Monday, February 20, 2017

Geisha in Kyoto? Probably Not: Five Ways to Tell Real Maiko from Cosplayers

Sorry, if your photos on Instagram are any indication, you didn't see geishas on your recent trip to Kyoto. 

It has to be said.

The reason I'm saying it here is because it's not socially acceptable to go around peoples' Instagram photos on the #travelgram tag and burst their bubbles with a comment saying “No, that's a tourist in a costume, not a real geisha” (though there is an account I follow dedicated to that very thing).

A bit of background: I'm addicted to Instagram. I follow a lot of people who travel. My Kyoto account falls into the popular "travel" category as a destination for globe-trotting folks. When they make it to Kyoto they sometimes upload photos like this with the caption: "I saw geisha!!!1 #inlovewithjapan" 

These are not real geisha, but ordinary folks in costume
No. Nine times out of ten, you did not. You saw, wait for it, dressed-up Japanese (and non-Japanese!) tourists. This flub seems to be coming up more and more often as "maiko for a day" costuming experiences are becoming more popular.

Some background on Kyoto and "geisha" or geiko as they are called here. Kyoto has been a center for the traditional arts for a thousand years, going back to when the Emperor moved his court there from Nara (in the 1800s the imperial palace was moved to Tokyo where it remains today). It has been a "tourist destination" for at least as long. Japanese people have loved Kyoto as a beautiful travel destination for at least a thousand years. Businesses to serve and entertain travelers have a long history here, and the 花街 kagai or traditional entertainment (red-light?) districts in Kyoto are remnants of them. Geiko and their apprentice counterparts maiko are professional entertainers and masters of several traditional arts including dance, musical instruments, tea ceremony, drinking games, and conversation. Are they basically high-end prostitutes? People with connections to the kagai will be offended and say no to such a question. Have they been so in history? Most likely. But who knows. A lot of things here are not allowed to be as black-and-white as in Western countries. The kagai is a very closed world even to the average Japanese person, that since WWII especially has worked hard to improve its image. The idea is that mastery of traditional arts (even those whose basic purpose is to entertain men) deserves respect and preservation, not criticism or divulging of sordid stories. I'm quite sure the kagai has its share of darkness going on, whether it's any better or worse than the typical hostess bar or even typical Japanese company practices is anyone's guess. 

But in any case, I find maiko—the real ones—stunning. They have made becoming a symbol of ideal female beauty from another time and culture into their full-time profession, starting apprenticeships from when compulsory education ends around age 16 (now there's a hairy human rights question foreigners love to bring up). At this stage they are called maiko and wear the high chunky wooden okobo shoes, long trailing obi sash, and dangling hair ornaments most people think of when they hear “geisha”. At age 20 they become full-fledged geiko or recognized masters of their arts, and they switch to wearing more subdued kimono, flatter shoes, a shorter obi, and wigs in a more elaborate style rather than their own hair, though with less accessories. Geiko are less often seen in the streets. The young, bright-colored maiko draw everyone's attention, I think they also have to go out more often to various functions and music and dance lessons. It's hard not to be fascinated. But this is an exclusive world where personal connections are more important than the money you're willing to spend (and you would still need a lot for a dinner with a maiko in attendance). In recent years this public fascination for the inaccessible has resulted in a booming business: maiko makeovers! 舞妓体験 in Japanese. These fancy photo studios concentrated in the Higashiyama area of Kyoto will apply the white makeup, dress you up in rental kimono, wig, and accessories, and arrange photo shoots for a day as a maiko. I think social media has contributed to the boom, as young people are on the prowl for cool photo op experiences. There's a very, very high chance the “maiko” you caught a glimpse of on your trip around Higashiyama are just normal Japanese girls out for a day of touring Kyoto, just like you!

Here are five ways to tell the difference, in order from easiest/most obvious to more subtle.

1. Location

Yes, the Gion area of Higashiyama is part of the old kagai there. But it is also the main tourist destination in Kyoto, especially the routes to Kiyomizu temple. The area is always very crowded. The real maiko know this and do not use these streets. If they must go through the tourist attractions they use the maze of tiny little back streets, or simply take a taxi. So if you see a maiko walking around the tourist attractions, she's probably not the real thing.

"Off-duty" maiko in Miyagawa-cho on a spring afternoon. I didn't get a shot of their faces but they weren't wearing the white  makeup. Their hairstyle is what gives them away as real maiko!

2. Time of day

The maiko's typical day is made up of lessons and the occasional ceremony or event in the morning. She goes out at this time in a simple kimono without the white makeup on her face, so you might mistake her for simply a well-dressed Kyoto lady (there are many women in Kyoto who wear kimono when making formal social calls, or when practicing traditional arts). Her youth and her hair done up in traditional fashion will give her away to the practiced eye though. The afternoon is spent in preparation for the night's work: donning the giant obi sash and white makeup we all know and love. Real maiko start ducking out to work--to restaurants, hotels, and dance theaters—in full maiko ensemble between 5 and 6pm. If you see a maiko walking in the street with all her white makeup on in the morning or afternoon, she is probably a cosplayer.

3. Behavior

A maiko has to hold up yards of fabric to walk
A maiko's clients pay her okiya (boarding house?) for the time she spends commuting to the restaurant or bar. So she doesn't dwaddle around gazing at the sights, chatting with other maiko, or posing for pictures, and she most definitely does not eat or use a cellphone or camera en route to her destination. Maiko doing those things I can say with 100% certainty are tourists dressed up. Real maiko dash quickly, almost running, and usually ignore requests for photos. The typical Japanese girl is not used to wearing kimono or the traditional footwear and most cannot manage a graceful dash like the maiko, nor are they often in a hurry.
Also, a maiko walking with both hands free is not going to happen either. Instead of a purse they will carry small cloth and straw baskets, and they will also be holding up their kimono train. This something the photo studios miss. Maiko wear their kimono so they trail behind in a long train, and when walking they have to gather this train to the front and hold it up with one hand. Pardon the silly clipart but it shows what I'm talking about. Most kimono in most situations are not worn in this way but extra fabric is folded and tied up at the waist, so most Japanese people are not used to walking around holding onto a train. To allow unpracticed customers ease of movement (and probably also to minimize damage to the studio's property) customers are dressed in kimono tied up at the waist like a normal kimono. They can walk around without holding up yards of extra fabric, and their ensemble does not trail on the ground. If you look again the first photo I posted you will see this is the case for the two girls enjoying maiko style costume in Kyoto.

