February 16, 2008

Naked Man Festival

So a couple weeks ago (I decided to backdate this though), I went to the famed Naked Man Festival of Saidaiji in Okayama prefecture. You might have a certain impression of the Japanese from images you find in American pop culture. The business CEO living to work, running his corporation like a military operation, the office workers always working as a team, doing morning exercises together, staying late until all work is finished, the serious school students studying every minute of their free time (ha, as if that exists in Japan). While those images have some basis in reality, they aren't exactly true and definitely can't be generalized. However, there does seem to be an utter lack of free time. Somehow, though, the Japanese find some. And boy do they make the most of it. There is a sort of staid politeness and formality that characterizes most public interactions. But all that goes out the window when it comes to enkais and festivals.

And as you can guess from the title, they get naked at this festival. Sorry ladies, as the title also indicates, you gotta have a thingie to join in. Even though it does get covered up. You can't have a thousand men running willy-nilly 100% buck-naked. But you can have them strip down and put on what amounts to a piece of cloth designed to be a wedgie. It's called a fundoshi, and it's a loin-cloth basically. You have to buy the fundoshi and other accoutrements there for about 50 bucks altogether. Then, the men get in groups and run around the town mostly naked (remember, it's still winter) yelling and getting their pictures taken. When they are warmed up enough, they are then purified with ice cold water thrown on them by the bucket. Usually not just once. Eventually, they make it to the shrine where there is a big stage. They try to make it on the stage because at midnight, the real chaos starts. The lights go out. Then someone tosses several sacred sticks out into the mass of men. Everyone scrambles to get one. But grabbing it isn't enough. You must make it outside the walls of the shrine with the stick (and your life) still intact. And that parenthesis isn't a joke. This year one of the JET participants broke his arm. It got caught between two guys and then the men on that side shifted forward and it snapped it. If you do make it out with the stick, you are guaranteed happiness for the coming year. And I believe the sticks have monetary value, as well; one is worth about 10, 000 dollars, I believe.

No I didn't join in the mayhem this year. But it seemed like a pretty crazy adventure, and I might take part next year. We'll see. I know this is the part you wanted to see. Here are the pictures and video.

Well, the guys do have to get to the festival somehow. And it's pretty damn cold out. There were tents there to stash their belongings. This was a pretty common, but still comical, sight around the town.

Heading through town to get warmed up before being purified (aka frozen) before entering the shrine.

I think the blurriness captures the essence of thousands of naked men searching for a sacred stick while trying to stay alive.

Crazy guys running around town.


February 13, 2008

Ninomiya Visit

Today we had testing all day at the junior high. I usually just sit around and watch everyone working hard. But I have nothing to do. Generally, I find something to work on, lessons for elementary or Japanese studies. But a whole day of that can get boring. So, I asked Ninomiya if they could use me for the day, since I was free. And they invited me over.

I did a regular lesson with the 5th graders. It was probably good that I went; it gave me a chance to see where they are and tomorrow's lesson, which will be a continuation of today, will have parents observing.

Then I hung out with the 3rd graders for a couple periods. It was more of a cultural experience lesson for them. For one period, we learned about different Korean teas with Judy-sensei. (She is another English ALT for the school and that's her fake name. I'm not sure how to spell her Korean name. But she speaks Korean and English flawlessly while Korean is her native tongue.) Most of them were good or great, but the last one was bitter and worse than coffee. Then the next period, we learned in English how to order a drink and what to say if it's good or bad and how to order another one.

Afterwards, the 4th through 6th graders went outside for a test drive of the Honda FCX (a fuel cell powered, H2 car). It was pretty cool. (And cold outside for that matter; it was snowing a bit.) The guy passed out info flyers and gave an explanation of the car. He turned it on and showed how there was no real muffler. It just sends out water vapor. (I think... since it was all in Japanese.) Everyone got to take a ride in it around the gravel sports field. Each teacher would take a few kids from their class at a time. I got to take it for a spin as well. Meanwhile, the car is 一億円 (ichi oku en). That's 100,000,000 Yen. In other words, about a million dollors. So I can say I've driven a million dollar car. Pretty exciting.
I was supposed to stay for lunch, but unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on the perspective) no students were absent, so there was no kyushoku (school lunch) for me. It's not appropriate for anyone to eat something different, so bringing my own wasn't an option. The principal drove me back to the junior high and will come and pick me up a little before two. I'm not sure what the afternoon holds in store for me. I think I'm supposed to choose between a Japanese calligraphy class (where I might not have a writing brush or the necessary knowledge to really participate) or a Japanese lesson from the assistant principal. Not sure which one I'll do.

