The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Monday, January 08, 2007


It's a common custom in Japan to sit down at New Year's and write something indicating your wish or your resolution for the new year. My shodo (Japanese calligraphy) class got together today and had a calligraphy-writing party.

First, we sat down for a lunch of traditional Japanese New Year's foods. The modern Japanese diet has a lot of meat in it, even the things that Japanese people themselves think of as "traditional," like sukiyaki. (Traditional to most people just means "pre-McDonald's".) But in fact, these meat dishes are quite modern as Japan was a vegetarian country before it re-opened to the West. The dishes they have at New Year's reflect the "real" traditional foods, and are things like soup with rice balls, dried fish, black beans, seaweed wraps, and sticky rice with red beans. To be honest, I don't like most of it. There was one point where I was munching a mouthful of whole, dried minnows covered in a hard, candy-like coating where my eyes were watering as I struggled not to gag. It's not that it really tasted so bad, but it was just the idea of what I was eating, plus the texture of hard, little fins poking my mouth and tongue. Blech. Well, it wasn't so bad. Here's our little group:

The teacher laid out big felt covers for the floor, and provided us with paper, brushes, and ink. (Lots and lots of ink! I was amazed how much ink we used.) Then, she helped us find something we wanted to write, and first wrote an example for us to copy from.

This scroll literally reads, "Intention like the highest clouds" or something to that effect. The actual meaning is more like, "It is my intention to rise up [morally, personally] like a towering cloud in the sky." As my teacher succinctly put it, "Aim high!"

Naoko, on the right, was making a scroll for her older brother, who just built a new home. Her scroll reads something like, "House full with nourishing spirit"; obviously reflecting her wish that his new home be a peaceful place where everyone can be happy and healthy.

These are two versions of the same scroll, as written by my teacher. The one on the left is more "artistic" or abstract, and the one on the right is slightly more formalist. I suppose that it might just look like scribbles, but I assure you that each stroke is carefully measured and considered, and that the finished product balances strict formalism with the uncontrollable randomness brought by a brush dripping full of ink. (That sounds like a load of bullshit, doesn't it?)

But seriously, good calligraphy is damned hard. It's awesome to watch my teacher write. She throws the brush down, causing a splatter of ink to spray across the paper; this makes you think "Oh, it's just like modern art, throwing paint onto a canvas!" But then the next stroke is slow, and exacting. Suddenly, the brush darts across the paper, flicks this way, then that; alternately light and heavy, fast and then slow. It's really remarkable, and the end effect is that a good piece balances weight with a feeling of lightness; strength and delicacy; control and chaos. I can't write about it without it sounding ridiculous, so I'll stop here.

Suffice it to say, you might look at it and think "My 5-year-old could do that." But then you try it yourself, and you look at what you wrote and you think, "Wow, now this is childish crap!" It's quite humbling. And, believe it or not, extremely exhausting! Your whole body becomes tense, and your face turns red; you break into a sweat, and you get muscle spasms in your back and shoulders. You don't realize it until you stop, but somehow when you really put your whole heart into writing, you feel like a wrung-out dishrag after writing a few characters. It's amazing! No wonder calligraphy has long been associated with religion here...

New Year's, Day 3

Katie (one of the other teachers here) and I decided that we should go somewhere after New Year's. I wanted to go to Usa shrine, one hour's drive away, but had been warned that it would be very crowded. We decided to wait until the 3rd, in hopes that the crowds would be a bit thinner by then.

Usa shrine was built in 725, and is the head shrine of Hachiman: the Japanese god of war, agriculture, and the protector of Japan. As such, it's a tremendously important shrine, and it's famous throughout Kyushu, if not all Japan (although one suspects that, if it were located a bit closer to Tokyo, it would be even larger and more famous). It was bound to be a popular destination for New Year's travelers.

Sure enough, even on January 3rd, cars were lined up for 2 kilometres to get into the parking. We hadn't expected that. It took some time to finally get a spot, but it was worth the wait. Outside the shrine, there was a very festive atmosphere. People brought their families, and children were in a frenzied state, spending the money they had been given for their "New Year's gift" at stalls selling carnival-foods, souvenirs, and toys. Everyone was walking around with a big smile on their face.

Inside the shrine gate, things were a bit more solemn. Shrines are always built on places that are deemed to be "special" somehow. Perhaps there is a waterfall there, or a remarkable rock formation, or a particularly old grove of trees. So they are generally quite beautiful, too. There is a real sense of being "present with nature" somehow.