4. Age

As I noted previously, maiko are most likely teenagers, with an age range of 15-20 years old. After age 20 they either choose to retire from the kagai world (not so uncommon) or become geiko, and their kimono and hairstyles change completely. You will never see a real maiko older than 20. But, the photo studios cater to all ages. If you see a little girl in the costume, or a lady obviously older than 20, she is not a real maiko. Also, as a general rule, if the maiko has a figure similar to that of Matsuko Deluxe (Google him) she is not a real maiko.

5. Makeup and Accessories 
Maiko makeover studios boast about giving their customers an authentic experience, and some do get close, even fooling Japanese people unfamiliar with maiko. But they make mistakes in the makeup and hair ornaments. The dangly hair ornament on the side of the face is only worn by first-year apprentice maiko. During this year, they do not apply rouge to the upper lip, but just the bottom one. Here's a photo I took at an event some years ago: note her white upper lip and dangling flower-blossom hairpiece. The older maiko color both lips, but never again wear these dangling hair ornaments.
First-year maiko Umeraku. Note her lipstick and dangling hair ornament.

Older maiko Umeyae. 
However, maiko makeover studios and their customers don't seem to be aware of this. So if you get close enough to notice the all-too-common but incorrect full lipstick+dangling hair ornament combination, you'll know she's not a maiko. There are other more subtle differences as well, such as floral motifs in the kimono and hair ornaments that maiko change according to the season. The photo studios do not change their stock so much depending on the season, so the practiced eye will be able to instantly recognize a plum-blossom print being worn in summer, for example, a wardrobe malfunction a real maiko would never make. The quality of the white makeup is apparently different as well, real maiko won't look “ thickly painted” but the white makeup is incredibly smooth and in a way transparent—showing the natural quality of the skin underneath. Maiko hairstyles are also done using the maiko's own hair, but most makeover studios provide wigs instead, so if you get close enough to notice an odd hairline or smeary makeup, she's a tourist and not a real maiko.


So there you go, now you know how to tell real maiko from the tourists dressed up, and burst your own bubbles, should you come visit Kyoto. Let me know if you do, we can smirk at tourists who don't know any better together and then bum around the places where real maiko may be seen in the evening, if we're lucky...

A living symbol of ideal beauty from another time. The red on the back of the collar is also typical of a real maiko, a detail the photo studios often miss.

P.S. I don't actually know a whole lot about maiko. I've seen the real deal a grand total of three times in 6 years here, and only once was I able to get photos. A lot of the info and the names of the maiko whose photos I got were provided by some kind knowledgeable people I've connected with on Instagram. Hey, I learn things, so it's is good for something!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Done with Common Sense: In Search of New 常識

3/1/2014. We didn't hug or kiss for the last two years of dating/engagement so our pre-wedding photos were a bit awkward. 
In Japanese, people use the word usually translated as "common sense" or 常識 joshiki a lot, though more often and in a wider variety of contexts than we use the English phrase. 

You might recall the idea of a "high-context" culture from that college course Intercultural Whatnot 101. In contrast with low-context cultures (America is often held up as a textbook example), high-context cultures rely less on clear spoken or written communication to enforce behavior, and more on concepts like joshiki  "it's common sense, everyone knows you're supposed to do/be ____" In three years of marriage and three years as 社会人 "employed members of society" in Japan, we've had an awkward dance with this joshiki, and I'm thinking it's time for a new dance partner. 

First, how we tried to be normal:

We both went to college, Yuya got his Master's, then we started looking for jobs. We didn't question it at all. After education, one must work, and work=being employed. In Japan, this joshiki is narrowed more strictly to being employed full-time by a reputable company for life. Yuya pursued this and after a long two years job searching was finally employed by his current manufacturing company. He is what the Japanese call a salaryman, a white-collar employee of a company. We continue to put up with horrible working conditions without complaining all that much because "it's par for the course here, a lot of people are much worse off." As it turns out, the culture we found ourselves in pulled some mean punches that woke us up a bit. 

Here's how it all fell apart:

Punch #1: You're Doing it all Backwards
Our falling out with Japanese common sense started when we got engaged and announced our wedding date. Japanese friends and acquaintances were less concerned with our international marriage and more shocked at the fact that we were marrying before Yuya's job started. The Japanese way requires the man to be an established employee with a happy savings account before getting married. It didn't matter that I had graduated and was working full-time, that Yuya had completed his Master's degree (all that was left was the graduation ceremony two weeks after our wedding), or that he had accepted a formal job offer from the company and his job would be starting exactly one month from our wedding. We were committing "student marriage." For Japanese salarymen, marriage is not traditionally a private matter but you have to invite your boss (who comes to the wedding to give a speech saying thank you to the parents for raising a son with potential as a worker, though he does nothing but make mistakes and is useless in the office, hahaha, however he can greet people correctly so I'm happy to help raise him to be a real adult, blah blah blah) and give and return expensive presents from your workplace. We knew we didn't want to bother with all that and wanted to get married in my hometown, so we purposely decided to tie the knot before all those other obligations came into play. Over and over in the coming months we'd be so glad we decided to marry when we did, but we really had no idea how bad the next punch was going to be. 

