June 30, 2012

A Geisha in Kyoto

One of the classes I'm taking at Kansai University is geisha culture, where we look at the history of geisha, how they are represented in film and media, and how they live their lives in the 'flower and willow world'. Last weekend we went on a field trip to Kyoto, where we did a walking tour through the hanamachi (geisha districts), and had lunch, which was attended by a real geiko.

When it comes to Kyoto, I think a lot of foreigners often have this romanticised image in their heads of temples and tea ceremonies, untouched traditional culture. If you happen to arrive through the huge modernist monster that is Kyoto Station, this image is promptly shattered (at least it was for me). That's why it's sort of a relief to go to Gion, or Miyagawa-cho, and find that the way you imagined Kyoto to be actually does exist, even if you have to look closely to find it. The narrow, maze-like streets, cobbled alleyways, and boarded up houses don't reveal too much about the mysterious geisha world, but every now and then you'll catch rare glimpses of it - whether it be hearing the sounds of a shamisen drifting through an open window, or seeing a maiko or geiko shuffling from one tea house to the next.

The geiko our class got to meet was named Miehina, and she was lovely. At lunch, she came around all of our tables so we could talk to her and ask her questions, which she would answer in strong Kyoto-dialect. Our table was last, and we were all kind of nervous and giggly and couldn't think up many questions. But she didn't seem to mind. In many ways she was just like a normal girl. One of the students at my table had a tiny toy camera, and Miehina was very interested in it, and started playing around with it, taking funny pictures and doing the 'peace' pose. Speaking with her, she was much less formal than I'd imagined a geisha to be - she smiled and laughed a lot. Then she performed a dance for us, and it was like a different person - so very poised and controlled. You could tell how seriously she takes her art.

When I went home and googled Miehina, I found countless photographs, posts, and even a documentary about her. It seems that within the geisha world, she's like a celebrity. I guess if I had the chance to talk to her again, I'd ask what it feels like to be photographed all the time, to constantly have people's eyes on you? Being a geisha is a beautiful job, but also, I imagine, a tough one.

June 22, 2012

Osaka Rainy Blues

Welcome to the midst of the rainy season, and one of the wettest weeks I've experienced yet in Osaka. I have spent the past few days daydreaming about a pair of overpriced, polka dot gumboots that are sitting tantalizingly in the window of a nearby shop. But then if I succumb to the gumboots, I will need a new umbrella to match (my current one is about the same colour bright pink as a 1980s aerobics leotard). Rainy season = fashion crisis.

Osaka experienced the tail end of a typhoon on Tuesday, which didn't end up being as exciting as it sounds. I went to class at 9 in the morning, as usual, and by lunchtime we were told that university was cancelled for the afternoon due to the weather warnings. A lot of the shops around Kandai-mae boarded up their doors and closed for the day, too, but all it amounted to was a little bit of thunder, a little bit of wind, and quite a lot of rain. This was good for the pathetic little river that runs past our apartment - we call it 'Vom Canal', because every Friday night there are always inebriated Japanese students vomiting into it. It's nice to see it flowing with actual water, and not regurgitated ramen, for once.

There is one reason to love the rain though, and that is okonomiyaki. One of my favourite restaurants in Kandai-mae is an okonomiyaki shop called 'Kyabetsu' ('cabbage'), and every time you go they give you a coupon that offers 50 yen off next time, and 100 yen off if it's a rainy day. I get excited over bargains. Especially weather themed ones.
Kyabetsu coupons to save for a rainy day.
Kyabetsu in Kandai-mae.
I know what you're thinking. "She's managed to turn this post into something about food... again." But when it's grey, damp and miserable outside, there's nothing better than seeking refuge in this cozy little shop, planting yourself in front of the heated tabletop, and being served up a hearty feast of savoury pancake goodness... that you know is gonna be 100 yen cheaper than usual. That's how you survive the Osaka rainy blues.

June 16, 2012

Robot Experiment

Yesterday a group of us exchange students were lucky enough to get the chance to participate in a robot experiment at Kansai University. It was my first time ever seeing a robot, and it was awesome getting an insight into the workings of the science and technology that Japan is so famous for.
First we had to fill out some paperwork, and then we were taken through the process of what the robot would do, and how we should react. We were taken into a room filled with people and cameras, which was quite intimidating. The first experiment involved the little green robot in the picture above (I thought it was really cute!). Images would come up on a screen, and the robot would tell us information about the image, and ask us questions about them. If we thought the robot was asking us the question, we would answer. The robot would then tell us if we were right or wrong. Afterwards we filled out a questionnaire about what we thought about the robot - like whether its gestures were natural and whether we thought it could potentially replace humans as a tour guide in a museum.
Next we were taken to a room that contained this charming 'maid' robot... so creepy. Before the experiment we were told that the robot would be carrying a tray of cookies, and in order to get a cookie, you had to put your hand up, and it would come to you. I didn't like the way she was dressed or the way she glided towards you me big staring eyes... but I liked the fact that she brought me cookies. Again, we filled in a survey about this robot, and used an iPad to do an exercise where we chose what eye shape looks the most friendly, I guess so they can try to make the robot look less creepy. We were talking to one of the researchers in charge of the experiment and she said the more human a robot looks, the scarier it is - which I think is quite true!

