the twenty-year-old girls dressed in their kimonos for “Coming of Age” day. In that festival, men and women who have turned twenty in the last year go to the local shrine or somewhere similar and have a big ceremony inaugurating them into full-fledged Japanese society. Traditionally it`s a bigger deal for girls than boys because it used to be the time when they could be given in marriage. The fact that they do it all together tells you something interesting about Japanese society, doesn’t it? In the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and South America, the “coming of age” ceremonies are a highly individualized affair. Bar/Batmitfas for Jews, Qince anos (fifteen years) for Hispanic girls, eighteenth and twenty-first birthdays for Americans and Europeans. In Japan, the ceremony is all about the group, coming of age together, so much so that it is a national holiday, so that the whole country can celebrate the new generation coming into their own.

We had lunch at the university student union, and the food was very good and the prices cheap. There was a lot more we could have seen in Kyoto afterward, but we were all very tired, so Li and I went back to Nabari after that. On the way back, we met these interesting characters, probably advertising the Ebisu festival. Japan is full of this stuff, and I can never resist getting a picture:

All in all, it was a lovely weekend, though I think in the future I will avoid huge festivals with gigantic crowds you can`t even swim through.

Right now it is snowing. Mostly all we get is cold, grey, sloppy rain, so this is a nice change. It`s very beautiful. And fortunately, I did not ride my bike to school today.

Prayer request for this week: On Saturday, I`m headed for Korea! I`m visiting some of my Korean Christian friends there and my friend Casey from the University of Tulsa who is now teaching English in Seoul (the capital). Please pray for safe travel and health! (I have been a bit under the weather off and on lately— like a persistent cold that won`t fully go away. The doctor called it “general fatigue” and said I need to get more rest.) Also, I`ve been sending off a lot of stories to publishers and agents lately, but have been getting nothing but polite “no thank you`s” but a few very nice recommendations for others who might be interested. Please pray that something comes through, eventually, in God`s time! (In the mean time, I just need patience.) I`m struggling a little bit with my latest novel, too and some days I just don`t feel like writing or doing anything. Classes are going much better this semester; the bad kids have been broken up into different classes so their friends are no longer egging them on. Attendance to my Christian classes has been a little low because of the cold in the evenings; no one wants to go out! I`ve organized a clothing drive at my school to send clothes to the people in Haiti devastated by the earthquake. Despite my personal appeals to my students in class, so far no one has given anything! Please pray that it goes well; heaven only knows how much the clothes are needed. But good news, Pastor Toshi`s father, who is very sick and dying, recently accepted Jesus! Last Sunday we were all around his hospital bed praying for him, and later he said to Pastor Toshi, “That really touched me. I really want what you people have. You`re always so joyful and giving.” He wants to receive water baptism as soon as possible.

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,
L. J. Popp

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