2009-08-31

Bearded People Music Festival

I love live music. Going to concerts ranks very high on my Top Five Things in the Universe list. Since I've been in Japan, I've only attended two concerts, both of which were Japanese jazz concerts. While they were very interesting, they couldn't quite fill that hole where live rock once existed in my life.

On Saturday, I finally remedied the lack of concerts in my life in Japan. One my friends had an extra ticket to a long ago sold out music festival that just happened to be in Nagaoka. Rarely do cool things happen in Nagaoka, so I was very surprised that I hadn't even heard of this festival until a few days before it was to take place. Luckily, I had a very rare Saturday off that coincided with the concert. The name of the festival was Higetachi no Ongaku Way 2009. I knew that ongaku means music and tachi is added to a word regarding people to make it plural, but hige was not in my vocabulary. Takeo informed me that hige means beard. We thought it over and decided that the festival's name translates roughly to "Beard People's Music Festival." I saw almost no bearded people there, but I still like the name.

My friend, Ellen, and her boyfriend, Takeo, and his friend, Nishi, met me at Nagaoka station and we began our journey to Echigo Hillside Park (the same park where Dustin and I had a BBQ with some friends a few Sundays ago). I had no idea how big this concert was. I knew it was a festival with many different types of music, but that's about all of the information I had required to agree to attend. When we got to the line-up for the shuttle buses, I was shocked. The huge line of people waiting to be taken to the park went around two and half city blocks. Wowzers. But of course, the Japanese are efficient and we went through that huge line quickly and were on a bus headed for the festival within ten minutes.

Once we got to the festival, we were given a wristband. Until we made our way to the hill on which we finally sat, we were instructed repeatedly to put our hands up (to show our wristband). There were signs, people with megaphones, and staff members yelling at the top of their lungs for us to display our wristbands. I felt like a part of some vague cause, all of our hands raised in solidarity... ultimately, I suppose that cause would be music.

Before the concert, I had never heard of any of the bands playing. The Japanese people I was with, however, did in fact know most of the bands/artists. I asked Takeo what type of music each band played. Funky Monkey Baby, the first band, was described as a funk band. Then there was a 1980's idol, a rock group, a ska band, a soft rock duo, a heavy metal band, a reggae band, and a hip-hop artist/rapper. Well, aside from the ska band (Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, the most famous of the artists to people outside of Japan) and the rapper (KREVA), all of the bands sounded exactly the same.

I'm not a fan of J-Pop. I've heard plenty of it. It's amusing when paired with teenaged girls performing a memorized dance routine, but it's just not for me. One of my Japanese friends gave me a few CDs of Japanese music. I listened to them a few times. I liked Tsuji Ayano alright. She's fun and a bit rocky. She has a really sweet voice that reminds you of a bright sunny day. It's peaceful and dreamy, and that ukulele can't help but make you happy. Chara, on the other hand wasn't horrible, but just not for me. She's an idol from the 90's. It's not quite J-pop, but too close for my tastes. I found one Japanese artist on my own that I like, and I occasionally listen to him (Shugo Tokumaru). He's got an indie rock sound mixed with Japanese craziness. In summary, despite trying very hard to find Japanese music I could fall in love with, I did not succeed. I had basically given up on finding really good Japanese music, but I hoped that this festival, full of new Japanese artist, would change my mind.

When the festival began, Funky Monkey Baby was on stage. They were supposed to be funk, but they sounded more like pop. The next artist, the idol, not surprisingly sounded like pop. The rock group sounded like pop. I wasn't very optimistic about discovering any Japanese music I liked.

The next group was Tokyo Ska Paradise. Many people, Japanese, American, and British alike, told me they were awesome. They were. I'm not a fan of ska, but I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. When they came on in light pink suits carrying a leopard print keyboard, I decided I liked them already. Ellen is a huge ska fan. Takeo and Nishi really like Tokyo Ska Para. Everyone wanted to abandon our comfy tarp up at the top of the hill to get as close as we could to the stage in the standing area. Ellen was going to teach Takeo and I how to skank. Takeo was a fast student, but I have little to no rhythm, so I didn't quite catch on. It was a fun show regardless of my lack of dancing skill. I still don't love ska, but I enjoyed the concert very much. I probably won't listen to this band in my free time, but I can definitely appreciate that they are a very amazing band.

