“Roy”

I was in a kickboxing class at my gym a while ago when I noticed something interesting. Between following the punch-kick-squat-jump-kick-kick-punch-uppercut combo that my insane instructor was blasting through, my eyes fell on a woman in front of me.

She was older than me – maybe late thirties – and was in good enough shape that it gave her a younger appearance. Her brown hair was tied into a ponytail and she was powering through the combo making small ‘tsch! tsch! tsch!’ noises every time she punched and kicked the air.

On her shoulder, however, was a tattoo that read ‘男’. I was excited to be able to understand the kanji and after class, I strode up to her and made conversation.

“I like your tattoo!” I said as cheerfully as I could after a 50-minute intense cardio class. “Do you have a son?”

“Huh?” she responded with a voice reminiscent of a Kardashian. “A star?”

“No, a son.”

“Sun? What?”

“A son. Do you have a male child?”

“Oh,” she said, obviously confused. “No, why?”

This was not going how I expected it would. I was in too deep now.

“Ah, well I like your tattoo.” I repeated. “I lived in Japan for three years so I was happy that I recognized it. It means boy, right?”

I knew what it meant.

“Ohhhh thanks,” she said with that fake laugh that people do when they’re nervous or caught off guard. “Umm, the tattoo artist told me that it was my husband’s name.”

“Ohhhh,” I said. This was indeed awkward.

“His name is Roy.” she continued.

“Well…it means….’boy’?” I offered lamely. “So that’s kind of close? I mean…the same sound?”

Where was the ABORT CONVERSATION button?

“Well, whenever I’m mad at him, I just tell people that it means something else,” the woman told me with a devilish smirk. “That’s why you get a tattoo in a different language, right?”

Wrong. Completely wrong. 

“Yeah…haha,” I gave a small, cordial laugh. “I guess it is.”

I disengaged as quickly as I could and left the gym out of a different exit.  My mind was boggled. How, I thought, could someone just have a kanji  tattoo on their body without knowing what it meant?

I had made this point in Japan to my students by showing them pictures of incorrect kanji tattoos and nonsensical Japanese on T-shirts. They thought it was hilarious until I pointed out that the Japanese do the same thing with their clothing etc.

IMG_1402

In which you can see a fifth grade girl’s pencil case with inappropriate lyrics.

“English is cool,” I told them. “But if you’re going to wear it, you need to make sure that what you understand what you’re wearing.”

I think this also relates to people anywhere – do your research about things. Especially if you’re going to get a tattoo!

‘Boy Roy’ woman obviously just chose hers off of a wall and believed whatever the tattoo artist told her. I’m sure there are tattoo artists out there who have a functional knowledge of Japanese and Chinese characters. I would still do my own research before deciding on inking a word or phrase in a different language on my body.

Recently, I saw a woman in my Zumba class with the character ‘勇’ on her shoulder. Instead of saying anything to her, I simply kept my mouth shut and shook my butt with her and the rest of the class. It worked best for everyone that way.

ハーフ(HAFU): Review

A couple of days ago, I was able to see the movie ハーフ. It’s a documentary that follows five mixed-race individuals and their experiences living in Japan.

Although not Japanese, I am biracial. As such, this movie really resonated with me. Also, having lived in rural Japan for three years teaching English, I know how it feels to be ‘The Gaijin’ (literally ‘outside person’). Some days, it was incredibly hard to deal with the stares, the comments and the microaggressions that were thrown my way.

But for people who actually are of Japanese ancestry, I imagine the experience is so much harder.

The movie is, in my opinion, well done and shows a very diverse group of individuals. The filmmakers did a great job showing some of the different issues that they face. From Fusae, a woman who struggles with her identity after finding out she is half Korean to Sophia, an Australian/Japanese woman who moves to Tokyo to learn more about her Japanese heritage, the stories are all very emotional and I found myself really feeling for these people.

I won’t go too much in to their stories so as not to spoil anything, but some of them are pretty sad. One in particular nearly made me cry. The experiences that these people have are so personal and seeing them talk about it is fascinating.

One of the stories I related most to was Alex, the third grader who is bullied in school for being ‘英語人’ (English-boy). Having taught in Japanese junior high and elementary schools, I’ve seen this kind of behavior firsthand. I’ve had a few students who are half Japanese and half insert-other-nationality.

