Thursday, 27 December 2007

The Japanese take on Chinatown...

Ok, I'm probably more Canadian than I am Chinese, but that doesn't mean I don't want to see it. The Chinatown I'm talking about is one of the areas in Yokohama, which is a city to the south of Tokyo, in the Kanagawa prefecture, about a 2 hour train ride from my house, and plays a relatively important role as a port. I went there this Boxing Day which, in Japan, is just a regular plain old Dec. 26th like any other.

I should say, first off, that I thought Yokohama was just another district that could be covered by walking. I have no idea why; I just thought that. And it's not. But luckily, there are a few train stations nearby to the areas I went to, so my obliviousness was saved yet again by the great train system here.

My first stop was the Minato Mirai 21 area pictured above and beside, which is essentially the Yokohama Bay area. The picture to the right is the Landmark Tower and the tallest building in Japan. It's just off the left edge of the picture above, which is looking towards the Cosmo Clock, a giant ferris wheel with a clock on it. When it was built in 1989, it was the largest ferris wheel in the world and the Cosmo Clock is part of an amusement park area.

A 15 min ride of the ferris wheel shows off a lot of what Yokohama offers but unfortunately, as is the case with a lot of elevated views of Japan, the view in-land tends to be a white haze but looking out towards the water is a rather nice view of all the things that happen around the bay area. I also went on the roller coaster but...... well, there are better ones I suppose haha.....

You'll have to forgive the reflection but there is glass there to....... y'know..... keep you from falling out......... that's pretty important.

After that, I went to the Yokohama Chinatown which is apparently one of the largest in the world. The most interesting thing this place, or any places like these, is that a lot of stereotypes get reinforced. I mean, it looks nothing like Chinatown in Vancouver which is rather pragmatic in its look (if it you can even call it a look).

As you can see in the picture here, this is how pretty much all the restaurants are decorated, with lots of red and gold and rather stereotypical "Chinese" features. I suppose a part of it is supposed to be visual attraction (coming here is supposed to be an "event") but I can't help but think that a lot of it is done just because that's what people think other people want to see Chinese buildings look like.

It's like stepping off the plane in Amsterdam and saying, "Well, where are all the windmills??". Of course they're there, but that's not the only thing there.

Aesthetics aside, it really is a bustling little area BUT it's not the same kind of business as Vancouver's Chinatown or even just street markets in Hong Kong. The produce selling, fish and meat dealing kind of Chinatown I always knew is absent save a few places on the edges of the Chinatown. Instead, it's almost all restaurants and people selling dim sum-like foods. I even had one of the better "cha siu bao"s I've had in a long time. The egg tart I had (named "custard tart") was not good, however.
And the popular restaurant offering seems to be all-you-can-eat dim sum....... for dinner. Around $20 or so at the current exchange rate, there's a huge offering of typical dim sum dishes which sounds like a pretty sweet deal.

Aside from the food (and the Starbucks...... go figure), nothing else much happens. There's a temple-like building, lots of people selling panda-themed items, and fortune readers. It's driven nearly completely by tourism, noticable by the number of big gates you walk under even before you've actually entered the Chinatown.

But all in all, it was interesting to see. Yokohama seems like a happenin' place with lots of young people out and about. The Cosmo Clock was fun just because it's always nice to get high up and see the place. And the Chinatown was interesting, even if it was mostly my amazement at how they can afford such ornate buildings. I might go back some time because there are a few more sights that I missed so...... who knows =).

"Excuse me, how do I get to Vancouver from here?"

Monday, 24 December 2007

Your Japanese word of the week is...

"bonenkai". It's derived from three seperate words-

"bo" is part of the word for "forget" (bookyaku suru).
"nen" is "year".
"kai" is "gathering" or "meeting".

And so "bonenkai" is when everyone gets together to celebrate the end of the year, to forget all the troubles of the year, and to look ahead to the next year.

The dojo actually had two bonenkai's, one for the kids in the morning and one for the adults at night. Both followed a final training class before Shiramizu went on holidays and both were very filling. There were also unlimited drinks in the one for adults, which helps when you're trying to forget things =-P........ although from the way the food looked, I'm not likely to forget.
Also during the party is when everyone gets a short speech about how their year went and what they're looking forward to for the next year. My was probably the shortest of them all, due to my limited Japanese, but........ A for effort I suppose ahha......
Aside from that little bit of busy-ness as the year winds down, Christmas is rather low key here. All the stores and all the people go through the formalities of decorating things and giving presents, but underneath it all, the 25th is still a working day for most people.
And, horror of all horrors, they don't do Boxing Day Sales! Oh noes.......
But that's ok, I have some time off so I'll be off to some short day trips around Tokyo to sights I've yet to see. So until then, please have a very Merry Christmas and a joyous New Year.
And remember................ don't do anything I wouldn't do =-P........

Monday, 17 December 2007

Your Japanese word of the week is...

"senbontsuki". "Tsuki" you might recognize from the post before, meaning punch. "Sen" means a thousand and "bon" is a counter attachment to large numbers, amongst other things. So it works out to be "1000 punches". And a work out it is.......

