Sunday, September 12, 2010

Bunka sai!

Wow, I’ve been in Japan for a year! Can you believe it? This past week, I felt like I came full circle, for it was my second time experiencing the annual school bunka sai, or cultural festival. It was different from last year, because I actually knew what was going on! I was able to read some of the schedule (asking questions about stuff I couldn’t read) and understand a lot of the Japanese, as well as having some background on the various traditions.

We started off with the opening ceremony, of course. (You can’t do anything in Japan without an opening ceremony!) Last year we had a Chinese circus come, which was amazing, but this year was equally incredible with a taiko group! Taiko, as I said in one of my first posts last year, is an ancient form of drumming, the heart beat of Japan. I was really glad they came, because I missed most of the taiko festivals this summer while traveling around with my mom. This was a modern group from Osaka, more of a “boy band” perhaps, but very, very good. Unfortunately, my poor quality camera can not pick up the deep booming base, and the rhythms sound very…sloshy, but it’s interesting to watch. Here’s the intro:

And the middle:

Aren’t they so genki (energetic)? These guys put on an hour and a half show! They spent nearly the whole time jumping around like that banging on their drums! They don’t look all that muscular. I think every nationality has an in-born super power. People from Africa are born knowing how to sing. People from India are born knowing how to dance. Chinese are born with an uncanny endurance to take just about anything, and Americans…I think we’re born with the ineffable talent of always saying the most awkward, obnoxious thing possible at just the wrong time without meaning to…or maybe that’s just me. Anyway, the Japanese seem to have an infinite supply of energy that they get simply from being Japanese. That, and super neat handwriting.

So, here’s the end with singing:

I’m telling you, there’s nothing hotter than a guy who can drum like that and play the flute AND sing. It helps that I can actually understand what he’s singing about. Follow your dreams, reach for the stars, etc. Stuff performers typically say to a high school audience. They also gave six of our kids a chance to drum on one of their songs (after teaching them how, of course), but I don’t think I can show that, because it might embarrass the kids.

After the opening ceremony, everything was free for all. Each of the approximately fifteen classes had prepared something, plus the clubs. Two classrooms had been turned into haunted houses (one really good and the other very lame), two or three rooms had carnival games, others a photo gallery, three movies, painting exhibition, student-made comic books, lots of food booths outside, and a stage featuring Japanese game show-type entertainment. These included “name that song,” karaoke, an English speech resuscitation of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” (which I had to miss even though I coached the girls because I had play rehearsal), doing random crazy stuff, and the most popular, boys dressing up like girls. Puts a whole knew spin on the term “pretty boy.” I don’t get it. The thing is, with most of them, you really couldn’t tell the difference. Japanese men are feminine enough already…do we really have to emphasize it?

Besides those stranger things, there was also a band concert, koto (Japanese harp) performance, shodo (calligraphy performance), and sato (tea ceremony). The first two I loved, of course, being a big music fanatic. Here’s a more traditional taiko piece the band performed:

And a little dance:

The koto concert, while beautiful, did not provide any good videos, because of the noise from the stage outside. They could have planned that a lot better. As for shodo, that’s a kind of art form I will never quite get. Giant sloppy black strokes on a page are not particularly beautiful to me; I about cried when they rent that awful black line through the lovely Nabari city flower. It's interesting what different cultures see as "good art" and others find to be "ruining good art." Anyway, here’s a picture:

No matter how much time I spend in Japan, the tea ceremony is another one of those arts I will never fully appreciate. It’s…tea for Pete’s sakes. Yes, I understand the spirit of humility and subtleness, how each movement is like a dance and you honor your guest with the precision of your movement, but I’m sorry, I don’t really feel honored when my host is so busy frowning and making sure everything is just so that she won’t say a word or even smile or greet me. It’s just…awkward, and I think modern Japanese typically feel that way about it. I noticed quite a few nervous giggles from the teachers and students as we exited the tea ceremony room. But I have to admit, tea ceremony tea is always superior in flavor to regular brewed tea. It’s so light and frothy, without any tea leaves swimming in it, and never too hot. That’s probably due to the special tools and methods they use.

Friday morning brought the “highlight” of the festival: the choir contest. I will not subject your ears to that. In one choir, a boy sang so loudly that he drowned everyone else out; the students were giggling and he probably got made fun of later. I must say, though, I admire the Japanese for requiring students to sing in a choir at least three times in their high school careers, with student conductors and pianists. Being part of a choir is a good education, just like their mandatory marathons and sports days, and America could certainly benefit from similar customs. (Though sadly, I don’t think in America you could find a pianist in every class.) I just wish they wouldn’t force everyone to listen to them when they have no real vocal training. A good compromise might be to have several teachers coach them on the songs instead of relying entirely on student conductors, and having only the top three choirs perform for the whole school. Two hours of out-of-tune screaming is no fun for anyone, least of all the students. Also, someone needs to write more Japanese choral music. Of the fifteen choirs, there were only five songs, so each got repeated three times.

Ah, the food. That was probably the best part. Ebi sembe (shrimp flavored rice cracker) with egg…mmmm. And karage (fried chicken) and hot cakes with ice cream and barbeque yaki tori (grilled chicken on a stick), yaki soba (fried noodles with pork and cabbage), shaved ice with cream, yes! All made by the students, of course; there had to be six or seven food stalls selling multiple things, run by various classes. I love Japanese festival food. Except the sausage, which gave me a killer migraine on Thursday. Dang, I have to remember not to eat sausage, even in Japan. Especially in Japan.

Last year they had me do karaoke. This year, drama club procured me as the foreign student in their play. That was…interesting. We had exactly one rehearsal before the performance. I guess the kids got a kick out of it because it featured their teachers as students, each with a special “talent.” One guy played the drums, another did tricks with a soccer ball. I just spoke English and Japanese. Oo, ah. I guess I had a boyfriend or something because I was hitting on this one teacher at the end, and then another man came on stage, and I ran to him shouting, “Oh, my darling!” and skipped with him off stage. Odd. I only understood about half of it. The kids went wild, screaming “Laura I love you!” and afterwards, one of them cornered me to help him with his English essay. So, awkwardness aside, I guess it was a success.

Finally, the closing ceremony. The students got ratted out royally by the principle for being very “uncultural.” Most of the students had spent their time around the game show, which got way too loud and disruptive of other more “refined” cultural gems. I was inclined to agree with him. Hardly anyone showed up for the more traditional Japanese performances and exhibitions. Will they disappear? No, I don’t think so. There will always be those with an interest in preserving such things, particularly retired people who like to take up hobbies. Even in America and Europe, there are still people who know how to spin wool and play the hammered dulcimer and can speak Old Gaelic. In Japan, I think the traditional arts will always be stronger than that. Japan simply has two hearts, one beating at the frenzied, tech-savy, materialist speed of modernity, and the other at a slower, steadier tempo, unchanging, quiet, yet never dying.

Prayer Requests for this week: I am trying to organize a food drive at my school for Second Harvest Nagoya, but the teachers and students are less than understanding, mostly because they’ve never even heard of a food drive before. Please pray that I am able to aptly explain it and everything goes well! Please also pray for my friend Kae, who is going through some tough health problems right now.

Until next time, keep loving and keep praying,

Laura Popp (L. J. Popp)

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