At one of my elementary schools, I had a second grader who was half Japanese and half American. He proudly bragged about it to his friends when I first met him. “俺,アメリカ人!英語しゃべるばい!” he would proclaim proudly ‘I’m American! I can speak English!’.

When a group of his classmates asked him to speak English to me, however, he fell silent. His eyes would look from me back to his friends and then back to me. It was almost like he was suddenly insecure and didn’t want to embarrass himself in front of his friends or in front of me. Like he was caught between two cultures.

“You don’t have to talk to me in English to impress them,” I told him gently (in English) as the other students stared on in awe. “You can speak to me in whatever language you want.” He looked at me and seemed to understand.

Throughout the rest of my time at that elementary school, he never did speak to me in English. On the occasion that I was teaching second graders, though, I could hear his confident voice shout out the vocab word in his perfect, adorable kid!English.

The film ‘Hafu’ touches on how Japanese society treats people who are considered ‘different’ or ‘not really Japanese’. Although subtle and largely unspoken, there is a strong collective opinion on being ‘full Japanese’ in modern-day society. Even though there are many Hafu celebrities who are adored in Japan, the term ‘Hafu’ itself carries with it the meaning of ‘half foreigness’.

This plays a huge role in mixed-race individuals’ own opinions of themselves and many of them have difficulty defining who they are – especially during their formative years. This point is captured beautifully through the interviews with the people themselves.

Overall, I really enjoyed this movie and I think that it brings about a conversation that Japan very much needs to be having. In a culture that can, at times, be incredibly ethnocentric and xenophobic, Japan needs to realize that, like it or not, it is changing.

It will be interesting to see what kinds of discussions this movie brings up across the country. With the number of interracial marriages skyrocketing throughout the country and the Olympics coming in 2020, Japan has every reason to look within itself and consider the topics that ‘Hafu’ brings up.

 

For more information on ‘Hafu’, the trailer, and how YOU can get a screening of it shown in your area, check out: http://hafufilm.com 

‘Douzo’

In 2010, I went to Kyoto and Osaka with two friends (we’ll name them ‘Bunny’ and ‘Dragon’) over Winter Break.

Kyoto was gorgeous and traditional – old shrines and temples seemed to live in harmony with the present. Shoe store, Shrine, Cheap Clothing Store, Temple, Shrine, Drugstore, Shrine, Shrine, Temple…

Whereas Kyoto had a calm, serene feel to it, the bustling streets of Osaka were very different. It was a much larger city that radiated a gritty personality from every turn. I can recall watching people brush by me on the street and gauging which of them could beat me up if they wanted to. Quite a few seemed more than able.

Our hostel was located in a not-so-stellar part of Osaka. As we wandered through the neighborhood, relying on our phones as maps, we watched the area around us become less savory. Vending machines full of cheap sake and beer stood brightly on one corner and cast shadows on the dilapidated buildings around us.

After we found our hostel, Bunny came to the realization that it was located not too far from Osaka’s shady red-light district. We never questioned why or how she knew this, but she was right.

Prostitution in Japan was outlawed in 1958, the internet told us, but as is the case with several things, loopholes do exist. Several brothels still operate in the exact same area they once did. However, they do so now under the guise of Japanese-style ‘restaurants’.

After reading unsettling ‘reviews’ online (presumedly written by straight, white, male foreigners), we discovered that the neighborhood was indeed a short walk from our hostel.

We decided that we wanted to take a stroll through this seedy district of Osaka and see it for ourselves. Even though none of us had any desire to partake in what was offered there, it sounded like an interesting chance to see ‘Real Japan’. We giggled about how crazy it was sure to be and made plans to go the following evening.

 It had rained for most of the next day but as we set out on our search that night, we were greeted by chilly, damp air without a drop in sight. Using Bunny’s phone as guidance, Dragon and I followed her through the dimly lit neighborhood of our hostel, feeling a tinge of unease the further we went. 

We wandered through poorly-lit back streets, past boarded-up stores, through an eerily quiet shopping arcade and under highway bypasses that were covered with graffiti.

