Another Auld Lang Syne

December 31, 2012

It is almost time once again to break out the Trader Joe’s bubbly and belt out an off-key chorus or two of what must be the world’s most widely-sung ode to friends past and present, Auld Lang Syne. Usually, in the West at least, the song is trotted out for a very brief period between say, 11:57 and midnight of each December 31st, after which the quaint mimeographed sheet music is once again placed into the piano bench, not to be removed for another 365 days. Would that this were the case in Japan.

For here in the Land of the Rising Sun, you see, Auld Lang Syne has another life entirely, as Hotaru no Hikari (The Light of a Firefly), which tells the story of a poor but devoted student, who must pursue his nightly studies with only the glow of a firefly to illuminate his textbooks (are we gagging yet?). It is routinely played at school graduation ceremonies, and it signals the end of each school day. If you live near a school, as I do, you get to hear Auld Lang Syne every afternoon, played over a loudspeaker of a similar quality to that of the drive-up window of your neighborhood Dairy Queen. Worse still, it lodges in your brain like the Macarena, or the theme music from It’s a Small World, and only copious quantities of alcohol can drive it out.

But wait, that isn’t all! Every restaurant or bar issuing a last call for drinks, every department store seeking to usher out the final stragglers of the buying public, every office building sending its employees home for the day—you got it, another couple of choruses of Hotaru no Hikari, aka Auld Lang Syne.

I thought one of the side benefits of going to Thailand early this year would be that I would have a blessed couple of months without hearing ALS, but no-o-o. In Olde Siam, the tune is played at the end of every sports event, as well as its traditional New Year’s application. Naturally, there are Thai words to it as well, for which I was thankful, because Thai is such a difficult language that it would be impossible for the words to imprint on my defenseless mind, and even if they did, they look like this: สามัคคีชุมนุม. In other parts of Asia, notably Korea and the Maldives, the tune served as the national anthem, although both have since replaced it, presumably because as soon as the first strains were heard, everyone got up to leave.

For my part, the Auld Lang Syne that will always resonate with me is that of Garrison Keillor, who altered the words just a smidge to reflect the modern sensibility in a most poignant and heartfelt manner:

I think of all the great high hearts

I had when I was young…

And now who are these sad old farts

I find myself among?

And with that, folks, Happy New Year!


Two Tragedies, Half a World Apart

December 15, 2012

The headline news in Japan this morning is likely not much different from the headline news everywhere else: the horrific school shooting in Connecticut seems to have caught the attention of everyone on the face of the planet. From what I have been able to glean from the internet and from English-language TV here, 26 people were killed, 27 if you include the shooter.

Halfway around the world, at more or less the same time, and with somewhat less international fanfare thus far, a similar yet in some respects wildly different scenario played out in Chenpeng Village, in central China’s Henan Province. A man described as “mentally disturbed” went on a rampage with a knife, slashing 22 children at the village school, as well as one elderly woman off site. Apparently he stole a kitchen knife from the 85-year-old woman, assaulting her before heading to the elementary school next door, where he launched his attack on the school children. He was disarmed by school security guards and restrained until the arrival of the police. Thus far, nobody has died, although several of the kids are reported to be in critical condition.

So, the similarities: one mentally disturbed individual with a weapon (or weapons) in each situation; attack takes place in an elementary school; similar time (when adjusted for local time zone); same date; similar number of people attacked…

And the difference: in China, so far, no fatalities; in Connecticut, so far, 27 fatalities…

And the indisputable reason for the difference in number of fatalities: the use of a gun or guns, as opposed to (in this case) a knife, the circumstances facilitated by the comparative ease with which one can obtain semi-automatic weaponry in the US nowadays…

I agree with President Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, that today is not the day for political posturing regarding gun laws. This is a day for mourning, for prayers if you believe in them, for compassion for the victims and their families, and for flying the flag at half-staff. That said, I cannot help but compare the two tragedies and wonder how differently things would have played out if presumed killer Adam Lanza had had only a kitchen knife at his disposal.

The Kyu Sakamoto Housecleaning Soundtrack

December 15, 2012

A word of caution: to folks under about 60 years of age, this post will likely mean little or nothing, full of references to people you’ve never heard of, citing examples of technology long consigned to the annals of history, and dredging up songs that were already “oldies” long before you were born. Read on at the risk of terminal boredom.

The soundtrack for my Saturday morning housecleaning comes from the late Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto, whose number one hit from 1963, “Sukiyaki”, remains the only Japanese-language record ever to crack the US Top Forty charts. The hauntingly beautiful song, originally titled “Ue o Muite Aruko” was a hit in Japan a couple of years earlier, where the single record was released on red vinyl, a departure from the black stock typically used for phonograph records back in the day. It topped the charts there for a whopping three months, and even today, it is a staple in karaoke houses throughout Japan.