Punch #2 It's for Your Own Good
I still remember that June evening in 2014, when Yuya came home from work one Monday after midnight, in tears. I work from Tuesday to Saturday, and Yuya the traditional Monday to Friday, so on Mondays since I have time I usually cook something nice while waiting for him to come home. Our newly married life was going pretty well. I'd recovered from a bad case of influenza I contracted right after returning to Japan from our honeymoon, and was enjoying cute little details of our life together like having to buy two icecreams for dessert instead of one. Yuya usually came home from work at 6pm. That day, I made his favorite hamburgers and even put together a colorful salad. Like, way more food groups than I usually bother to cook for one meal. I had it all out on the table and ready to go by 6:15. Maybe Yuya had stopped by a convenience store. 6:45 came, and I put saran wrap on our food. At 7pm I put it all back in the refrigerator. At 8pm I tried calling him, no answer. I forgot all about the dinner I'd made. I knew something had gone very wrong. When he came home at last at around 12:15 am, he explained through tears what had happened. He had suddenly been given an impossible amount of tasks to do, berated for not doing them faster, and when he finally finished at 9pm, he was treated to a 3-hour "training lecture" from his boss, an absurd performance that included screaming, dehumanizing insults and personal attacks, slamming hands on the table and kicking the walls. Watch the movie Whiplash, by the same director of the current hit La La Land. The "professor" character in it has a lot in common with a typical Japanese manager (usually without the physical violence however). This after-hours lecture was to become a weekly ritual and the work load was not diminished. Yuya never came home before 10pm after that. The hammer had come down. We were now true salarymen.

Related: Overwork in Japan, and my view of the education system that creates it

Punch #3 Married Couples Spending Time Together? How Dare They.
So here we were in 2014 and for half of 2015, in no good emotional state (Yuya getting the brunt of it before he managed a transfer to a slightly better division), hearing "Oh isn't it great he's got steady employment and already married at his age, you lovebirds must be happy" from all sides, and mostly from our church. No, it's not like that, I wanted to say. It's not material happiness in "beautiful Japan," it's a wasteland. Maybe you see the tiny, shiny gold nuggets but what I see is just that ugly monster No-Face (if you get that reference, let's be friends). We asked for prayers sometimes. But our church has a lot of wealthy people in it, bosses and managers and even presidents of companies, people who've "been there, done that" the whole length of the corporate ladder, and given their youth to their beautiful Japan they love so much. I was shocked to tears in front of everybody when it was decided by vote that Yuya had been chosen as a deacon. Apparently in our denomination, one can't say no to something decided by popular vote. Being a deacon meant long Sunday meetings with Christian salarymen from the end of the church service until evening. "Being young is tough, but he's married and an employee now, it's time he took on more church duties. Isn't that what a pure faith demands? It's God's will." I was extremely angry, actually. They knew our only day off together was Sunday. They knew his workplace was toxic. They asked for our prayer requests but they obviously didn't care a fig about them. They assumed that to be young was to suffer, to suffer was to be made holy, that as a matter of course married couples didn't need to have much time together, that we were interested in being unselfish people who put the needs of the organization over our personal ones. I had always thought church was a safe place and that a shared faith transcended cultural differences, because that's how it had been when we were children (i.e., unemployed students) and between Yuya and me. Now that was shown to be a delusion on my part. In the years since then I've been invited a few times to the Ladies Fellowship. "I don't have time," I'd growl to Yuya, "Even if I did, why would I want to spend it exchanging pleasantries about what a good woman Ruth was, after what they've done? They don't even like their husbands. We have nothing in common." My own sin is I haven't yet figured out what forgiving our church looks like. It will definitely not entail going along with their salaryman family value system. It probably means I should swallow my hurt and pride and spend a bit more time with them, listening to them. 
Recently, I was "head-hunted" and invited for an interview with an executive trying a new business venture. I explained I wasn't seeking new employment but I'd consider it if the conditions were better for me than my current employer, and that most full-time English teaching jobs require work on Saturdays but that left only one day off with my husband, so ideally I need a job with Saturdays off. The exec and her cronies burst into squeals. "Aww, lovebirds!" "How sweet!" "Newlyweds? How long have you been married?" When I said, "Three years," the room went silent. Shrinking ice cubes tinkled in lipstick-stained glasses. "Well dear, you'll find out life isn't like that. The only thing you should care about is if your husband is healthy and employed!" The cronies laughed uproariously, but I couldn't find anything funny about her comment. Apparently any lovebirding beyond the first year is socially unacceptable.

Related: How I experience Collectivism in Japan

Punch #4 We're Not Alone
Our Japanese friends from college days started working and getting married around the same time we did. Just like us, they started dropping like flies, running into similar and even worse problems in their churches and workplaces. I'd thought Yuya had just gotten stuck with a really rotten (but rare) psychopath boss, but more and more it looked like his methods were being employed in varying degrees across all industries and work environments. Turns out, it's joshiki to "train" new blank-slate employees with what would probably be labelled harassment, hazing, and bullying in America. Our female friends experienced rampant sexual harassment and sexist discrimination as well. One friend was hospitalized for extreme work-related stress. Another frequently got tears in his eyes when we asked about his job. The younger generation is changing, however. Most have quit at least once, some have started their own businesses or joined NPOs. One shocked his company by reporting a supervisor who "jokingly" waved a box-cutter at him (no one had ever bothered considering such a thing criminal before), resulting in the supervisor getting fired, also rare in Japan. The bottom of the totem pole is getting fed up. 
Since dating and getting married, we've met and come into contact with many couples like us: foreign wife, Japanese husband, living in husband's country Japan. One day I mentioned to Yuya, "Come to think of it, not one of the international couples we know is doing the salaryman thing here, except us!" It was a lightbulb-floating-over-our-heads moment. 