Before long, we caught sight of two young men walking briskly side-by-side. They were talking and laughing to one another and seemed rather out of place in the run-down area. After all, out of the handful of people we had strolled past that evening, these two were the first we had seen that appeared to be under forty. We deduced that we were getting closer and decided to follow them from a distance.

As we turned a corner after them, the area seemed to transform in to something completely different. We watched them disappear down the road and realized we had found what we were looking for.

Round streetlights were perched high above us, their warm glow contrasting the chilly winter air. Paper lanterns swung peacefully in front of slatted wooden store fronts that lined the street one after another. The store fronts themselves were open for all to see – their soft light spilled out and reflected off the narrow, wet road. We started walking down the street, feeling as if we had stepped back in time.

Suddenly, I saw it. My heart gave a little flutter, like I had just seen Bigfoot or a ghost. This was it: proof that what we had come to see really did exist.

‘Guys,’ I muttered quietly.

They had seen it too. A hush settled over us.

Inside the entryway of the ‘restaurant’ was a young woman sitting on a large floor pillow in seiza.  She was glowing – every aesthetically-pleasing detail highlighted beneath the brilliant light. Her makeup and hair were styled to perfection. Her fashionable clothing was form-fitting and immaculate.

She was the main attraction.

Her eyes watched us intently and curiously as we slowed our gait. Long eyelashes met and parted again. The demure smile that she wore on her lips never quivered, never gave any indication as to what she was thinking. She must have been only nineteen or twenty.

“Kawaii desu neeee,” a voice croaked suddenly, making us all jump. ‘Isn’t she cute?’.

A figure shifted off to the side and I realized that the sound had come from an old woman. She was seated precariously on the side of the tatami mat, partially hidden in the shadows from the light that filled the entrance. Her hair was frozen in a crispy old-lady perm and her frumpy clothing starkly clashed with the girl on the pillow’s.

“Douzoooo,” The woman leaned forward and gestured to us – palm down. Her gnarled fingers bobbed up and down in sync with the lackadaisical flicks of her wrist. ’Come on in’.

Judging from the looks on our faces, I can imagine we did not appear to be potential clients. Dismissively, she shook her head, sat back and gave a laugh that sounded like crunching gravel.

Each ‘restaurant’ we passed seemed to be slightly different than the one before it. In one, a girl was dressed as a French Maid and looked bored out of her mind. Another sat surrounded by a mountain of plush animals – I spotted Stitch and Hello Kitty amongst them. Yet another was dressed in a disturbingly authentic-looking school uniform. One ‘restaurant’ even featured a garish neon Christmas tree next to an annoyed-looking girl.

For all of the slight variations, though, the formula seemed to be the same. Every place had a nicely decorated entryway where a pretty girl was seated and advertised by the mama-san. Some of the mama-sans would call out to us and one even addressed us in English. A handful, however, shot us wary, unfriendly glances. What are you doing here? They seemed to say. Leave this place.

 Bunny, Dragon and I did not spend much longer in the area. We walked back to our hostel mostly in silence.

“Yeah…I didn’t like that,” Dragon said after some time. “I really didn’t like that.”

We all agreed.

I recalled with embarrassment the previous night – how we were laughing to each other about how ‘craaaazy’ a trip to the red-light district would be. None of us had really known what to expect. We had based our opinions of the ‘wild and crazy’ stories of the famous red-light district in Amsterdam (which I can’t imagine is any better).

The reality, we found, was much less fun than we had anticipated. Instead of sexy, dancing pin-up babes writhing in the windows, we found a surreal, unsettling place where young girls who posed like mannequins were being hawked by old women.

I don’t think that we really knew what we were looking for. We just wanted to see something that would make for a good story. ‘Remember that time we went to Osaka’s red-light district? Crazy times, mannn’.

The story that this experience gave me, however, is something I’ve wanted to write about for a while. Sometimes, things that sound good on paper or as an abstract thought can be entirely different when seen in person. When you look in to the eyes of a girl sitting on a pillow, waiting to be rented out, it becomes less of a ‘crazy, awesome’ idea and more of a very uncomfortable reality.

Peek at chuu

Internationalization through Pokemon.

In 2010, a new Pokemon game came out for the Nintendo DS. Having not played Pokemon since before my own pokeballs had dropped, the announcement had me excited to relive the nostalgia.

