Monday, September 22, 2008

Hippie festival in the middle of nowhere.

In early August, I was persuaded to attend a music festival pretty far outside of Tokyo. From what I could gather, it was pretty much a "hippie festival" and I had mixed feelings about attending. As much as I get behind standard 'hippie' ideals such as peace and environmentalism, I often have an issue with the methods 'hippies' use to get the message out, I'm not a big fan of mind-altering and I have dramatically opposite opinions about technology as some self-proclaimed hippies. Also, I feared it was going to be a weekend of one big drum circle, which for me, wears out it's welcome after maybe 20 minutes.

But my traveling companion really wanted to go and what the hell, maybe it'd be fun. Also, it was outside of Tokyo, and I'd wanted to leave the city for a little while anyways. So, we got some camping supplies and headed out.

I mentioned before that Takao was the furthest outside of Tokyo that I had been. Well, we had to change trains there and move on. Time to say hello to my friend again.

After we changed trains, I learned that Takao was really the end of civilization. As I said before, it was clear that Takao was NOT Tokyo, but it was still a town and it was in commutable distance from Tokyo, if you didn't mind a really long commute. There was a city there and while it wasn't a metropolis, it was still a city. I didn't realize that after Takao there is NOTHING! I don't mean like it's just houses and fields, I mean there is nothing there. You go through a tunnel and all you see are mountains. It's quite amazing. The only real civilization are small towns around train stations.

Also, train stations in Tokyo are pretty close, being no more than 5 minutes apart and generally only a minute or two. These stations were a good 10 or 15 minutes from eachother and the train was going really fast. Way faster than Tokyo trains. I was very much enjoying the trip out there. But, it seems most people didn't care.

Our train was way older than the Tokyo trains I'm used to and quite a bit sketchier. When we went under tunnels, sometimes the power would go out. The first time was a bit surprising, and this one kid on the train started screaming and crying which was, honestly, really funny. I could feel that most of the train wanted it to happen again.

After riding for quite some time, it became apparent that we missed our stop. So, we had to say goodbye to our old rickety train and get on the next one back.

We were in the middle of nowhere. Some people say that in Tokyo meaning that if there's only a convenience store and a McDonald's it's 'the middle of nowhere'. But, no. There was NOTHING here. Just like two shops on one side of the station and three houses on the other.

My ghostly friend was aware how far out we were.

For those interested, this is Torisawa, in Yamanashi prefecture. The complete English history of Torisawa from the wikipedia page is as follows:
June 1, 1902: Station opens.

Deep history.

So, we had to wait for a bit for our train to come, and it was really refreshing to be surrounded by nature instead of buildings. I've said it before that I love it here, but sometimes I want some nature. This was a really refreshing trip. And I didn't mind getting lost.

I took a picture of a guy who was being quite curious of the foreigner at his station as he was boarding his train.

This picture confounds me because he was stepping onto the train, not off, and I don't know why that girl is on the ground. I'm getting confused just looking at it.

I saw this pass by:

So, our train finally did come, and we headed back to Fujino, where we were supposed to go to begin with.

Fujino was a small mountain community that seemed to have missed out on the last 30 or so years of lifestyle changes. There was one convenience store and it wasn't a chain, but an ancient mom and pop place run by what I can assume is an actual mom and pop, or more realistically a grandmother and grandfather (at least). There was a 'snack' which is kind of a food/bar place that used to be popular and still is among older crowds, but have been replaced with 24 hour convenience stores and izakayas.

My camera did not do a good job with night pictures, but I stole some from someone else.

We got on a rickety bus that took us to this abandoned elementary school up in the mountains. There were bright lights, loud music, and lots of people. About half the people were dressed like 'hippies'. There were ample food vendors and some arts and crafts. There was a main stage and old classrooms used for crafts and a giant gym used for sleeping.

This is a picture taken facing some booths and a tent holding sound, lighting, and video equipment.