The Shinto priests were busily observing their various rituals. I'm afraid that I have no idea what they are doing, exactly. I took this picture, and afterwards, noticed that nobody else was taking photos. I don't know if it's considered bad taste to take a picture of somebody mid-ceremony, or whether it's just something that nobody else deemed picture-worthy.

Once inside, you proceed into the main shrine enclosure where everybody is praying, making wishes for the coming year, and throwing an offering into the coin box. As the traditional offering is a 5 yen coin (worth about a nickel) the shrine makes its real money by selling charms and various trinkets. A typical New Year's item is a special arrow that (I presume) is meant to protect the family over the coming year.

As I mentioned, shrines usually have some important natural object at their center. This shrine seems to have been built around this extremely ancient tree, but given the age of the shrine itself, I really wonder which is older, the tree or the shrine. This particular tree is thought to give good health to those who touch it, so people were eagerly placing their hands on the tree and then wiping some invisible residue of healthiness on their heads and faces. Of course, I also put my hands on the tree. (Actually I wanted to put my hands on the chick in the miniskirt, but I didn't want to get arrested so soon in the New Year. It's my New Year's resolution not to get arrested until at least March.)

All of that praying, offering money, and laying-on of hands is exhausting, so it was time for some refreshments. I went for the ever-popular meat-on-a-stick! Awesome!

Some kids saw me making stupid faces as I was eating my meat-kebab, so they were intrigued and came up to poke us to see if we were real, kind of like the monkeys touching the monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey". But they were pretty cute, so I told them I'd let them be in the picture if they each paid me 100 yen. They agreed, once I had smacked them around a bit.

And a good time was had by all! Now I'm definitely going to have good luck this year!

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year, 2007!

Hi everybody. Happy New Year!

Hope you had a nice Christmas and a good New Year's Eve. Christmas in Beppu was okay. There was a huge fireworks display down on the beach. The Japanese take fireworks pretty seriously, so even a "small town" like Beppu (150,000 people?) puts on a really good show that would put major celebrations in any Canadian city to shame. (I guess this is just a difference in opinion of how to use tax dollars...)

Anyway, the fireworks were on for two nights, Dec. 23rd and 24th. We went down to the beach the first night, and watched it up close. It was really impressive, choreographed to music and everything, with lots of interesting "effects" and a variety of different kinds of fireworks. It lasted about 40 minutes too, which is almost too long, actually.

The next night was Christmas eve, and we could see the fireworks from our balcony, so I took a few shots.

Here's a shot of the spectacular finale. You have to imagine the sheer size of this. It was huge.

The week between Christmas and New Year, I didn't do much. I am off work for this 2 weeks, so I just puttered around and went to Starbuck's way more than anybody should. I also wrote a bunch of New Year's cards. I made my own cards this year. 2007 is the Year of the Boar, so I made the kanji for "boar" into a caricature of a wild pig.

Writing New Year's cards is a bit of a chore, as you are supposed to send one to everybody you know. It gets to be pretty oppressive for small businesspeople who have to send them to all their customers. Fortunately, I don't have many friends. Ha. Ha.

Last night was New Year's eve. Katie (another teacher) and I sat around drinking and making fun of the annual "Red and White Show" (a televised New Year's eve singing program featuring all the top singers in the country) and how atrociously awful it is. Then, we went downtown for the countdown to midnight. They had some people hip-hop dancing, then the countdown and a couple fireworks, and then taiko drumming and traditional dancing.

After that, we went to the local shrine to make a wish and to get our fortunes for the year. In 2006 my fortune was "Very Lucky" (the best possible) but this time, it was "A Little Bit Lucky" which was kind of disappointing.

We came home around 2:30 and I slept for a few hours, then got up again at 5:30. We then drove down to the beach to watch the sun come up. This is a big Japanese tradition, so we weren't the only ones.

Here's the sun just peeking up over the horizon. This prompted lots of "Oohs" and "Ahhhs" and some applause. Note the garbage burning incinerator smokestack in front.

Within a few minutes, it looked like this (or I assume it did; after staring at the sun for three minutes straight I couldn't see much of anything.)

After that, I came home and slept most of the day away. I'm almost looking forward to going back to work...

Anyway, all jokes aside, here's hoping that everybody has a wonderful, happy, healthy, fulfilling 2007!