On Sunday, in Kyoto, surrounded by thousands of young people dressed in ceremonial kimono/yukata/whatever all wielding large longbows taller by a matter of feet than I am, I was stricken with how strangely accepting I was of the entire situation. On either side enormous temples older than at least any building I’ve ever lived in, people scrambling towards the fence to catch a glimpse of just exactly what is being done up there. They tell me that this kind of archery is a rigorous endeavor, that many many days of training are required merely to master the form. Before you ever pick up a bow (or for that matter an arrow, your breastplate, or even a glove), you must first work your way up, gaining one piece, then the next, then the next, until finally you get to shoot.
I am sure in theory and in tradition this is a brilliant idea, but all personal ignorance acknowledged, the people we watched take their shots really really sucked. A few volleys from a row of six at a time, manual scoreboard marking X and O for miss and hit. We weren’t sure at first if X just meant they had shot, because it took a while before I saw an O pop up there. Were they professional archers? Hobbyists? Was this related to some sort of coming-of-age ceremony during which everyone must shoot? As far as why this whole event was taking place and what its significance happens to be, I couldn’t tell you and we never really found out. One of my pals said “there is an archery contest in Kyoto on Sunday,” and that was pretty much the only reason I needed to hop a train and whittle away the day on street food and the smells of whatever wood it was them bows and arrows were made of. The thing most striking really was how reasonable this whole process seemed to me: in my previous life I was put somewhat On Notice if my favorite bar was more crowded than usual or if something as unexpected as an annual street party transpired. But no, amidst Great Culture, at threat of impalement, witness to giddy youth posing for hordes of wide-angle zoom lenses, with a stick of fried chicken in my hand, I merely noted that this was different from Kobe. I fear my stability-abandoning approach during the run-up to leave Pittsburgh and my total sensory assault upon arrival in Japan may have ruined my ability to be surprised, overwhelmed, or in awe at anything ever again.
Speaking of which, let me tell you about this totally amazing completely outstandingly altogether incredible new soft drink that I am surprised, overwhelmed, and in awe at that just came out. It is called CHOCOLATE SPARKLING, to borrow the all-caps typeface from the bottle, and as it says below that, it is a “new combination of soda & chocolate flavor.” What it mostly tastes like though is a light, crispy, Yoo-hoo, the perfect blend of fizzy soda and that faint recollection of chocolate phosphates down at the drug store fountain. Bottled by Suntory, who already did humanity a favor by releasing the supreme Final Fantasy XIII Elixir last month, and who currently manufactures the preemininent whiskey of my downfall, Suntory Old, these guys are quickly shooting up the Brandon ladder. Anyway I don’t know what the point of this is I just really like to drink it.
I would say that perhaps it is just the time of year for weird soft drinks in Japan, but that would be a blatant lie, since there are new weird everythings coming out all the time. The current emphasis on chocolate products is however most assuredly due to the impending Valentine’s Day, which in Japan is a holiday where women give men chocolate (and men apparently give women only hollow thank-yous and domestic violence). No fancy gifts, candies, flowers, or dinner dates, but chocolate, apparently, and from co-workers. They even call the chocolate that women give “obligation chocolate” and men regard the number of chocolates received as a private amount. This from Wikipedia of course, and unable to be verified in my Real Life until mid-February. I hope that everyone feels really obligated to give me chocolate because I want some chocolates to put in my face. The stores here have undergone their transformations already, and as early as a couple of weeks ago, with even our kinda rinky-dink local Daiei-branded Gourmet City supermarket (affectionately referred to as Gourmet Shitty or, by me, “The Shit” due to its katakana spelling Shi-ti) now harboring a large glass display stuffed to the hilt with chocolate assortments, the unwanted reject Christmas Boots for kids tucked away on the discount rack and marked down drastically. Nestle has also gotten their KitKat expectedly in on the excitement, with a new Raspberry and Passion Fruit dark chocolate variety that I just bought today and haven’t sampled yet. It doesn’t stop there though–my fridge currently harbors an also as-of-yet unopened two-pack of new Chocolate Brewery chocolate beer from those blessed bastards over at Sapporo. The package claims it’s an exciting collaboration between Sapporo and Royce chocolate, which is goddamned delicious (I actually got one from a female coworker yesterday but did not consider the fact that it might be preemptive Valentine chocolate). Still having not tasted said beer, I am tempted to grab another pack or two just cause it will supposedly be put out of production by the 23rd, and as with all good seasonal products in Japan will immediately disappear for all time.