We dropped off our stuff in the gym and went and got some food. Since this was kind of hippie oriented, we were supposed to bring our own dining tools, which I think was a good idea. We ate some tasty food and checked out the concert.

There were a few bands that night, but most of them varied between decent but forgettable and bad. The headliner, however, was absolutely amazing and blew me away.

The band was called Sun Paulo and their performance was quite exceptional. They seemed like bland techno at first, but they had a live drummer, guitarist, and keyboardist.

I wasn't expecting much when I saw them on stage with Native American headdresses, but they really put on an amazing show. You can listen to them here but their concert was so much better than their recordings. Not to say the recordings are bad, just not as good as hearing them live.

Also, there was a woman who was doing some acrobatics with two sheets of cloth while the band was playing. It was quite amazing to watch that while there were people rocking out on stage.

It was a really good show. I'd like to see them again sometime.

After the show, we were a bit worn out, so we went back to the giant gym to get some shut eye. This was nearly impossible because it was really hot and there was this experimental noise noise musician (apparently all the way from America. Woo!) who was 'performing'. As someone who has performed live as a noise musician before, I can say he wasn't that interesting and the mood was terrible. Everyone was tired and a little soft music would have been great, but he was making loud grating noises.

We decided it would be better if we went outside and camped under the stars. It was a bit hot, but it was hot inside anyways. We had nothing to lay down, so we 'borrowed' a tarp (which we did faithfully return) and had an uncomfortable night of sleeping on a steep hill in a hot, humid chunk of woods. It was actually a lot of fun. Wouldn't be a lifestyle for me, but it was fun for a night.

Early in the morning, at 6:30 AM, this loud song started playing. I didn't get it, but my companion instantly jumped up and ran down to the stage area.

Apparently they were playing the song that EVERY elementary student exercises to in the morning. This was a throwback to a childhood that didn't exist for me, so I didn't join. Plus, it was 6:30 AM.

I slept a bit more, and then packed up camp. The view was nice in the morning.

The whole setting was great. It was quite a large school and very much in the middle of nowhere. I kind of see why it was abandoned, but it was really great.

That's the view near the gym, which is on the left.

We took the rickety bus up here in the middle of the night, so it was a bit hard to tell how exactly far out there we were, but during the day it was quite clear.

There was a golf course.

We wandered around a bit and saw this abandoned pool.

IT was pretty crazy and surreal, but it was an abandoned school so I guess really not that odd. The strange thing is the bottom was kind of springy, like a big sheet of rubber with nothing underneath.

There was a nice view from the edge of the pool too.

But, the second day wasn't nearly as good as the night before. It was getting to be too hot to enjoy it and the afternoon was mostly a giant drum circle, which was my initial fear. Also, someone was selling these clackers which were like two small balls with stuff inside tied together, kind of like two small maracas on a rope. You can swing them around and clack them together to make interesting rhythms, and when one person is good, it can sound really neat. When 20 people are doing it, regardless of talent, it's obnoxious. And everywhere there was another person doing it.

So, we decided to leave in the afternoon, giving us time to go home and relax. While waiting for the bus I saw this guy.

And the simple parking lot was really nice too.

Everybody was crowding around these uncomfortable rocks, so we decided to lie on the grass. We saw some cicada shells, which forcibly got attached to me.

I don't really like them, but they're harmless containers of protein.

The festival was odd. It seemed like a lot of people were enjoying 'hippie' as a trend, and for a hippie festival in the woods, it wasn't very friendly. Not to say that people were mean or rude or anything, it's just they were slightly more warm and friendly than a Tokyo train, which is to say not very much at all. It was a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere, though. I'm glad I went and I did have a good time, but I'm not sure I'd go next year if it's in the middle of the summer.

As we were leaving, I noticed something in the trees nearby.

It's a giant love letter in the mountain. No matter what I thought of the festival, Fujino was really lovely and was a breath of fresh air.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Thoughts on Japan.