On the morning of the release, I stood outside the video rental megastore TSUTAYA’ along with Chris and Joe. We were excitedly talking about how we were going to be able to play the game before anyone in the US. The game was released in September of 2010 in Japan but would not be out stateside until MARCH of the following year.

After plucking our copies from the display, we failed miserably to contain our fanboy outbursts.

“Oh my goddddd,” Joe exclaimed with an ear-to-ear grin as we stood in line, clutching our game cases as if they would fly away. “Pokemonnnnn!”

“I don’t know what starter I’m going to use first!” I said. “There’s an OTTER Pokemon! I might have to choose that one.”

“I’m choosing the fire one!” Chris chimed in excitedly. “It looks badass!”

We continued chattering on about Pokemon when suddenly I heard my name called out behind me.

“Ah! IAN SENSEI DA!”

I turned around and saw two of my third-grade boys from Close Elementary School. They were standing in line behind us and waving excitedly at me. One was short and mousey-looking and the other was heavyset with massive cheeks and a great smile. The two of them were staring at me with huge grins plastered on their faces.

“Oh…hello!” I said in my trademark ‘Genki ALT’ voice.

I was used to seeing my students outside of school. It was usually during the most inopportune times – like when I was in the middle of the booze aisle in the supermarket or walking with a female friend (who immediately became my speculated girlfriend).

“POKEMON? POKEMON?!” they said excitedly.

I smiled and lifted up the newly-purchased game. “Yeah!”

“Ehhhhh!!” they exclaimed happily.

Chris finished paying and we took our leave. As we left, I turned and waved to my kids. They waved back enthusiastically.

“Jeez,” I said as we descended the stairs. “Whoever thought I could use Pokemon to connect with my students?!”

As it turned out, Pokemon was pretty difficult for me to play. Having just moved to Japan and having a pretty low proficiency, I had trouble understanding the long blocks of text in the game. Eventually, I got to a point where I had to do something in order for the game to progress. I didn’t understand what I needed to do, so I lost interest and gave up.

About a month or two later, I was teaching fourth period at Close Elementary school. After class, a group of seven or eight students rushed me as I was gathering up my flashcards. They were all talking excitedly at the same time.

“Whoa whoa,” I said, my head spinning from the onslaught of kid!Japanese. “I can’t understand you all at once.”

“IAN SENSEI! YOU WERE AT TSUTAYA, RIGHT?! LIKE A MONTH AGO?!” it was student the with the big cheeks. He was looking at me with hope sparkling in his adorable, beady eyes.

“Yeah,” I responded with a smile. “I bought Pokemon. We saw each other, right?”

Elation spread across his face and he turned to the group of his classmates. “I TOLD YOU HE WAS THERE! I TOLD YOU!”

They broke into another mess of chattering again. Eventually one kid raised his voice above the others so I could understand him. He was small and wiry with adorably large ears and buck teeth.

“DO YOU HAVE POKEMON BLACK OR WHITE?!” he yelled intensely.

“Oh…er…I have White.” I answered in Japanese.

“IAN SENSEI!” he said with a dramatic sweep of his arm. “LET’S BATTLE!”

“Oh er…I think I don’t can.” I said awkwardly as his finger remained pointed at me. “My pokemon strong aren’t very, you see.”

“I DON’T CARE!” he challenged. He held his arms out in to his side – elbows bent in a power-up pose. “I’M STRONG! I’LL WIN!”

“I’m sure you are…you would definitely win!” I agreed.

Unsatisfied, he stomped his foot. “I STILL WANT TO BATTLE YOU!”

“No…no thank you.” I said as politely as I could with an obvious glance at the clock. “Oh look, late. Lunch preparation to do I have to!”

I squirmed out from the crowd of clamoring children and hurried out of the classroom. I was a bit disconcerted…as if I had just inadvertently made an archenemy.

****

The next morning, I awoke on my couch in my underwear. The bright sun filtered through my thin curtains, illuminating my messy apartment. My head was throbbing painfully, my mouth felt like it was full of sawdust and my limbs ached due to actions I remembered through fuzzy, disjointed memories.