Punch #5 "I Had to Work with a Bunch of Foreigners!" "お疲れ!”
As much as I try to be normal and respect the Japanese way of doing things here, my very different value system means I'm often blind to expectations of me, or simply unwilling to fulfill them (not a legitimate excuse here at all). I will never attain native-level Japanese language and communication skills. My non-Japanese body is in itself a disqualification from true membership in society. It's not like in America, where foreigners are praised for becoming American and integrating into society. It's expected here that foreigners are different and "not one of us," nor can they ever be. I am made to think my own company considers me a nuisance that must be borne to make a profit, since one can't really compete among English schools without a foreign face. One of my students is working for a company that in cooperation with an NPO has hired some adults with various disabilities. She often complains about how hard it is to communicate with them, how frustrating they can be, how very lacking in joshiki and the most basic skills. "They sound like foreigners in a Japanese company," I thought to myself, shocked at both the offensiveness of the thought and also the implications of it I could see played out in the society around me.* The words of an activist for universal rights made me think long and hard: "Disabilities are not in people, but in the environment." What if, for example, there was a society made exclusively for and by people in wheelchairs? Or one for blind people? Those of us considered "able" now would be at a disadvantage there. Another lightbulb was flickering on. 
*note: I don't mean to compare foreigners in Japan or myself to people with disabilities. I don't have any at the moment, and I'm aware my status both as foreigner and as abled grants me many privileges from society. 

Conclusion: Maybe We Don't Have to Be Stuck
Our American friends are shocked to hear these things and say, "If you don't like it so much, why don't you move/quit/leave? It's your life, you can live it your way and do your own thing," unaware of how that concept just doesn't exist in Japan and how hard it is to actually do, once entangled in various webs of obligation and expectations that come with being a member here. But we are realizing, since I'm not Japanese, we are forgiven much. The crushing burden of duty and joshiki that irks Yuya so much, he already cast aside long ago in choosing to become Christian (a foreign religion) and marrying me (a foreign wife). Maybe we don't need to keep trying to force square pegs into round holes and keep doing what everyone else is doing. "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down" --maybe, the hand holding the hammer was of our own creation-- "but the nail that sticks up too much is left alone." We have to stop kidding ourselves and realize we started off abnormal here, and if our plans and dreams for the future work out, we are tumbling toward entropy, at least as far as "normal" is concerned. If we succeed, our sweet revenge on common sense will be less sweet because "Oh well foreigners and the Japanese weird enough to marry them are always doing wacky stuff" will be the excuse made for us. But on the other hand if that's the case, why in the world are we not doing the wacky stuff, like married date nights, starting our own business, or living in a third country, or adopting? That escalated quickly, I know. But maybe, the wacky is closer to our true joshiki, which in the end for us as Christians must be in submission to Christ, not to the cult of the American Dream or of Japan the Beautiful Country, or even of Millennials Changing the World. I'm getting tired of feeling stuck, anyway. Time for some new 常識。

Sunday, January 8, 2017

How to Spend New Year's in Japan 2017

This is about New Year's as I experienced it this year in Japan. Again. It was my fifth time being here for it, I think? Every year except the very first one I've spent with Yuya's family in Shizuoka. This post goes more into New Year's in Japan in general, but for now I'm talking specifics, more like a diary.

The New Year's season (called 年末 nenmatsu up until midnight on New Year's Eve and お正月 oshogatsu thereafter) has always been an awkward, funky one for me. It's the most important holiday on the Japanese calendar so one can't help but get sucked into it, a holiday that's like all of Japanese culture concentrated into a few short days, much of it quite pagan. While I'm just about ready for a week off and eating way too much food, I'm also missing Christmas and my family in the U.S., and going to church. This year though, I think I had the most fun yet. Here's how it all went down:

December 28th 
The last day of work in 2016 for both of us. I turn down an invitation to a last-minute bounenkai (corporate end of the year party) to rush home and start cleaning and packing to spend 5 days at Yuya's folks' house. The cleaning never happened. I'm busy measuring out and bagging up cookie ingredients to make at Yuya's house. They always treat me to such good food and I never cook there (not since a traumatizing experience when Yuya and I were dating) so I thought this time I'd just do cookies, with real American chocolate chips. It wasn't such a great idea in the end. 