I've been living in Japan for over a year and I haven't left this country on over nine months, so I think it's time to check in and state some things I've learned.

Before I begin, I'd like to state that I really like living here. I mean. every day is fun and interesting if I choose to make it so. Japan, is however, a real place. Things good and bad happen to me. That's just life.

So, here are a few things I'd like to discuss:
  • Food:
I love Japanese food. There's so much great food around here. Dining is always fun and almost everything I eat is great. I'm an adventurous eater for the most part, and looking back on the last year, I can't think of a single thing that I've eaten that was absolutely terrible. I have, on the other hand, found some amazing Japanese food that is now something I crave often.
That being said, some foods that I was used to before I moved particularly Mexican food and pizza, are not the same. Pizza isn't terrible here, but it's really not the same. It seems that both Japan and America have their own takes on this Italian dish and they go in somewhat opposite directions. Mexican food is around, but it's usually overpriced and under par. Not to say it's bad, but when I spend $16 on a burrito plate, I expect something great. Instead I get 'decent', but I know where I am, so 'decent' is fine. On the other side of the coin, I was expecting pasta to be quite terrible, and every time I've gone out for pasta, I've been pleasantly surprised.
Also on food, the portions in Japan are smaller. Prices, for the most part are cheaper than in America depending on what you get, but portions are almost always smaller. Japan has no real culture of taking leftovers home and it's considered wasteful to not finish your meal. I have left restaurants hungry. In reality, it's better this way, as I eat less and rarely try to overeat, but it's just different.

  • Language:
Simply put, you don't NEED to speak Japanese in your everyday life in Tokyo. I don't speak Japanese well, but I more than manage. Japanese is something that I am studying and I want to learn, but it's not needed on a daily basis, really.
It is, however, something that is really useful. Even with my limited Japanese, I am allowed opportunities, both social and professional, that people who don't speak any Japanese miss. Also, certain key phrases are of the utmost importance (Sumimasen, kudasai, arigatou, etc.) and anyone who lives here should learn these without even trying.
Also, mind that I said you don't need Japanese in TOKYO. Tokyo is not the beginning and end of Japan. Other cities and even suburbs, you just can't get by knowing only English. Also, both in careers and socially, speaking Japanese is really useful. Even just trying to speak to someone in Japanese makes them feel more at ease and they'll often be much friendlier.
Surviving in Japan with any other language besides Japanese or English is almost impossible.
  • Dating:
Some people seem to think that if you're a foreigner, girls will flock to you. This isn't the case. Not to say there aren't plenty of Japanese girls that love foreign guys, because there are. It's that you're not the only one. Also, once you go out on a date with someone, communication (if you don't speak Japanese fluently) and cultural differences (even if you do), create big problems. Not to say working out cultural differences isn't interesting and fun, but it can get old fast.
  • Being a foreigner:
Slightly more than 1% of the Japanese population are foreigners, and of those, the overwhelming majority are Chinese or Korean. For people who grew up as part of the largest ethnicity of their area will instantly become racially aware. For example, in most parts of America, if someone said "I met a guy today. He's white.", it would sound really odd but in Japan, it would be quite normal. Also, in most of America, I wouldn't have to wonder if I'm being discriminated against
because of my race. Here I have to consider that sometimes. And there is discrimination here. Sometimes it's for the better, sometimes it's for the worst, but it does happen. I'm not going to re-tell stories I've told here, but it's never been bad. Some people have had some big problems, but I haven't.
Also, I will never be Japanese as long as I live. If I spend the rest of my life in Japan and I gain Japanese citizenship and I become fluent in Japanese, I marry a Japanese woman and I adopt all the Japanese customs and live the life 100% like the majority of Japanese people, I will still not be Japanese. Personally, this doesn't really bother me, but some foreigners get very sensitive about this. My thought is to look at it differently. No matter what I do, I will never be Swedish or Filipino or Chinese or Nigerian. One of the great things about America (and a few other countries) is almost ANYONE, given the right circumstances, can be an American. With almost 99% of Japan being of Japanese descent, this isn't the case here, and I will be a foreigner for life in Japan. The only time I see this as a real problem is when someone is born and/or raised in Japan who isn't of Japanese descent.