That's what happened yesterday at Shiramizu's year end training session. It took place in a big community centre gym in the neighbouring Satte city. There were actually two sessions though, the first one in the morning for younger kids (ie- 7 and under) and one in the afternoon for anyone older. The younger kids weren't subjected to 1000 punches but they did do 120 squats haha....... And I got to dress up as Santa to hand out treats!!! Below is me (I'm a karate Santa; note the black belt haha) handing treats out to the kids from my............ box........ oh well heh....

The 1000 punches, though, was rewardingly interesting. Obviously it starts off as a daunting task, especially since they're done in counts of 10, with one person doing one 10 count each. With 15 in a row, it's freaky to realise you STILL have to go through half the rows available to get to 900. From 900 onward, the row in the back (for adults and regular high school students), do the last 100. And you kiai on every single punch........ and it's in naihanchi stance which is like straddling an exercise ball with your feet pointed slightly inwards.

The first, like, 300 aren't too bad. You just go at it through sheer determination and try not to focus on the fact that you're barely 1/3 of the way through. From 300 to 500, the autopilot kicks in, it starts to become physically straining work, and my legs started to hurt.

But from 500 onward, something amazing happened- my punches actually become faster! With your muscles fatigued, there's no longer any tension to slow your arm down and since all power is generated from your body/hips and not your arm, it absolutely flies. It's a really weird sensation when you're not trying any harder yet your arm is moving faster and faster. It's also one of those things that is always being taught (speed through relaxation, power through speed) but one can never do until they stumble upon the "feeling" of having done it right.

Then I hit 800 and started to feel like I was floating....... THEN I hit 950 and it was my turn to count to ten, and it came out all hoarse and strained. Yeah, that's what happens when you kiai 950 times and then try to project to the whole gym haha........

But all in all, it wasn't too bad when I finished. It took about 15 minutes to do it all and that averages almost exactly to 1 punch every second. Sweet...........

The training ended off with me finding out some clubs do 1000 kicks- 500 per leg. Hardcore haha........

Monday, 10 December 2007

Your Japanese word of the week is...

"mochitsuki". This is actually two words put together. The first is "mochi" which is a Japanese rice cake. "Tsuki", for those of you in martial arts, is the word for punch. In essence then, mochitsuki is a yearly event where everyone gets together and pounds rice into rice cakes (although gelatinous rice balls is probably more accurate). And this is what I did this morning at the nearby Shirayuri (White Lily) Kindergarten.

It starts out rather simple really- people make rice and put it in a big wooden container. Then, using a big and rather heavy wooden hammer, the grains are mashed into one big gelatinous goop of rice. After that, you start hammering it as if you life depended on it. It's actually really hard work because the hammer is heavy and the rice sucks the hammer in so it's like beating a quicksand pit into submission. I suppose that's not the most relevant analogy, but that's how it feels haha....... when it's all beat up and goopy, small balls of gelatinous rice are rolled by hand and dipped in what looked like ground peanut crumbs and served.

The significance of this is that each grain of rice represents one person present and mashing them together represents the spirit and mind of everyone coming together. The circular wooden pot also represents spirit, and so it is the joining of everyone's spirit within a larger one. Lastly, while people eat it soon after, it is also offered religiously to gods when the New Year rolls around.

The picture above is of the kids taking their turn hammering the rice. The "adult's" hammer is about twice as big and equally heavier.

But that wasn't all the fun and exciting things. On Sunday I watched the 35th Japan Cup Karatedo which is a sort of national championship. Top competitors came from different areas of Japan, after having proven their ability regionally, to compete to be the best in Japan. It was a really high profile event, taking place at the Nippon Budokan and having only two rings with two giant TV's to cover both rings' action so there was literally no bad seat in the house.

It goes without saying that it was really great watching the best of the best come together for the tournament.

After that, on Monday, I went to the town of Nikko, which is home to Toshogu Shrine, one of the most famous temples in Japan (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Located west of Saitama, I went there with Arakawa Sensei and Mike Spain, an American visiting for the week. It was gorgeous in a way only historical time periods at one of the peaks of their wealth can be, with gold detailed temples and scenic backdrops.

The best building, though, was the Yakushi-do Hall which houses the medicine Buddha and the 12 statues enlisted to guard it (each one representing, for lack of better translation, one part of the year). The most amazing feature is the acoustics. Although at first glance the rectangular room seems to be perfectly symmetrical, there is one specific spot just to the right of centre that allows sound to echo clearly, demonstrated by a monk with two wooden blocks resembling square claves. Most interestingly, going to the left of centre by the same distance results in only a dull sound. The specific spot also happens to be directly beneath the mouth of a dragon painted on the ceiling, signifying that the spot is where the dragon can be heard clearest.

The Toshogu shrine is also known for a very steep, 200 step staircase up to a pleasantly simple grave site (for Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first of the Tokugawa shoguns) as well as being the home of the famous "Hear no evil, See no evil, Speak no evil" monkeys, which are cravings on one of the buildings.