I groaned as I rolled over, my skin peeling noisily off the fake leather of my couch. I stood up precariously and waited for the room to adjust itself in my vision. Popping aspirin into my mouth and getting dressed, I sluggishly prepared to exit my apartment in search of food. My stomach bubbled dangerously – unsure of whether it was wanting food to be put in or to eject poison from itself.

It was October but the sun was still shining brightly. I emerged with sunglasses that hid my bloodshot eyes. I gingerly stepped outside and eased myself on to my bike – Jeezus H., everything ached. Never again, Alcohol, never again.

“IAN SENSEIIII!”

I heard the voice and a shudder of exasperation ran through me. My students had once again spotted me at one of my least flattering moments. They were like little ninjas.

I turned my head to find a little boy wearing a black shirt with gold cursive that was far too big for him. He was waving fiercely at me from across the parking lot of my complex. His thin arm was nearly enveloped by the sleeve of his shirt – it reminded me of a waving flag. He began running across the parking lot, his skinny legs poking out from the white shorts he was wearing.

“Ohh, h-hello…” my voice came out in a croak, my ‘Genki ALT’ façade crumbling like a biscotti.

As he got closer, I began to recognize him. His ears were hidden by the baseball cap he wore, but I could see his buck teeth as he smiled and ran across the parking lot toward me. My heart sunk. It was my rival.

“IAN SENSEI,” he panted dramatically as he neared me. “ARE YOU FREE RIGHT NOW?”

“Er…no, no Today is I’m very busy…” I said as I tugged my mouth downward into a convincing frown of disappointment.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING TODAY?” Jeezus, his voice was like a megaphone. “I WANT TO BATTLE!”

My temples throbbed in annoyance. “Work I have do,” I lied in my broken Japanese. I shifted my butt on my bike seat as if I were preparing to leave.

“Working I have been this morning since!”

Rival-kun tilted his head to the side inquisitively. “BUT I JUST SAW YOU ON YOUR COUCH!”

My eyes narrowed from behind my sunglasses. “…what?”

“YEAH,” he replied innocently with a point toward my door. “I LOOKED IN YOUR MAIL SLOT AND SAW YOU!” he then grinned mischievously. “YOU WERE IN YOUR UUUUNDERWEAR.”

“…WHAT?!” I repeated incredulously. “NO! That’s bad! Why do that did you?!”

“I RANG YOUR DOORBELL AND YOU DIDN’T ANSWER!” he replied simply.

My grip on the handlebars of my bike tightened dangerously. How does one respond to something like that? One of my third grade students had seen me passed out in my underwear on my couch. Embarrassed did not even begin to cover it. How did he even know where I lived?!

“SO….BATTLE?!”

“NO!” I said angrily. “Again that don’t do!! I am not battling you! Goodbye!”

I kicked off the ground and began riding away from my peeping student. I felt violated. What was even going on? It was like I was trapped in a terrible rendition of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. Not on my couch, not with a pouch. I will not fight you here or there. Nor even in my underwear!

I didn’t see Rival-kun for a while after that. I think he finally got the hint that I would not, in fact, battle him. If he were more devious, he could have undoubtedly blackmailed me into reluctant Pokemon battle. But thankfully, he was an innocent Japanese third grader and not an evil genius.

I learned a lot that first year. Pokemon, it seemed, could indeed be used to connect with my students. In my experience, it definitely brought my nosey third-grade student and I to an uncomfortable new level. More importantly, however, I learned the importance of having a covered mail slot.

***Note: the above picture is not of Rival-kun, but was a random boy I met on a ferry who was also playing Pokemon.***

Kiss me hard before I go.

“Will you do that for me?” I asked him.

His answer was a small laugh. It was a scoff, but not a derisive one. He leaned forward and kissed me squarely on the lips. In private, we had exchanged hundreds of kisses. Thousands. Tens of thousands, surely throughout the duration of our two-year relationship.

I watched as he turned his attention back to the black and white manga that he held open expertly. His long fingers had seemingly evolved into perfect bookmarks.

“You know what I mean,” I said with a sad smile. “So?”

“Uunn,” he responded.

Throughout the two years, I had gotten used to these kinds of responses. ‘Un,’ short and sweet, was an affirmation. ’Uun,’ on the other hand, slightly longer and drawn out, was negative.

Occasionally, when being intentionally vague, he would murmur the third option that was harder to to discern: ‘Uunn’.