December 29th
We sleep in and I go out to get お年賀 onenga, a New Year's gift (usually nicely-packaged little confections) for Yuya's folks. I have to get five: for his parents, his sister K and her husband A-kun, his grandparents, and two sets of aunts/uncles. I grumble. I'm no good at this traditional stuff, I tell him. Better than me, he replies. I can't argue with that (this is is the person who frequently mistakes his own name's kanji when writing formally) so off I go. The basement of the Isetan department store where such things may be bought is an absolute zoo. There are too many people milling around so girls in aprons color-coded to each shop mix in the crowd to take orders and payment methods right there, and then yell the names of the customers while holding aloft the neatly-wrapped packages. "Last year was kind of a failure, so get something good, spend about $20 on each one," Yuya told me. In this situation however, I have no chance to walk around Isetan slowly and pick something out. Luckily, customers at my workplace often give us sweets when their children pass tests, so I know a few that I like. I just go with my own favorite, five boxes of it, and even better, they were $16 a piece. The apron girl asks my name. "Baba." She doesn't miss a beat. "The kanji are 'horse' and 'place' right?" she confirms. I'm grateful. She could've gotten confused, or tried to write katakana (the script for foreign words) especially since it's not such an obviously Japanese-sounding last name. Whoop-di-doo, I'm like one of them! I think, one of these Japanese wives buying onenga! My boxes get wrapped with the requisite onenga paper (if it's onenga, you can't give it until January 1st) and to my consternation, my last name is also written in lovely calligraphy on the paper. Oh dear. I'd forgotten about that. Is that ok, or was I supposed to have the names of the recipients written on it? Oh well. The majority of the onenga would go to Babas anyway (it turns out it was ok, the name of the giver is all that is written). The wrapping/calligraphy man holds up the giant bag of onenga and scans the crowd (skipping me) "Baba-sama!!" "Right here!" an apron girl rescues me. Ah, it's all so much fun.
We finally get on the train around 4pm. The bullet train takes a little over an hour but costs about $300 for the two us round trip, so this year we get the wonderful Seishun 18 kippu, a discount ticket for unlimited fares on JR local and rapid trains in a 5-day period for a flat $100 (pro tip: within the time period it can be resold and you can get money back for the days unused). What that means is our journey takes close to 4 hours and we don't get to sit down for a leg of it. At one point we had 10 minutes to make a transfer, but everyone dashed out like the train was on fire. The river of frantic people sweeps up across the station and down another platform, ignoring the shouts of station staff that running is very dangerous and please walk. I lose Yuya in the crowd. I see our train, and realize why everyone is running. It's to get seats. No one really gets off this one until its last stop 2 hours away. I know Yuya wouldn't dart into the first car; it's already filling up. I keep running to the end of the platform to the last car--and there's Yuya guarding two seats with his manspread and backpack. Safe! We eat some candy Justin sent Yuya for Christmas. It's Sour Patch Kids and I spill sugar all over my purse and Yuya's laptop. We meet Yuya's family at our final stop and go out for dinner.

December 30th
My mother-in-law (okaa-san) treats me and K to haircuts at her favorite salon. The owner has won competitions or some such but it's all wasted on my hair, since I never get more than a tiny trim. The first time I went there (and the last time I'd cut my hair) I was super nervous for some reason and I don't think I said a word. The owner says my Japanese has really improved. "Did I speak at all last time?" I wonder. Japanese haircuts are a whole new level of haircut experience by the way. Shampooing is typically included and so is a head, neck, and shoulder massage. No tips needed and the price is high. Afterwards K and I get dropped off home to make cookies. I measured out and brought a lot of the ingredients, assuming Okaa-san would have flour and eggs (she did) but what she didn't have were the American measuring cups I use with American recipes. Measurements are different and Japanese usually measure by weight using kitchen scales. The result is too much flour and cake-y cookies. Oh well, A-kun eats a lot of them which surprises me, since he is very much a "rice and miso for breakfast" kind of person. Inwardly I give up on cooking at the Baba house. It's just impossible to make something well in a strange kitchen.
Dinner is at an amazing izakaya (bar?) in a private room. Everything's delicious, and everyone's in a good mood. Yuya and A-kun keep up a lively conversation about their jobs.

December 31st 
We all get up early and bundle into the rental car for the six of us for a day trip to see Mt. Fuji. At least, that was what I thought it was about. I should know by now most traveling in Japan by Japanese people is for the purpose of eating. It started the evening we arrived, really, it "snowed food and rained drink" as a hobbit might say. This year I wised up and attempted normalcy by refusing food except during the three daily mealtimes. My stomach thanked me! 30 minutes into our roadtrip (and an hour after a substantial breakfast) A-kun announces he's hungry (how??) so we stop at a conbini for nikuman meat buns and corndogs. I'm getting carsick with rental-car-smell and now corndog-smell, but I'm glad I was forthright enough to decline any food. We run into trouble. Okaa-san and Otou-san fight about the map and directions. The map's batteries meanwhile run out (it's an iPad). I'm worried because in the distance, clouds are steadily moving up Mt. Fuji's slopes and it's looking like it'll be blocked from view. We finally arrive at our destination however, a giant pedestrian suspension bridge with an uninterrupted view of The Mountain (Japan ver.). I notice there are only Japanese people there. I'm used to Kyoto where you can see all kinds of nationalities at the main tourist spots. I get stared at more in Yuya's countryside hometown, hear comments like "there's something you don't see every day!" In Kyoto people glance, and then immediately lose interest, but here the stares are long and follow my movements. We enjoy the bridge and the brilliant blue sky and Fuji who decided to come out and play after all. Yuya's dad disappears mysteriously as is his wont, to reappear in time for dango (rice balls on a stick) and ice-cream. I decline the latter. Yuya is less than impressed with the bridge. "So tourist trappy!"

Mishima Skywalk

Finally we get to our foodie destination, Numazu market on the coast. The market is dark, smelly, noisy, and closing. We sign our names at a very busy restaurant and wait to be called in. A bossy, hoarse old lady uses a megaphone to call guests and give orders to the kitchen. It's chaos inside, but I can almost imagine the fishing boats pulling up in the back to deliver still-wriggling menu items. We all get big bowls of seafood including sea urchin, roe, shrimp. It's all delicious and melts in my mouth like butter. We can't get good seafood to eat raw in land-bound Kyoto so it's a once-a-year treat.

We feel really full now, but Okaa-san, K and A-kun say they want to explore the market. The smelly market isn't so appealing to Otou-san, Yuya, and I, so we say we'll wait in the car and head in that direction. Yuya gets in right away but I notice beyond the cement blocks in front of our car is a little marina filled with adorable fishing boats, Mt. Fuji floating above in the background. "Can we go over there?" I ask Otou-san. "There's people walking there who don't look like fishermen," he says, "let's go!" We leave Yuya and head towards the water. I realize I'm off with Otou-san on one of his mysterious jaunts. I snap a few photos of Mt. Fuji when something catches Otou-san's eye. A little crowd of people gathered around a...tall ship?? It's a very small one, or perhaps just a sailboat outfitted with three tiny masts, but anyway, we can't resist getting a closer look. Captain looks the part with a pea coat and grey whiskers framing a sea-browned face. Otou-san finds out it's running little sunset tours daily, and just now they're late to depart but still missing one passenger. The captain manages to hand up a business card to us. Otou-san really seems interested, and chuckles when it turns out the missing passsenger's last name is Baba. "Otou-san, don't get any ideas," I say playfully, "you can't say 'that's me!' and get on the ship." He laughed. "I wonder where I'd end up!" The missing Baba turns up at last and we wave goodbye to the little schooner as it melts into the setting sun.