Two more quick notes on foreigners: We really don't know how to treat eachother. Sometimes we're overly friendly, sometimes, we're angry when we see another foreigner, and sometimes we're just regular people. This is partially because of the mindset that we are the only ones who are here, and our illusion is shattered when we see proof we're not. Or sometimes it's the reverse, that we're relieved to see we're not the only ones here. Either way, outside of tourist areas, it can be a bit awkward sometimes. At first, I didn't like seeing other westerners, but my mild annoyance turned into apathy, and now I usually don't care outside of my neighborhood. Inside my neighborhood, I'm usually delighted, as a lot of ex-pats have been living here for a number of years and are quite friendly.
If you look up the word 'gaijin', you will see lots of controversy. Technically 'gaijin' means 'outsider', but often times, it's just short for 'gaikokujin' which literally means 'outside country person' or foreigner. Some people take great offense, as it can be an insult, but others use that name with great pride. Personally, it bothers me when people refer to themselves as 'gaijin', as it is a misrepresentation of the Japanese meaning which is at best a descriptor, but is never really positive. I used to take offense when Japanese people used that word, but I was talking to a good friend and she used the word 'gaijin' in a neutral context while talking to me and obviously didn't mean any offense. So, if a good friend used it casually, then I'm okay with it, but not really happy to hear it. I did find out that 'gaijin' can't be said on TV in Japan.

  • Transportation:
Like most big cities in the world, cars are rarely used and public transportation is a must. The train system here is confusing but great. It can be a bit pricey, but you pay for convenience, as trains can take you almost anywhere you want to go. Outside of Tokyo, there are still plenty of trains, and a plethora of buses. Most buses and trains stop at midnight or 1 AM, but since bars or restaurants don't legally have to close any time or stop serving alcohol, many stay open until 5, so you can hang out and keep drinking until late at night. Which brings me to my next thought...
  • Sex, drugs, and alcohol:
Alcohol is big here. They like to drink a lot in Japan. The drinking age is 20 but nobody cares. At work parties, alcohol is present, and at almost every holiday, there is more than a modest amount of consumption. Even so, drunk driving is really not a huge problem here. Partially due to the great public transportation, but also due to the strict laws in Japan. I don't know the law exactly, but I know it's quite strict.
Drugs are rare here. People generally do not view them as 'cool' or 'exciting' and they're usually only thought as harmful. Most people rarely use them and drug abuse is a very minor problem here. That doesn't mean drugs are nonexistent, it's just they're rare, very rare. Also unlike America, if a celebrity gets caught using drugs, it's detrimental to their career.
Sex is very open in Japan. There's less than 1% Christians here and there is no real concept of 'sin' or something being wrong just because it's wrong. Not to say people don't have their on ideas, it's just not religious based. Generally people don't really care here. Prostitution isn't legal, but there are plenty of grey areas in the law. I've never partaken, but it's pretty obvious where and how. Japanese people don't feel the need to hide such businesses. This isn't to say that explicit sex scenes are on basic TV, but there's a much more liberal view about it in Japan.

  • Friendliness:
People in Tokyo don't talk to strangers under normal circumstances. It simply doesn't happen often at all. Inside restaurants, bars, and places where meeting and talking happens, people are very friendly, but outside of these places where people come to meet strangers, interacting with people you don't know is very rare. Even so, I've found that the majority of the people I interact with are really warm and caring.

So, those are my thoughts. I have plenty more to say, but I'm not sure this is the best way to say it (for that matter, I'm not sure that this article belongs here), but as I initially stated, Japan isn't perfect, but it's still great and I'm glad I live here.