“You don’t want to kiss me at the airport?”

“No, I want.” he said in his adorable English. He patted my cheek, breaking away from whatever story he had been lost in. “But is hard…”

With a sigh, I stretched out comfortably on my futon next to his. The interlocking wooden cover pressed coolly into my back. I stretched out my leg and entangled it in his own outstretched one. Closing my eyes, I listened to the rhythmic whir of the small fan positioned next to us – the welcome gust of air passed over me once.

On its second trip across my body, I opened my eyes. I sat for a spell, staring at the bright, fluorescent light of his bedroom ceiling. It looked like a glowing marshmallow.

“I know,” I said quietly in Japanese. “But nobody will care.”

Being gay in Japan is a strange experience. Any kind of LGBTQ lifestyle is not very well understood. The only real exposure comes from atrociously camp celebrities on TV who exploit whatever stereotype they can for coveted airtime. Apart from this, it’s rarely even discussed at all.

My boyfriend was by no means ashamed of me when we were in public together, but he was always cautious. He would give me a playful nudge or poke in the stomach every so often. If we were out of eyeshot of others, he would even occasionally intertwine one of his fingers with mine. But it was always tinged with the unspoken fear that someone might see.

A favorite activity of ours was to take couples purikura and then decorate them afterwards. We would scrawl sparkly words like ‘Scandalous!’ and ‘Handsome guys!’ across pictures of us kissing or holding hands.

But this kind of carefree, normal expression of affection for one another seemed to be best left in photo booths that made our eyes enormous and in the company of our friends. In the real world, it seemed, it was just too uncomfortable and dangerous for him.

My last day in Japan, we headed to the airport at around six in the morning. We sat sleepily in uncomfortable airport seats, partially isolated from the rest of the empty waiting area. I let myself slump over and rested my head on his bony shoulder. He didn’t shift away awkwardly as I had (ashamedly) expected him to. Instead, he tilted his head to rest against mine as well.

We sat that way for a while, perfectly secluded in our subtle embrace. No photo booths, no friends or familiar faces around us. It felt right. And natural. And I felt my brain and heart give a kind of sigh. A shudder. Why didn’t we do this earlier? Why couldn’t we do this earlier?

Eventually the time came for us to say goodbye. I stood up, my limbs heavy in protest and my heart filled with dread. I willed myself to move toward the security gate – the rabbit hole I would disappear into, leaving this strange, wonderful country behind.

I turned to him. My boy. My rock that I had been fortunate enough to cling to for two years. His face was contorted into the stoic expression that the Japanese have perfected for times when they don’t want to cry.

“I’ll…see you later.” I said in Japanese, almost casually. “It’s not sayonara, it’s mata ne.”

He nodded and I saw his bottom lip begin to quiver. Mine quivered in response. We both wanted nothing more than to use our lips like we had grown accustomed to doing for the past two years. But we couldn’t. Not here.

Instead, I pulled him in to the biggest, tightest embrace I could.

As I passed through the metal detector and collected my things at the end of the conveyor belt, I cast a look back to where he was still standing. He waved sadly. I returned his wave and suddenly the tears burst from my eyes unannounced. I hurriedly gathered my things, tucked my head down and forced myself onward.

I was able to make it all the way to my gate before I devolved into a quiet, sobbing mess.

It hit me all at once and I cried for it all. I cried for the friends and relationships I was leaving behind. I cried for the country that I had grown to love. And of course, I cried for my first love.

But mostly I cried because I knew that nobody would ask me if I was okay.

I wanted to shout to all the people staring awkwardly at me that they were all bearing witness to heartbreak firsthand. I wanted to tell them all that I just left the man that I loved behind. To tell them that all I wanted was to run back and kiss him one last time.

“But…” my brain answered me in Japanese. “…nobody will care.”

Uncle Bowl?

ひよこちゃんと…お母さん?? X__X

Thanksgiving has come and gone. I’ve never been a huge fan of Thanksgiving food (stuffing is an abomination of a food. I said it), but every year I find that I don’t mind turkey as much as I think I do.

With the leftovers from the day before chilling deliciously in the fridge, I’m left with several choices for breakfast this morning. I could fry the mashed potatoes into pancakes (in celebration of Hannukah week!), I could throw cranberries in oatmeal or I could just stop trying to be creative and just eat the only remaining slice of pecan pie.

