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Part XXXIII The Long Weekend

August 21, 1999

Hey all.  Sorry for the lapse -- I went back to the States for Rachel's wedding, which was wonderful.  While I was only able to spend four days in the States, it was a great refresher.  I came back to Japan with two very conflicting feelings.  One, I am totally re-energized for Japan and teaching and having new experiences, and two, I really want to go back home and see all of my family and friends a whole lot more often.  My family keeps on getting bigger (weddings, etc.), and I am too far away to enjoy it.

All that being said, now that I was in Japan again I felt that I should start acting like it, so I went and had some memorable experiences.  Last weekend I hung out with Jeff and Jeff, and we had a blast.  On Friday night I went over to where they lived by train.  Unfortunately, there were some typhoon-induced rainstorms (although not an actual typhoon) which slowed the trains down to a crawl.  A trip that usually takes under two hours lasted nearly four.  But it made it that much nicer when I finally arrived, right?  Yeah, whatever.

By the time I arrived in Nakanojo (Jeff's town), it was nearly nine o'clock, so we decided to head straight for the karaoke bar.  I recently realized that while I have mentioned these establishments in passing before, I haven't given them proper attention in proportion to their importance in Japan.  Everyone does karaoke here, and while I was skeptical at first, I really like it now.  Don't knock it until you've tried the real thing.  Nobody really expects anyone to have a good voice, so when you actually sing something decently everyone is pleasantly surprised. Plus, many times Japanese people love to here Americans sing because the accents are correct, regardless of voice quality (and every once in a while they even crack the timeless joke "oh, your English is excellent").

There are two kinds of karaoke (pronounced kah-rah-oh-keh) bars.  One, the bad kind, is where each group gets its own little room, or "karaoke box" as I call it, and the only audience is those you came with.  There is no room to dance or even move very easily, and the settings are usually somewhat sterile.  The second kind is an actual bar, with everyone in the same room, and the microphone and TV screens (with the words on them) at one end.  These are a lot more fun, in my opinion, because everyone can sing in front of an audience. On this particular night, Jeff, Jeff, and I went to the second type of karaoke bar.  It was a lot of fun, and after a while we even took some requests from the other patrons.  This amounted to a whole lot of Beatles, as well as show-stopping performances of "Tears in Heaven" by the Jeffs and "Change the World" by yours truly.  Eric Clapton would have cringed, but we were having a good time.  Unfortunately, the evening was slightly marred when an inebriated Japanese man accidently (we hope) burned me on the chin with his cigarette while trying to get my attention by tapping me on the shoulder.  He missed the shoulder.  Luckily, there were no lasting marks.  It was kind of a downer on which to end the evening, but it didn't keep us down for very long.

After crashing at Nakanojo Jeff's house, we slept late and, after a quick bit at KFC (or "Kentucky" as it's called here) we started the day with a trip to an onsen.  An onsen can be translated as a "hot spring," but it is so much more than that.  In Japan, onsens are an important part of the culture, as it is still very much a bath rather than a shower society.  One vital piece of information that you should know before trying an onsen is that nudity is de rigueur.  I have heard of people wearing bathing suits, but it is rare.  Another important tip is that you MUST wash yourself before bathing in an onsen.  This makes a lot of sense, when you think about it -- would you get into water after dirty people have bathed in it?  So, after donning your birthday suit and soaping and rinsing at convenient little stations, you can get in the water.  Some of the more fancy onsens have saunas as well.  And it is absolutely wonderful, once you either realize that people don't stare THAT much, or you realize that people DO stare that much, and you get used to it.  Foreigners are always objects of curiosity at onsens, so be prepared.  Onsens are the only places in Japan where I feel MORE exposed than I felt while sumo wrestling.  The water is great, and the minerals and stuff are supposed to be healthy and make you live forever or something.  I'll let you know how that turns out.