After Tokyo Ska Para, there was a sleepy soft rock duo. We took this opportunity to pick up food. After a $4 ear of corn, I was anxious to see the "heavy medal" band. I couldn't imagine what Japanese heavy medal would sound like. The band, Unicorn, was Takeo's favorite of the day. Unfortunately, he'd gotten worn out from Tokyo Ska Para and slept through most of Unicorn. He wasn't woken up by the heavy medal sound, because there was no heavy medal sound. Unicorn's first song was acoustic! They sounded just like the rest of the bands that day. Towards the end of their set, Unicorn played what was apparently their most famous song. Takeo suddenly sat up and jumped right into the lyrics of the song and we headed quickly down to the standing area near the stage.

After Unicorn, a Japanese reggae band played. I have heard lots of good things about Japanese reggae, but I'd never actually listened to any. This band was called Shonan no Kaze, which means Wind from Shonan (a city in Japan). They were awesome! Definitely my favorite band of the day. Admittedly, they didn't sound too reggae, but there was a bit of a reggae undertone. They were fun. There was a great danceable beat. And the energy of the crowd just soared. The lead singer took about 5 minutes to talk to the crowd. I heard "freedom" in English and then "music" and "friends" in Japanese. I didn't understand anything else of his monologue, so I asked Nishi to translate. Nishi is a really nice guy, but he knows about as much English as I do Japanese, so we didn't exactly have a lot of deep conversations. He told me that the singer wanted everyone to listen to music in freedom of nature and be friends. Since we were in the middle of a ring of small mountains, I think that pretty much sums up the entire concert. I liked Shonan no Kaze even more after that speech.

At one point during Shonan no Kaze's set, everyone got out their towels and started swinging them at certain moments during the song. I didn't know how they knew when to swing their towels. It seemed to be innate. Japanese people are always carrying a towel to wipe away the inevitable sweat in the summer, so everyone was ready with their towel. I didn't have one, but I really wanted to be a part of this mass towel swinging. Luckily, Nishi had an extra towel and let me use it. I watched my peers and lifted my towel when they did. I tried to swing it like everyone else, but it kept getting twisted around my hand. Eventually, I figured it out and swung my towel along with the other 20,000 people in the audience. It was amazing. I had never seen anything like this before. Dustin later told me that people do this in the U.S. at sports games all the time. Hmmm... how would I know? I haven't been to a sports game in ages.

I took a short video of the towel swinging. That's Nishi showing off his sweet dance skills. You can hear Shonan no Kaze in the background.

video


The last act was KREVA, a Japanese rapper. I was interested to see how that would sound. The DJs with him were pretty awesome, but after 2 minutes of KREVA's rapping, I'd had enough. My interest was peaked again when I heard Jackson 5's music, but unfortunately, it was just a small sample with no Michael and only KREVA rapping over it. When we'd had enough, we finally folded up our tarp and made our way back to Nagaoka proper.

I had a lot of fun, got too much sun, and took loads of pictures. I added the pictures to the end of my "last days of summer" album, which you can click on at the right. There are also loads of pictures of the first potluck Dustin and I have hosted in our brand new apartment. The potluck was a blast, but the pictures speak for themselves.

I finally took a video tour of the apartment! I set aside an entire morning to film it, upload it, and write a bit about the parts I missed when I filmed it. But apparently, the internet only likes videos that are ten minutes or less in length. I filmed 12 glorious minutes of our apartment, so both YouTube and Blogger rejected it. Boo. Dustin thinks his filming skills surpass mine anyways, so he'll take another one soon, but soon in Dustin-time could be ages. I'll try to persuade him to do it in the next week or so, but you know how these things are. Don't blame me though, I tried... and failed.

The summer passed me by quickly. It didn't feel like the summer I'm used to. Now that I've stepped my big toe into the shallow end of the real world, I don't get the luxury of summer vacation. We worked a lot and had a wee bit of time off. It's the last day of August, so there's really no more summer. Our first year in Japan has almost come to an end.

2009-08-24

A Japanese Massage

Last week, I finally got that massage Dustin had given me for my birthday. It had been a long month and my back was aching, so I was elated at the thought of twenty minutes of back pain relief.

I went to the massage parlor, and showed my gift certificate. It was very different than any spa in the U.S. It was a big, open room with about ten tables, and three chairs. There was an older man getting what appeared to be a pedicure in one of the chairs, and a business man getting a quick rubdown on his lunch break on one of the tables. Since everyone was enjoying their relaxing in one room, I hoped they wouldn't ask me to disrobe. They did not. Instead, I kept on every piece of clothing and was covered in a giant towel, neck to foot.