Or…I could make a turkey omelette.

When I first thought of this, my stomach growled hungrily in response. ‘Yes!’ it seemed to scream. ‘Turkey and cheese inside an omlette? Nomnomnom!’

But the more I think about it, the weirder it sounds. ‘Isn’t that…kind of weird? My brain responds. ‘I mean, it would be cooking eggs with turkey.’

While I respect vegans and vegetarians, I am not one. However, I’ve always had kind of an aversion to eating two things that come from the same animal at the same time.

In Japan, the popular comfort food oyakodon is pretty much just that. It’s a chicken, onion and rice bowl that has an egg cracked on top of it. The name in Japanese, 親子丼, literally means ‘Parent-child bowl’.

I’ve eaten oyakodon before and to be fair, it is good. But I couldn’t shake the squicky feeling of eating something called ‘Parent-child bowl’. Apparently, the name isn’t as off-putting in Japanese as it is in English?

‘But but!’ my stomach pleads. ‘It’s not the same! Chickens and turkeys are different! They both come from different eggs!’

A fair point, I think. It’s not really ‘Parent-child’ in that sense…

‘But would it maybe be like ‘Uncle-child’?’ my brain chimes in again. God dammit.

So here I sit, gobbling down the last slice of pecan pie for breakfast. I take comfort in knowing that I’m not eating anything that can be described with two family members. When it comes to animals, I prefer to eat and appreciate them each individually.

Except cheeseburgers. I can deal with that.

Flying Fish

Image

Mud and Fish abound at the Kagami Mud Festival in Kumamoto, Japan!

Whether parading ‘drunk’ horses through downtown Kumamoto City or parading gigantic wooden phallises through the street, there is no denying that Japan has some interesting festivals.

In rural Kumamoto, the small town of Kagami has its own small festival every year in April. While the official name is ‘鏡が池鮒取り神事’, it’s known colloquially to the ALTs in the area as the Kagami Mud Festival.

As with other festivals and celebrations I’ve been to in Japan, I’m sure the mud festival has an ancient meaning or significance, but I am not completely privvy to it. All I knew was that there is mud. And it is thrown.

We gathered in Kagami on a colder-than-usual April afternoon. Walking past a shrine with an enormous tree, we made our way to the area where the festivities were taking place. The road beyond the shrine opens up into a small plaza of sorts that leads to a park across the river. Across a large hill is a bridge that overlooks a medium-sized manmade pond that rests in the middle of the plaza.

Children and some adults were loitering around the perimeter of the pond, excitedly talking with their friends or playing tag. Photographers dressed in heavy-duty rain ponchos were prowling around looking for the perfect spot to set up. On the hill we could see dozens of families waiting expectantly – lining the bridge like birds on a telephone line. They were at a safe distance from the madness that would soon ensue.

After watching a formal parade where children (and a horse!) carried a mikoshi (portable shrine) to pay their respects, the fun part began.

Suddenly, we heard the sound of several people chanting. Faint at first, the sound slowly grew louder and louder until the air around us was abuzz with excitement. The source of the noise soon revealed itself – a huge crowd of men dressed in fundoshi (Japanese loincloths) were marching up the street toward us. It was clearly obvious that they were drunk; aside from the fact they were actually half-marching and half-stumbling, the stench of cheap sake and beer radiated from them in a two kilometer radius.

As we watched the group of men inch closer and closer to the area like a drunken amoeba, people began to cheer and clap. The men came to a halt – as if they were stopped behind an invisible line – and continued to chant excitedly. I saw that one incredibly drunken man was being carried by two others.

Stamping their feet wildly, the group of semi-naked, drunk men chanted wildly for another minute or so before the loud bakuchiku (the firework that starts events) was shot into the air. As the deafening boom and subsequent crack-ak-ak! of the firework echoed through theair, the chanting turned into wild screaming and the men all rushed forward into the pond.

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The spectators cheered excitedly as the men screamed and splashed through the shallow water. Immediately, they plunged their hands below the surface as if they were searching for something. Suddenly, one man took something in his hands and flung it through the air. It landed with a wet smack on the ground close to us and immediately began flopping about wildly. It was a fish.