To continue this consumerist charade for a while longer, it would be prudent for me to call attention to the other new seasonal craze sweeping the nation: the McDonald’s “Big America” burgers, to be released sequentially and each based upon some place in the USA. The only one out so far is the Texas Burger, which has dijon mustard, relish, french fried onions, barbecue sauce, cheese, the quarter-pound burger patty, and bacon (all four of the burgers apparently will have bacon, a ploy for my attention certainly). It’s surprisingly tasty, and will surely be gone forever before I can have another one.
Still tangentially on the topic of food, I must point out that the downside to working primarily at a school which is a ten-minute walk away from the nearest restaurant is that I frequently have to bring instant noodles, convenience store entrees, or leftovers to work for lunch. Though usually delicious the selection becomes stale occasionally and I am left longing something very different and very bad for my health. The upshot to my rarely being able to fill my meals with fast-food options however is that I don’t really miss them and I almost always end up cooking supper at home. The last several days I’ve finally gathered enough knowledge (and ingredients) to start making my very own Pad Thai (entirely from base ingredients instead of with that neon red “Pad Thai Sauce” goop so available in the states). Thai food is less popular here than you might expect, which leads to the somewhat humorous case of being rarely able to find anything more than a tiny four-ounce bottle of nam plaa (Thai fish sauce) in a country which is absolutely drowning in fish, sauces, and fish sauces. Yet I’ve found it, tucked away in the “ethnic foods” section of my grocery store, just a hop-skip-and-a-jump away from the peanut butter and Spam. The other critical ingredient, tamarind (in this case, a concentrated paste form), not available at the supermarkets I frequent, was located almost at random by Jessy in a novelty jellies and jams section of the local Daimaru department store. She presented it to me one evening after I met her at the Mister Donut and I proceeded to yelp like a schoolgirl, surely alarming all the actual schoolgirls in Mister Donut.
Also having found a suitable rice noodle stand-in (longer and thinner than traditional Pad Thai noodles but with the same firm texture), I have since set out for and arrived in the realm of experimentation city, making a concerted effort not to use any specific measurements and instead to allow the respective strengths of each ingredient guide my flavoring decisions. The first batch, prepared while I was still somewhat confused with the purpose of the tamarind, ended up exceedingly edible but too tangy, not quite fishy enough, and lacking sweetness, while last night’s batch got alarmingly closer to my favorite Iowan Thai restaurant’s recipe with the addition of a heavier amount of sugar, the elimination of lime juice, more crushed peanuts, and fish sauce both before and after the noodles went into the pan. If I could find a firmer tofu to use I’d be in an even better spot, but as is it has been a scrumptious learning period to say the least. Into my new Japanese-dwelling repertoire it will go with my nabes, yakiudon, karaage, fried rice, curry, Japan-burgers, bizarre makizushi rolls, and thirty different kinds of donburi.
Monday, having arrived at school early and frittered away my time idly with the computer, confident that my New Year’s Resolution lesson would go today just as it had with the other classes I had used it on, I was informed that actually the week before while I was at my other school they switched the schedule’s days because of last week’s holiday and they played the taped lesson that I made to my Monday classes. This meant that the lessons I was about to go teach (three hours of them in a row, with my principal and vice-principal popping in and out to observe me for evaluations) were no good, they had just had them last week. I found this out approximately three minutes before my classes, and after saying I didn’t know what I was going to do to my co-teacher, found myself beginning in front of them like auto-pilot, doing the greetings, working my way towards an impending cliff. To stall for time, I had all the students arrange their desks into groups. I thought of high school Spanish class, my second-language education ten years ago just like these poor suckers, of my activities, of my penpal for some reason. I gave them some blank paper, told them about penpals, decided we’d write penpals. To… each other? No that’s not very exciting. To famous people! Yes that’s right. Oh and you can also write to characters. Oh and mascots. Yes. And you have to pretend you are also a famous person or character or mascot and talk about yourself in the letter. I saw it put itself together before my eyes like some sort of robotic parasite.
As I thumbed through the letters later in the day, after my comparatively non-notable special lesson for all 320 first year kids, I saw one letter from Luigi to Mario asking why Mario is Mr. Nintendo, why he has to be “the eternal second” and if he likes living in mushroom town. Later there was a letter from Mrs. Obama to Snoopy. At or around that point I started to actually believe that I was here because the people who hired me knew I could do this, that they saw through my nervous “I can do this” forced-confidence interview into the actual reality of the situation, which was that I could and I just didn’t know I could, even if the only instance I have as an example is that I managed to think on my feet and amuse the little bastards for twenty-five minutes without totally losing my mind. When it’s all over though, my occupation here, my life in Japan, regardless of how many kids know a handful of words or how comfortable they got with a foreigner or what sort of actual benefit this program has on the education of these people or however much I meant to even just one of them I will selfishly hang onto this moment: given the chance to prove to myself that I earned this job I did it, and I have a letter from Pikachu to Johnny Depp to prove it.