Thinking of my experiences with massages in America, I expected my masseuse to pull back the towel covering whichever body part she was massaging at that time. But, no, during this massage, the towel remained over my entire body for the duration of the massage. Not once during the entire time did her skin come into contact with mine.

When she first started rubbing my back, it was a bit intense for my liking, but I got used to it quickly and began my relaxing. But suddenly, she was adjusting my spine, and trying to crack my back. I've never been to a chiropractor before, but I imagine I was getting an abbreviated version of a visit to one. She alternated between straightening my bones and pressing on my muscles for the rest of the massage.

Eventually, I let myself forget about all of the oddities and I just relaxed. It was an enjoyable massage. And it lasted about 35 minutes instead of the 20 I was entitled to. I can't say that I've noticed any grand improvements, but it was a nice afternoon activity and my back felt really awesome for that one day. Thanks, Dustin!

2009-08-20

Ladies who Lunch

Summer has finally hit Nagaoka. It's been hottish in the past few months, but you'd barely have noticed, since it rained nearly every day, bringing sporadic chills. The rain has stopped (for now) and it's sweltering. The water still lingers in the air, so you feel sticky all day long. I'm very thankful for the heat, though. I thought Nagaoka simply didn't have a summer for a while there. I'm able to have my favorite temperature at last.

We enjoyed our break. We got everything on our checklist done except for going to the beach. I couldn't convince Dustin to get out of bed before 1:30 on that day, so it wasn't much of a day after all. We had loads of fun playing video games and medals, going out to eat a bit too much, lounging around the house watching TV, and playing in the park. Looking back, it appears like it was a lazy break, but at the time, it seemed like almost every day was packed.

Tuesday, I went back to work, but I was completely unprepared for it. I had written my lesson plans for those classes the week before break, but I hadn't looked at them in 2 weeks. I hadn't created all of the materials I needed for my classes, either. I ended up only having one hour to prepare for my 3 lessons (a busy day in Peppy standards), but they turned out surprisingly well.

The reason for my lack of preparation is that I had agreed to have lunch with one of my student's mothers that day. She picked me up at the train station, and took me to her apartment. I told her I'd like to be at the classroom by 3:00. She said that wasn't enough time, so she'd take me at 4:00. I couldn't exactly refuse, since she was being so hospitable. I was constantly checking the clock during lunch, because I was so paranoid about being late. (Being late is practically the end of the world in a Japanese company.)

While she cooked some spaghetti, the kids lounged on the floor reading comics and occasionally wrestling. Banba-san (or Mrs. Banba) and I talked about this that and the other. All morning, I had been slightly anxious about my lunch date, since I knew we would be speaking in Japanese the whole afternoon. It turns out, I didn't have much to worry about. We communicated with each other pretty well. My sentence structure and grammar were laughable (I know, because the kids did sometimes laugh at my attempt to speak Japanese.), but I was always able to get my point across. At times, we passed the dictionary back and forth between us. This probably wouldn't have been necessary if Banba-san hadn't used such high level Japanese as the words for "to be accustomed to," "preparation," and "best used by."

Banba-san has always been one of the nicest parents I've encountered in Japan. She always has a wide smile on her face when she greets me at the classroom door. She often brings me some homemade baked goods. Before Summer School, she'd attempted small talk, but it was limited to the 30 seconds I usually have between two classes. After one of her sons' Summer School class a few weeks ago, however, she started chatting me up for a longer period of time. She then asked for my phone number. The next day, she called and we made plans for lunch he next time I was in town! I was grateful for the invitation, but I didn't really know why she wanted to cook lunch for me. None of the other parents even expressed interest in talking to me, much less spending an entire afternoon with me.

During lunch, I discovered Banba-san's motive. She said, "I have only sons. I love my sons, but I want a daughter. Sensei, you are so cute. You are like a daughter." Hmmmm... I didn't realize that I was agreeing to be a surrogate daughter. Her intent was even clearer when she started giving me "presents" of food from her pantry. I left with about 3 kilos of rice, a package of spaghetti, and a jar of spaghetti sauce. Lunch was tasty, the conversation was fun and very good practice, and playing Wii Fit with the kids was a blast. (I want one!) All in all, it was a very nice afternoon spent with a cute little Japanese family. She's invited me to come back, but unfortunately, my company is making cutbacks, so I won't be teaching in Niigata any more. It's pretty expensive to get up there from Nagaoka, and there's another Peppy teacher who lives in Niigata, so I'll be switching schools with him soon. Boo-hoo. Hopefully, I'll find a cute little Japanese family who wants to cook me dinner here in Nagaoka!

p.s. There are new pictures of us at the park!