Japan technology is so crazy cool. Domo arigato Mr Roboto.

June 15, 2012

Bra Shopping in Japan

Ok, this post is something I'd just like to get off my... erm... chest.

I'd never really thought about bra shopping in Japan before, but recently two of my favourite bras lost a battle with the washing dryer, and now I have to buy new ones. So, yesterday I trotted down to Shinsaibashi to check out the lingerie stores.

From what popular culture shows us, Japanese society has an obsession with boobs. Big ones. The idealised anime/manga-fied Japanese woman looks something like this:
(Image source)
I was watching an episode of Sailor Moon the other night, and was surprised to see that even my favourite heroine was not above sporting some rather impressive cleavage:

The result of all this hyper-sexualisation is reflected in the lingerie stores. I couldn't find a single bra that didn't have excessive padding, push-upness, squeeze-together-ness, gel-inserts, intimidating wiring, or claim to have some sort of revolutionary gravity-defying technology. Seriously, there was probably more support contained within those stores than there is for the Japanese government.

And then there were the adornments. We know that Japanese women like to decorate things - cell phones, notebooks, pets - and naturally this extends to innerwear. It's like a secret party is going on beneath your shirt. Blinged, bejewelled, studded and sparkly bras were a regular feature, as was lace, frills, mesh, ribbon, bows, and little dangly charms. I saw one bra that was like a turban for your boobs, it had so much extra fabric. You are hard pressed to find a simple white, nude or black bra. Instead, typical colours include lime green, yellow, magenta, and metallic gold. Or you can forget about colour schemes and just go for character themes. Hello Kitty, Snoopy and Superman are apparently the most popular characters to be brandished across your chest.

What I find amusing is the series of contradictions in the Japanese bra shopping experience. Like, you might have a bra designed to anchor your breasts up to your chin, but it will have a Sesame Street character printed on it. You might walk into a bra shop that is a pastel pink, frilly, girly fairyland, but Kanye West will be blaring on the speakers. Signs within the shops can't seem to decide if they want to promote conservatism or promiscuity. So they mix both. 'Sexy Innocent Girl', 'Pure Bedtime Lady', and 'Milk Mama Casual Butterfly' were my favourite combinations.

Unfortunately, not a single bra was bought that day. I'll let you know when I cave and decide to buy the twin Hello Kitty heads...

June 11, 2012

Favourite Japan Foods: Tsukemen (Dipping Noodles)

As the weather becomes hotter, stickier and wetter in Japan during this season, there are some Japanese foods you lose your appetite for. In the stuffy heat, you don't really feel like eating hearty hot pots or spicy curry rice. Instead, you want something light, fresh and cool. The answer to your prayers is - believe it or not - is cold noodles. Oodles of cold noodles. More specifically, tsukemen つけ麺, or dipping noodles.
Noodles on one side, soup on the other.
Unlike ramen ラーメン, with tsukemen the noodles are served separate to the soup. The noodles are usually cold, and the soup is usually hot (although you can get hiyashi tsukemen 冷やしつけ麺, where the soup is cold too). At first, the thought of eating cold, limp noodles sounds kind of gross. But actually, it's the most delicious thing ever. They are springy and chewy and the coldness gives the flavour an extra zing! Eating them is super fun, you pick up some noodles in your chopsticks, dip them into the soup, the slurp them up. Finally, you have an excuse to play with your food! You do have to be careful not to burn your mouth, because even though the noodles are cool, they get surprisingly hot when dipped into the soup.
This cute little sign at a tsukemen shop warns you to blow on the noodles and eat them slowly!
There are all sorts of tsukemen soup types and flavours, I usually stick with a shoyu (soy sauce) broth, but you can get tangy vinegary ones, fishy ones, and sometimes even chicken, which is delicious - ultimate comfort food. If you're in Hiroshima, be sure to try Hiroshima style tsukemen, which is famous in Japan for its spiciness. The broth is full of red pepper and chili, and trust me, it will knock your socks off. You can order using a spice scale from 1-20!
Bright red, spicy Hiroshima tsukemen soup...
You can practically see the steam coming out of my ears.
We usually go to a ramen shop in Kandaimae (where we live) for tsukemen. This particular shop is run by two of the most badass looking Japanese men I've ever seen - I'm talking tattoos, piercings, muscles, facial hair. The first time we went I was terrified, thinking we had walked into some sort of ex-convict or yakuza joint. But it ended up being some of the best tsukemen I've ever had. Those guys are like noodle artists.

If you're a noodle fan, you should check out one of my favourite Japanese movies, Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1985), a comedy about ramen (not so much tsukemen, sorry). It's hilarious, and will almost definitely make you hungry for noodles. Here's a YouTube clip from Tampopo, in which the 'ramen master' demonstrates the 'correct way' to eat noodles. I'm gonna try this next time...