When we return home, we decide to skip New Year's Eve dinner. We're all too stuffed. That doesn't mean Okaa-san stops bringing out snacks and Shizuoka mikan (mandarin oranges). We settle down to watch the Red and White Singing Contest--an annual singing competition by the Red (female) most popular singers of the year, and White (male). Viewers can vote red or white with their TV remotes. We comment on who has or hasn't aged well and who wasn't invited back and who was on too much (PPAP), and ring in the New Year. Actually, we watch a little clock countdown on TV, and then everyone bows solemnly to each other あけましておめでとうございます Happy New Year Year, and 今年もよろしくおねがいします Looking forward to your continued support this year too. Here it is January 7th and I'm still hearing those greetings exchanged at work as our customers come in for the first time in 2017. Finally, we go to bed around 2am.

January 1st 
We're rudely awakened at 5:30 am to somehow bundle on layers of clothes and coats, hats and mittens to get in the car and catch the first sunrise of the year. It's a Japanese custom, many clap their hands in prayer for health in the new year. Yuya and I don't pray to the sun but we go along. The sunrise from the Pacific Ocean, with nothing between us and the sun, as it were, is really dramatic. Yuya knows participation is not optional here and gets up without complaint. The sky is getting lighter and by time we get to the beach, it's a clear white color. We grab some free cups of 甘酒 amazake , slightly alcoholic fermented rice drink like watery oatmeal and served full of sugar and piping hot. It's actually not half bad. We run for the beach, hampered by our steaming cups. The beach is crowded with people out to see the sun, especially where we can see the sky reddening between peoples' legs. And then, there it is! Suddenly, the sun is up! With no low clouds to hide it this year, it came up unexpectedly quickly. The cold grey beach and our pale faces turn brilliant red and gold in a matter of seconds, the wet sand and waves sparkle so hard my eyes hurt. It's early and no one slept much, but somehow I never mind coming to see the sunrise here.
We sleep in the car on the way home and go back to bed until 12:30 or so, waking up to eat osechi, special pickled and salted New Year's dishes served only this time of year. Most of it at Yuya's is handmade and saran-wrapped to be snacked on for the next day or so. We spend the day in pajamas while K and A-kun must go to Yuya's grandmother's house (a few houses down) for New Year's greetings before setting off to see A-kun's side of the family. A new bride is busy at New Year's. She has to greet and spend time with two families. She seems reluctant to go, but A-kun's grandmother is waiting too. We exchange onenga and say goodbye. K and A-kun's onenga is small and handmade. "Yuya!" I yell later, "Why didn't you let me give them cute little Christmas presents instead of onenga like I originally wanted to?! Theirs isn't traditional at all, and we gave them a big ol' traditional thing, like from a grandma!"

First sunrise of 2017
That night, Yuya and I visit his grandma and grandpa for the New Year's greeting and onenga exchange. His grandma is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. She doesn't make eye-contact anymore, and apparently didn't recognize K this year unfortunately, though she talked about her afterwards. This time she knows Yuya, and me. She acts shy about coming into the living room with Grandpa and Otou-san and Yuya and I, so we go back to the kitchen to see her. She's fumbling in a drawer. "What are you looking for?" asks Okaa-san. "I'm gonna give it to her," says Grandma, and says "Yuya's wife must be lonely living so far away from her home during New Year's." "Don't worry" I say, "New Year's here is very fun. I just want you to be healthy and happy!" but just like that, she pops a silver necklace with a single grey pearl on it into my hand. "Oh, Mom," says Okaa-san, but Grandma says, "Well I feel much better now. That's a load off my mind." Later I try to give the necklace--perhaps something Grandma had when she was young, back to Okaa-san--but she says, "Oh keep it. Grandma said she felt better giving it, and she worries about you. She's been saying she wanted to give you something. She chose a funny little thing, though, haha!"
Later thinking about it, I almost cry. I'll definitely treasure the necklace. All the silly dumb things I complain about here that every gaijin complains about, the other things I have to keep bottled inside, the loneliness at Christmastime...when it comes up I'll look at the necklace and hope Yuya's grandma isn't worrying about me anymore.