This particular onsen was in Takayama, which is the other Jeff's town, hence "Takayama Jeff" versus "Nakanojo Jeff" (highlights at 10).  Takayama is a small village, and we were lucky because that day was their annual Obon festival.  Obon is an annual festival celebrated throughout Japan around the first or second week of August, and is basically a time for Japanese people to say "what's up" to their ancestors.  One only hopes that they are slightly less flippant than I am being.

Actually, there is a certain logic in praying to and honoring one's ancestors rather than an all-powerful God.  I was talking with Troy, a long time Kiryu resident from Michigan who has taken up the custom of maintaining a shrine to his and his wife's ancestors in his home, and he brought up what I thought was a very salient point.  Wouldn't one's ancestors be more likely to care about your well-being than a single supreme being?  Don't you think that that one being would be overwhelmed by all the requests for help?  Given that I have mixed feelings about God, it is a little easier for me to accept that if "help from the great beyond" is to be had, it is more likely to come from a source that has a direct connection with the here and now.  Like, in this case, one's ancestors.

But back to the festival.  Along with chatting with the ancestors, nearly every city, town, and village has its own matsuri, or festival.  These often include parades and dancing in the streets, although that night in Takayama is was raining pretty heavily, and the town is very small, so the entire festival was held inside the junior high school gymnasium.  Each town has its own special "happi," or colorful cotton jacket worn over one's clothes.  Often, in bigger cities, different organizations within like banks, sports clubs, etc., each have their own happi.  Each festival also has its own traditional dance.  In my experience, the similarity between different towns' dances is directly proportional to their proximity.  Takayama and Nakanojo are very close to each other, and their dances are quite similar, while Kiryu is more than 60 miles away, and has a very different dance (albeit made up of some of the same elements).  Takayama Jeff joined the dancing, since it was his hometown festival, while Nakanojo Jeff and myself decided to watch.  After the traditional dancing there was a stage show that we believe was thrown together at the last minute due to the rain.  Takayama Jeff told us that last year the weather was nice, and there was a lot more dancing and partying out in the streets than there had been this year inside the gymnasium.  Actually, one of the funnier parts of the festival was that about ten little boys had gotten their hands on Star Wars(tm) light sabers, the kind that fold out and light up, and were dueling each other all night.  Talk about a culture clash.

Which brings us to Sunday night, and the typical end of such festivals, at least in towns that can afford it:  massive fireworks displays. Nakanojo Jeff and I went to Maebashi, the prefectural capital, and witnessed the single greatest fireworks show that I have ever seen.  It started out innocently enough, at 7:00pm exactly, and quickly built up to a magnificently lit sky, with sparkling star bursts and colorful streamers of light.  Everyone cheered.  At that point it was about 7:10. Then, they did it again, this time ending on an even more impressive note.  Then, they did it again.  And again.  Eight o'clock came and went, and they were still going strong.  There were two launching sites next to each other, and they seemed to be in some sort of pyromaniacal competition to see who could actually get the sky to catch fire.  Unbelievable sequences followed each other like lemmings jumping off a cliff, but with the regularity one usually gets only with Metamucil (tm).

Finally, near nine o'clock, a FULL TWO HOURS later, they had the grand finally.   We were watching from the bank of river, and suddenly a 300-yard long stretch of parking lot across the river suddenly burst into life.  Countless parallel bolts of white lightning shot up into the air and exploded nearly simultaneously, lighting up the sky like a mid-afternoon sun.  Then, as if that wasn't enough, the entire underside of a nearby bridge exploded in a dense shower of sparks that lasted nearly five minutes.  It looked like the bridge itself was about to lift off (at that point I would have believed anything).  I heard that, in that two hour period, more than 15,000 fireworks were set off.  Damn.

Then, after fighting through the crowd, I managed to catch a train home.  After all, I had to go to work in 10 hours.  Let's just say that, after that weekend, I wasn't super alert on Monday.  However, now I have a greater appreciation for why I came here in the first place -- to have experiences and make memories that will stay with me forever.  I feel very lucky to have this chance, and now more than ever I am determined not to waste it.

And now, a toast: to sappy, corny closing paragraphs -- may they never go out of style!