Apparently, the pond had been stocked beforehand with several carp of varying sizes. The object of this particular celebration was for the men to catch the carp barehanded and throw them out of the pond. While I’m not a member of PETA by any means, this was still a bit hard to watch.

No sooner had the fish crash-landed in front of us then a giggling child swooped in and grabbed it expertly. She brought it (still thrashing helplessly) over to a boy and deposited it into a plastic grocery bag that he was holding. Together, I watched them run off to collect the other fishes that were now littering the perimeter.

By this point, the shivering men in the lake had begun taking clumps of mud and hurling them into the onlooking crowds. They would take aim at people (especially children) and sling it at them full force. A few launched handfuls through the air, causing the mud to spread out in a filthy arc – effectively splattering a range of people, (and cars…and houses…) who were in its path.

The children waiting around the pond squealed in delight as they were hit by the mud and even began throwing it back at the men. Other children rushed around with more plastic shopping bags to collect the growing number of fish that had been ripped from their temporary home in the pond.

Eventually, the drunken, naked Japanese men began climbing out of the water with massive handfuls of gunky mud. It was like watching a scene from Night of the Living Dead as they began chasing children and adults alike. Commotion erupted as unlucky bystanders were pelted with thick, runny mud. One poor child in particular got it slathered all over his head.

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…and I mean ALL OVER his head.

The scene was, in a word, chaos. Fish were still flying through the air. Mud was being hurled in all directions and even the bystanders who had been a safe distance away were now being hit by it. Laughter and shrieks and drunken shouts of excitement filled the air as more and more men stumbled out of the pond. My friends and I scattered and regrouped multiple times, but it seemed nowhere was safe.

Within minutes, nearly everyone who was standing remotely close to the lake had some kind of mud on them. The men were becoming more bold in their exodus from the pond and were actively chasing people. A mud-smeared, wet man stumbled over to my friend Javier, his fundoshi soaked and droopy, and grabbed a hold of his cheeks playfully.

“IYEEEEEEIIIIIII” he screamed joyously as if he were talking to a child who had just taken their first steps. “IYEIIII IYEIII IYEIIII” he sang as he smeared mud rhythmically from Javier’s cheeks to his chin and then back again.

He then caught sight of me laughing at my friend. “Eyyyyyyy” he slurred and stumble-ran toward me.

The man stopped suddenly and looked me square in the eyes – his dark, glazed-over eyes trying their best to focus on mine. It was almost as if he were peering into my soul.

‘You want to get dirtyyyy’ his inner voice seemed to speak to me. I felt like I was underneath the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter. ‘You don’t mind getting dirty…but you don’t want to get too dirtyyyy hmmm’.

Then, as soon as it started, the surreal moment ended and he snapped back to reality. His hands shot out quickly and he pressed his fingers to my cheekbones. With a cute “Ey!” he smudged mud on them so I sort of resembled a cat. Obviously pleased with his work, the man then grabbed my hand in a vigorous, muddy double-handed shake.

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With that, he skipped away to rejoin the other men who were still falling all over one another trying to catch fish.

Before too long, the bakuchiku sounded again – signaling an end to the mayhem. The men all climbed out of the water and the bags of fish were collected and taken to be blessed, grilled and then eaten (in that order).

As it wound down, a woman walked up to me and thrust a large greenish-yellow fish into my hands. “Check this out!” she said to me with an excited smile plastered on her face. “Isn’t this great?”

Have you ever held a clammy, writhing fish in your hands? Let me tell you it is not the best feeling in the world. She wanted me to keep it but I declined as politely as I could. She shrugged and chucked the fish back into her grocery bag.

The exact reason for this festival still eludes me, but I believe it has something to do with pleasing a god of some sort with fish? It is said that if you get hit with mud, you are to have a year of good health.

Whether you get muddy or not, this festival is just one of the many strange and fun events that seem to happen in rural Kyushu. For those who can read Japanese, here is a link to the event with a much better explanation than mine!

http://www.city.yatsushiro.kumamoto.jp/ar/article_view.phtml?id=18486

And for the record, I haven’t been sick yet this year!

Fellow readers, what is the craziest festival or event that you’ve been to? It doesn’t matter if it’s in a foreign country or not!