January 2nd
We get up slowly and get ready for our own departure back to Kyoto in the evening. I'm not looking forward to another uncomfortable, crowded, hectic 3.5 hours back ala Seishun 18, so I drag my feet packing a bit. Okaa-san tries to load us up with chocolates and mikan and for some reason a giant pooh-bear of honey to take home, but I make her keep half the mikans. It's not easy to run and transfer crowded trains loaded down with stuff. I was glad to get rid of our cumbersome bag of onenga but ended up having to carry the same amount home again anyway. Yuya with his incessant sweet tooth will be happy.
We talk about the New Year on the train. "This time, you seemed to have a lot of fun, more relaxed," says Yuya. "Yeah, I was more comfortable, I said 'no' more," I laugh, "But did you notice? A big reason I could relax is because A-kun did too." A-kun comes from a wonderful Tokyo family and that prestigious university. His family probably eat osechi properly in lacquered boxes, Grandma might even wear a kimono for the day, his dad definitely doesn't wander off mysteriously by himself during family outings. A-kun had visited Yuya's house before he and K got married, and then he was pretty formal, and never made clear his own preferences, but just went along with the majority opinion. This year though, he said "I'm hungry!" from the back of the car, went to bed instead of staying up to drink with Yuya and Otou-san, and laughingly showed off his round belly after eating one of our bigger meals. Yuya had noticed the change too, and we reflect that photogenic Tokyo families must be awful sticklers for ceremony, to the point that even a really weird family like Yuya's becomes a place to relax.
It is the first time I've ever really been able to relax there, I think. I'm more sure of myself. I know his family a bit better. K is married, we have all grown up one more year. This was an Oshogatsu to come home and find refuge from the outside world, to be selfish and free and to let each other be selfish and free, together.
When we arrive home late at night, the first thing on my mind is our mailbox. "Yuya, let's get the mail now! What if we got nengajou??" Nengajou are New Year's greeting postcards you write to every person you know. We don't, which is hardly civilized, but it's even less civilized to not return nengajou to someone who has sent you one. Last year Yuya painstakingly wrote 2 or 3 to people at work. This year he's in a new division, so I worry that all 20 people there sent him one...we open the mailbox, and out tumbles the rubber-banded stack of nengajou. My heart sinks. Yuya frantically shuffles through them...they are all fake! All advertisements, except for one from K and A-kun, and one from an uncle. Phew.....we dodged a bullet this year. Relieved from the burden of duty to tradition and the expectations of people we don't even like, we collapse in our bed. Selfish and free. "Happy New Year."

Family shadows at the beach

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Awkwardness Ahead: Did I Just Gaijin Smash?!

"Gaijin Smash" "Gaijin Card" "Gaijin Privilege"--when pushy foreigners get special services or break rules without repercussions simply by virtue of being giant pushy foreigner-san. Not nice, but common enough to make regular appearances in the expat blogs and forums.

However, I wonder if most often the Gaijin Smash is done completely unintentionally and therefore goes unrecorded. For example, a foreigner tries to get some service that is perfectly routine in their own country, and simply don't know that it's not done here, so you end up with the American saying "No pickles or tomatoes please!" in the foodcourt hamburger place while the poor little baito highschool kid behind the counter flusters with the manager about whether a pickle and tomato-less order can possibly be served, the manager sighs but comes out and makes the hamburger himself--a disruption of the hamburger-building line which will make the next 5 orders a minute late each--smiling as if nothing is amiss. The blissfully unaware American customer accepts his custom order as a matter of course.

It just (maybe??) happened to me, for the nth time.

I went into a bakery to get a stollen for a friend. Stollen are German fruit breads eaten during the Christmas season (not to be confused with fruitcake; stollen are quite delicious), and for some reason a staple in Japanese bakeries this time of year, but for a high price--perhaps because of the amount of butter and marzipan used. They're a little fancy and make good Christmas/end of the year gifts. Anyway, I went into the shop, and there were baskets of stollen in all sizes, some the size of Baby Jesus boxed up and sporting price tags over $50. That's not quite appropriate so I go for the smallest unboxed stollen for $10, and right next to it is a sign that says, WE'LL WRAP YOUR STOLLEN IN THIS CUTE GIFT BAG FOR ONLY 50 CENTS MORE!! Great! Wrapping cuteness all taken care of. I get my stollen and get in line. When it's my turn, I say in Japanese, "I'll have it gift-wrapped, please." And then it happens. The little baito girl makes the batsu X sign with her arms and shouts in English, "NO WRAPPING!"
What?? Did I misunderstand the sign? But it was right on the basket of mini stollen. I read it like 4 times to make sure, because I always want to avoid these kinds of situations. Then I see it, on the counter, right next to me, another basket of the mini stollen with the same sign. So I do it, the Gaijin Smash. I persist. I'm no good at wrapping baked goods to look cute by Japanese standards. I need this wrapped! I point to the sign in desperation, "Can't I get it wrapped like this?" The poor girl disappears to the back of the shop to confer with manager. Manager appears, smiling angelically while she digs around in some drawers and finally produces the little bag identical to the one on the sign. I stare at the bag. I know how things are typically done here. It is definitely a mini stollen-sized bag. It could have no other purpose...right? I felt hot color rising from my neck into my cheeks and ears. I must have read the sign wrong. I must have missed some fine print, like "when combined with a Snowman Bun" or "after December 15th." If so, why wouldn't they explain it to me? Why just awkward smiles while fumblingly fulfilling my request?

Perhaps the girl simply didn't know about the shop's stollen campaign. Perhaps she showed up from classes 2 minutes before her shift began and manager had no time to explain about the bags. Perhaps no one was buying mini stollen and asking for them wrapped, and it was their first time. The thing is, service is usually so good in Japan, so smooth and polished, that instances like these always make me doubt my Japanese skills and wonder if I'm in the midst of committing another unintentional Gaijin Smash.

In this case, like most others, I'll never know if the problem was mine or theirs. But at least I got my stollen, wrapped.

And that's how the awkwardness goes most days, of trying to feel like a functioning adult in this society, and being reminded otherwise more often than I'd like.

Monday, November 21, 2016

No Photos, Please: The Shots in Japan That Got Me a Scolding

I like taking pictures. It's kind of addicting: I see a situation that would make a nice photo, do my best to capture it...but maybe the angle or lighting wasn't right, the moment passed, the elusive great shot slipped from my grasp again. Next time, next time, I'll get it! Playing around on Instagram, I see so many great photographers and try to learn little tricks from them. I've never taken a photography class nor do I own a camera that cost more than three figures (in dollars). I've also outgrown the "snap a photo of everything because it's all so new and funny" stage I was in when I first came here, but I still enjoy taking photos of things and places that catch my eye.

It's not all flowers and sausages though, because as touristy as Kyoto and other parts of Japan are, there are still many places where photography isn't allowed or where people don't appreciate being photographed.