So, all in all, a packed few days. The next few aren't letting up either as my schedule is packed with activites as everyone celebrates the end of the year.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

What the deuce?!? - A collection of humourous anecdotes.

I was gonna go with "double u tee eff" but I figured "What the deuce" read better as a legible phrase heh......

Anyway, as I said before, now that I have the ability to, I can starting writing some funny run-ins that I've had while living in Japan. There's no particular order to these as they're written more or less by whatever floats to the top of the disorganized jumble that is my brain..........

I figured I'd start with a pretty simple one. It's no surprise that when you teach people a language, they'll try to communicate to you as best they can with what language they have. Of course, it takes time to learn what they mean so when I want to move on to another topic and one of the kids finishing up the last activity says "One more time!", I had to think for a second before I realised he meant "Just one second". And that's great, because at least it shows they're making connections between words and concepts (time and one unit of it).

The best, however, is a little kid who I teach on Thursdays. His name is Shunta and he's rather smart. Enough so that he has lots of ideas and wants to say them but doesn't yet have enough English to convey them properly. So for a long time all he did was shout "NO!!".

Oh no, I thought, he might be a handful.

"Ok, let's sit down now." "NO!!"

"So Shunta, what day is it?? Write it here on the board." "NO!!!"

"What does this card say??" "NO!!!!"


I swear it was 3 months before I realised that he wasn't trying to be a brat, but he had legitimate reasons to stop. He just couldn't say what it was.

Won't sit down? He wasn't finished putting away his books. Won't write on the board? The whiteboard marker he picked had no ink. Won't read the flashcard? He wasn't done putting his sticker on his folder.

So now everytime he says it, I can't help but laugh. I'm even tempted to start using it but somehow, I'm thinking it comes out differently from a 24 year old so, as hard as it is, I think I might refrain.............. but who knows....... we'll see next year won't we?? heh.....

Monday, 3 December 2007

Your Japanese word of the week is...

"tenshon". Or, at least, that's what it turns out to be if you translate "tension" into katakana and back again. Although, if I'm honest, I think tension is the wrong word for it. You see, while tension has a slight negative connotation to it in English usage, the Japanese view small amounts of tension to be a good thing. It's been explained to me that being way too relaxed means you'll probably miss out or can't react quickly enough (oops heh). I suppose it's like a wire where keeping it taut nets the best performance; too slack and it's useless but too tight and it snaps.

Over the weekend, the context it was used in was the tournament over the weekend. The kids were wraught with tension but I think a better word for it would be...... umm....... anxiety?? Well, not anxiety since that implies hesitant as well. Zealous perhaps. Either way, the kids were rarin' to go.

The tournament was the Wing Cup, this year held in Shin-Kiba at the BumB (pronounced boombu, not bum as I'm sure some of you will read it as haha......) Sports Facility. It's a pretty nice place although that would be expected from a quasi-private country club type place. It had, amongst other things, the gym the tournament used, a kendo hall, a judo hall, an archery range, tennis courts, a futsal field, cafeteria, and even music rooms and living quarters upstairs.

The Wing Cup, on the other hand, is rather interesting in that it's not like most karate tournaments. Usually, tournaments hold both kata and kumite divisions but the Wing Cup does away with all of that and holds only team kumite matches. What's more, it's done in a round-robin fashion so every team is guaranteed as many fights as their division allows with every fighter getting a chance to fight, with the top teams duking it out for the trophies at the end.
This makes for some seriously tired competitors but also for some very interesting matches as teams constantly juggle their fighting order and fighting style against their opponent. And also some very teary-eyed kids as team fights mean there are times when the score is tied and it's up to the last fighter to make or break the deal.

Shiramizu fielded 4 teams- 1st-2nd year elementary, 3rd-4th year elementary, 5th-6th year elementary, and a junior high school team. But the competition was fierce though two of the teams managed to come away with hard fought awards (a 3rd place and a 4th place). More than one person I talked to commented on how a lot of the kids looked like they've only every trained kumite which is not out of the question. Competition, especially in high school and university, often focuses on kumite so there are lots of people who are fighters only, through and through.
The best part of the day was simply the sheer amount of kumite to watch.
Kumite is always difficult to train because of the unpredictability- strong basics need to be combined with a good sense of timing and adaptability and of those 3 things, two can only be learned in real matches. So to be able to spend an entire day watching what works and what doesn't is really useful, especially considering other tournaments offer considerably less kumite time.
Although, I should be honest when I say that another best part of the day was watching a video Garson sent me of the aftermath of someone crashing into the showroom of Richmond Lexus. I should note that it's not the first time someone's crashed into it nor is it even the first time I've heard of someone mixing the throttle and brake. Trust me when I say I've seen some seriously weird stuff at work haha.......
If you're curious, the YouTube link is posted in the comments section of the post just before this. Or you can click here. Even better is that I recognize both the person in the green jacket at the beginning and the voices of the people. Or should I not be admitting that...... hmm haha......