June 08, 2012

Kina Grannis Release Party in Osaka

Last night I was lucky enough to attend Kina Grannis's 'Stairwells: Japan Edition' release party in Osaka, at Music Club Janus in Shinsaibashi. Kina, a half-Japanese American singer-songwriter, is one of my favourite artists. If you haven't heard of her, go on YouTube right now and look her up. Kina is YouTube superstar, and holds the title of the 2011 MTV O Music Awards Best Web-Born Artist. Her most famous video, the music video for 'In Your Arms', was made using 288,000 jelly beans. A girl after my own heart.

Kina is currently in Japan promoting the Japan edition of her album 'Stairwells', and will return to Tokyo and Osaka in August to perform four shows. Her show dates begin on August 4th, which is ONE DAY after I leave Japan to return to New Zealand. Major sad face. But then, she posted on her Twitter account the chance to win an invite to her release party in Osaka! I entered, and received an email from Kina saying me and a guest could come! やった!
Kina's poster outside the Music Club Janus!
It was a small, private concert, with maybe around 60 or 70 people there. A radio announcer from FM802, DJ Shirley (a Japanese-American woman, I think?) was the MC, and gave an introduction to Kina in Japanese. The 'In Your Arms' video was then played on a screen set up in front of the stage. Finally Kina came onstage - barefoot, it should be noted, she prefers to perform without shoes - and with a shy smile, launched into 'World In Front of Me'. I think that Kina has one of those rare voices where it sounds even better live than it does on the album. Such a beautiful, powerful voice. Just her and her guitar, rocking out. She played 7 acoustic songs, including a special song from the Japan edition of her album, an English translation of 歩いて帰ろう. After her set, she was joined onstage by DJ Shirley and a translator, and was interviewed in front of us for FM802. She was asked questions about her music, LA, her fashion style... and of course, the obligatory 'What do you think of Japan?' and 'What Japanese food do you like?' (She loves sushi, by the way.)

After the interview those of us who had bought CDs were able to meet Kina and get her signature. What was really cool was that she had read all of our emails personally, and when an English and American girl and guy in front of us went up to her, she got excited and said 'oh, are you the Kiwis?', and they were like, 'no, they're behind us.' It turns out when Kina was at university, she did an exchange to New Zealand - more specifically, University of Otago, which is our university! She even studied Japanese there, and was taught by our wonderful, crazy, funny sensei. So when it was our turn to get the CD signed we chatted about that for a little bit, and she said it was 'great to hear the Kiwi accent again'. Yay!
Us with Kina... Kiwi thumbs up!
At the end of the signings the guests invited from Twitter were able to meet Kina again, and even though she was clearly pressed for time (her organisers said she had another interview to get to), she was lovely enough to take photos with us. It was a magical night, and if you're around Tokyo or Osaka in August, you definitely should go and see Kina perform. She's great.

June 03, 2012

Osaka Street Dance Summer Festival

Today we went to Osaka Castle park, with the intention of enjoying a nice, leisurely walk around the grounds followed by a glimpse of the majestic castle. Instead, we somehow ended up at the Street Dance Summer Festival, watching adolescent Japanese girls in various shades of fluoro dancing maniacally to hip hop music. Japan is full of surprises.
It was held in the Osaka Castle park outdoor band shell, and we literally just stumbled into it all, after hearing loud blaring music and smelling delicious festival food smells. It was a bit like a scene out of Toddlers and Tiaras... lots of little girls in bright pink costumes and crazy makeup trailing mothers with high heels and designer handbags. Then there were older girls in animal print with fake tattoos. And also a few muscly guys with sunglasses and real tattoos. Naturally, being patrons of the arts, we paid the 500 yen entry fee, and headed into the hip hop wonderland.
It was a stinking hot day, so we were given these funky Street Dance Summer Festival fans with our tickets. This is us sitting in the bleachers and looking gangsta (note how no one wanted to sit near us). We were the only foreigners there, apart from a middle-aged couple who wandered in with cameras around their necks looking very confused. They did not stay long.
The Festival went from 1pm to 7pm, although we only stayed for a couple of hours. Each dance group would perform a routine onstage, and every hour there was a break where the MC would talk to the crowd, or there would be a dance demonstration, where the audience could join in and learn a hip hop dance routine, like in the picture above. Or you could be like me, and use the break to go and get some takoyaki from the stalls outside.
The dance groups ranged in age and ability, from tiny wee beginners to older, more advanced dancers. The costumes, hair and makeup were pretty wild, and we guessed they were straight out of Amerika-mura, the centre for Osaka's hip hop culture. We were correct - the program for the Festival was full of advertisements for shops in Amerika-mura.
It was a brilliant afternoon, the dancers were so great and into it, and it was highly entertaining. Also entertaining was the fact that most of the dance teachers had neglected to recognise and bleep out the swear words out of the English hip hop songs... the result being that little 10 year olds were dancing in blissful ignorance to lyrics such as 'die mother f***er die mother f***er die'' and 'don't hide that pussy, divide that pussy'. I guess some things are best kept lost in translation.