February 9, 2008

The Mountain Top

I've been meaning to hike to the top of a mountain in my town. You can look around from my apartment and see all these mountains around. Finally, on Tuesday, I got the urge to do it, wrote it on my after school to do list and managed to keep the desire going when I got home. When I've thought about hiking like that, I've always worried that I wouldn't find a good place to start, because houses and farms butt right up against the bottoms of the mountains. But I luckily chose a good mountain and the right side of it to go up. There was a shrine at the bottom of it and behind the shrine I found a trail that was maintained and led all the way to the tip top. It was nice. It was a nice way to get my legs moving again after the 20k on Sunday, and it finally gave me a chance to see all of Takase from above, something I've been wanting to do. So without further ado, here are the pictures:

This is the heart of Takase, Katsuma. In the distance and to the right is Ninomiya. To the left of that behind the first row of mountains is Asa. To the left outside the picture is Kamitakase and Hiji is to the lower right and out of the picture.

This is the view toward Mino and, further out, Takuma. They are also towns in Mitoyo City. You can see some of the islands in the Seto Inland Sea in the distance. I knew I was close to the sea, but when I was on the mountain I could see it so clearly.

I'd definitely like to make the hike again and regularly. And find other trails to go up.

February 3, 2008


Well I learned about the half-marathon back in September. It was on February 3rd. I thought it would be cool to do another one (did one on Thanksgiving 2006 with my dad and sister). No big deal. Except a few months later and I haven't kept up with my running. Then I'm on vacation in Thailand and Cambodia. I often use vacations to jump-start my running regime back home. But this one didn't really lend itself to running a lot. So it was my New Year's resolution (one of many) to start running again and do the half-marathon no matter what. At the mid-year seminar several people said they were going to do and that they probably were going to just register the day of. Great. I'm a procrastinator so that suited me. I managed to get serious about running again for the past two weeks. Saturday night I check the marathon website to see when late registrations would begin. Except they don't have any. Had to register by Saturday at 5. I text a few friends who seem convinced that you can still race. I go to Marugame for the marathon. No dice. I'm pretty pissed at myself. I had 5 months to figure it out and register. And I blew it. And that was after telling several people I was racing. Including a class of 34 students. Great. But I was determined. So I went back home. Relaxed a bit since the morning was sort of rough to begin with. I woke up at got a migraine which put me out of commission for an hour or so and I left later than I wanted and had to race for a train. I didn't pack up everything I wanted and then the whole not being able to register really sucked too. So after I calmed back down a bit. I loaded up. I was going to run my own half-marathon. I picked this town in Mitoyo that's way back in the mountains with no train station. I said I'd just run to that for about an hour and 15 minutes and then run back. That would be about a half-marathon. You should have seen me. I had my provisions stuffed inside my underarmor. I managed to also stuff in my iPod and my digital camera. It was a great run. The best I've felt in a long time. I let myself stop and take pictures occasionally. Never more that 2 minutes and maybe a total of 10 times the whole run. I think a couple times I stopped for closer to 5 minutes. I was technically in the town by the hour fifteen mark, but I wasn't to a place where I had been before and I wanted to keep running. So I jogged around the town some before heading back. I ended up being gone from 12:15 until 3:45. So probably a bit farther than 20k. But it was good. Here are some of the pictures I took while out. You'll see that cherry blossom season is soon upon us. Apparently there will be official cherry season watchers who will announce when it's officially time to go cherry blossom viewing.

PS. Sorry about the single paragraph. I sometimes forget to indent when I should and I'm too lazy to go back and find the right spot.

One of the first pictures of the run. Some dumped mikan (oranges). Guess after all the freezes they weren't good anymore. Typical Japanese farmer's truck in the background.

Abandoned van. Orange grove in the background.

Mountain views. The ridge to the right is entirely bamboo forest. Cool huh?

And here's a sideview of the bamboo forest.

These are some of the first cherry blossoms.

A mini-snowman. Notice only made of two balls of snow. That's the Japanese way apparently. And his eyes are mikan. Probably because they are everywhere this time of year. And about a dollar will buy 3 or 4 kilos.

Did you throw your beans today?

So today was Setsubun! It's a Japanese holiday where you throw and eat roasted soybeans. I think any beans will do actually. But it sort of marks the last day of winter and the coming of spring, which is the 4th of February on the Japanese calendar. But you throw beans and say, "Devils out; Happiness in". And it does just that. And you are also supposed to eat your age in beans.

So make sure to throw your beans!!