Here are my naughty shots that got me verbal warnings:

The sacrilegious photo. *don't try this at home
1. The altar area of temples 
This is a photo I took at one of my favorite temples, Sanzen-in in northern Kyoto. Before I took the photo, I looked around for No Photos signs and finding none, aimed my camera. Suddenly a monk appeared out of nowhere and barked "Photography is not allowed!" Sorry. I sometimes forget these are actual places of worship, and in Japan the altar area and areas where old statues/artifacts are stored are off-limits to cameras, in principle.
My friend and I sheepishly continued our tour of the temple, but I noticed that the monk was watching us from afar, to make sure we didn't start climbing the trees in the garden or something else horrible, I guess.

Sorry, sir. 
2. Food stalls in marketplaces
This is was taken at the famous seafood marketplace in Tokyo, Tsukiji. There have been complaints that tourists block operations and wander in places where it's not safe for them to be, but I wasn't in those places. The shopkeeper (guy in the green) scolded me in English "It's rude to take photos! Ask first!!" Perhaps they don't want images of their prices going online? I'm not sure. In Kyoto's famous Nishiki marketplace, it seems like shopkeepers have given up, and either allow photos or post conspicuous signs prohibiting them, but in Tsukiji I was made to feel the market had its own laws I must abide by, though they were posted nowhere.
Some shops in Japan have amazingly eye-catching, colorful displays and then there's the whole fake food thing going on, but as a general rule it's not kosher to take photos of shops or inside stores.

During the nightly light-up cherry blossom season, this angle was roped off to guests from April 2015 (I took this photo in 2014).

During the month of November when the leaves are red this shot is technically prohibited.
3. Places were photography is seasonly prohibited
Tourism to Japan is booming, and almost everyone visits Kyoto. During special times like the autumn maple leaf and spring cherry blossom seasons, Japanese tourists flock to Kyoto as well to visit places famous for great seasonal views. Since many temples are not equipped to handle thousands of tourists every day, some areas are prohibiting photography in an attempt to keep crowds moving. A certain angle of Toji Temple where the pagoda is reflected in the garden pond was prohibited during cherry blossom season. Just a week ago when I visited Tofukuji, famous for its valley of maple leaves that flame red in the fall, many visitors were shocked to learn photography of this view was prohibited starting this year. However, perhaps because I went in the morning when there were comparatively fewer people, the security guards on the bridge said nothing while a lot of people aimed their cameras over the bridge for shots of the valley. I took this forbidden shot myself. But, once people started to slow down and pile up, the guards started yelling, "Please refrain from taking photos!" again, so I think the key was simply to keep moving as much as possible and not cause safety concerns.

Kimonos look pretty from all angles and distances, happily.
4. Bonus: ladies in kimono
I've never been told to my face that my camera wasn't appreciated, but a casual perusal of Japanese Instagram reveals that ladies who wear kimono around Kyoto sometimes get harassed for photos by tourists. Some complain about not being able to enjoy their trip because they were either getting their photos taken sneakily, or stopped and asked every few minutes to pose. Some complain about foreign tourists doing this, others complain about Japanese men with their giant cameras snapping away as if the woman and her friends were some rare species.
Back in the day, I asked for photos, and everyone seemed happy to oblige. Now I'm more likely to take photos from the back sneakily. It's good to keep in mind many women in kimono you'll see around Kyoto are tourists themselves (Japanese or not) wanting to have a good time in Kyoto, and some enjoy the celebrity feeling, but others don't.
In general, Japanese people worry about online privacy and I think more than Americans take care to hide their faces and avoid using real names online when it comes to SNS and photo sharing. So it might be a good idea when taking candid photos to avoid clear facial shots, and ask permission if you want to take a close-up.

I admit, I had to snicker a bit reading the complaints of these ladies, because at least they can take their kimono off. I on the other hand, being a blonde foreigner, stick out wherever I go. I have had my photo taken without my permission more times than I can count on two hands. I dread visiting places like Fushimi Inari or Kiyomizu these days because I'll get assaulted by groups of junior high school kids on field trips whose homework is to go to Kyoto and take surveys of foreigners "what do you like about Japan?" It's cute the first couple times, but what happens is if you say yes to an interview with one group of painfully shy teenagers, others will notice and say "look there's a friendly one!" and before you know it you have to answer 30 questions from 30 different mumbling students and pose with each group while their teacher snaps a photo, and there goes your quiet afternoon at the shrine.

**A side note, when it comes to maiko and geiko (geisha) in Kyoto, a rule of thumb seems to be if you catch them standing still (such as at a crosswalk or an event), show your camera and ask permission to take a photo. You might not understand their uber-polite replies in geiko-dialect, but if they face your camera, that means "yes" you may take a photo. If they are dashing to work through the streets or from a taxi into a teahouse, just give them their space and don't impede them; it's ok to snap away without calling out and asking for a photo then and there (you'll be refused anyway since they're obviously busy). A funny thing, in the Gion area of Kyoto there are shops were people can do "maiko makeover" and get dressed up as geisha. Some foreigners and visiting students from out of town don't know the difference and upload "I met a geisha!!1!" photos of these cosplayers on Instagram. Real maiko/geiko are pretty elusive unless you have connections or pay a lot of money. They avoid the main streets, they don't use cellphones or selfie sticks, nor do they usually oblige passersby and stop to pose for photos. In my 6 years in Kyoto, I've only spotted the real deal 3 times, and was able to get photos only once. Here's a post on how to tell real maiko from the fakes.

There's a reason a lot of non-professional photos of maiko are from behind

In the end, it's good to be aware of these situations, and at least always check for "no photos" signs (撮影禁止 さつえいきんし in Japanese), or ask permission, before snapping away.
In addition, there are many places where photos are allowed but tripods, selfie-sticks, and drones are not, so I recommend checking and looking for specific signage beforehand if you want to avoid the embarrassment of being verbally told off in public for taking photos. Derp.