Here is an early black and white video of Kyu Sakamoto performing “Sukiyaki”:

Somewhere along the way, I acquired a copy of Kyu Sakamoto’s double-CD greatest hits album, and popped the first volume into the CD drive of my computer this morning. I cannot play it loudly here in Japan, as I would likely do in Canada, because I don’t want to gain the reputation of being the rude foreign guest, so my small Bose monitors are cranked less than halfway up, just enough to rise above the noise generated by my clunking around the kitchen, washing dishes and the like.

Naturally, “Sukiyaki”, his biggest hit ever, leads off the album. The song has nothing to do with the Japanese hot-pot dish of the same name, by the way; the word doesn’t even show up in the lyrics. The song is actually about a man mourning his lost love, walking along whistling, his head held high so that his tears don’t fall. The name “Sukiyaki” was added before its release in the West, on the theory (probably correct) that its original name wouldn’t be easily remembered (or pronounced) by Western listeners. According to Wikipedia, a Newsweek journalist at the time noted that the re-titling of the song was akin to issuing “Moon River” in Japan under the title “Beef Stew”.

The surprises of the CD come when Sakamoto does cover versions of such 60s American classics as Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl”, Del Shannon’s “Hats Off to Larry”, and Jimmy Jones’ “Timing”, with verses in Japanese and choruses in English, sorta:

Calendar Girl:

Hats Off to Larry:
Timing:   (this one features the original Jimmy Jones recording in an unearthly mashup with Kyu Sakamoto’s cover)

Kyu Sakamoto was killed in the deadliest single-aircraft accident in history, the crash of JAL Flight 123 in 1985, on a short hop from Tokyo to Osaka. More than 500 lives were lost when the airliner crashed into the side of Mt. Takamagahara; there were only four survivors.

In 1993, a pair of Japanese astronomers discovered a new asteroid, and named it “6980 Kyusakamoto”, marking what must be the first time that a dead star has been memorialized as a chunk of dead star. The Japanese numbers six, nine and eight (roku, kyu and hachi) that form part of the name “6980 Kyusakamoto” refer to the trio of which Sakamoto was a member: ROKUsuke Ei (songwriter), KYU Sakamoto (singer), and HACHIdai Nakamura (pianist).

A final note: if you are under 60-ish, and you have suffered through the text thus far, I would like to offer you a more up-to-date version of “Sukiyaki”, a YouTube video of Kina Grannis, doing a perfectly lovely acoustic rendition at Bumbershoot Music Festival in Seattle, over Labor Day weekend, 2012:

The Bicycle Chronicles, December 2012

December 11, 2012

When I first got to Japan in 2006, I had every intention of buying a car. I had visions of finding off-the-beaten-path villages at the seaside or deep in the mountains, places not easily accessible by public transportation—the real Japan. I came to find out, however, that the complications of owning and driving a car in Japan, particularly as a non-resident, were more than a little daunting: driving on the left side of the road; $7 per gallon for gasoline; difficulties in securing insurance coverage; insane prices for both long- and short-term parking. Hmm, time for a rethink…

“Why not a bicycle?” Saki suggested. “Yeah, right,” I replied, summoning my inner disdainful teenager. I hadn’t ridden a bicycle since before John Lennon met Yoko Ono (seriously!), and I had no plans to subject myself to the rigors of two-wheeled self-powered transport again. I’d sooner walk. Or so I thought. In point of fact, I became thoroughly disabused of that notion after the first half-dozen times I trekked the mile-and-change to the local train station, a distance Saki was able to cover in about six or seven minutes on her bike. So, little by little, I allowed myself to be cajoled into bicycle shopping.

Our local bike store, Seo Cycle, two minutes’ walk from my first apartment, had two-wheelers of every imaginable variety on offer, from pricey multi-speed touring racers to knobby-tired off-road conquistadors. By far the best seller, however, was (and is) the mama-chari, a single-speed cheapie outfitted with basket, headlight, ting-a-ling bell, and a rear parcel shelf. It is configured similarly to what we would call a “girl’s bike” in North America (i.e., the frame bar is a low step-through one, rather than the high groin-threatening bar found on a “boy’s bike”). Mama-charis are inevitably made in China nowadays, and they bear such names as FatCat, Herbifor and PatioBox. There isn’t much to choose from in terms of options, other than color, so I chose a spiffy silver one with white sidewall tires. As I recall, it had a weird moniker as well, but it has long since eroded away, both on the bike frame and in my memory. Interestingly, the metallic paint and the whitewalls were no-cost extras; this was not the case with the last car I bought, so I felt I was getting quite a deal. All in, with taxes and tags included, it cost me 7000 yen, about $65 at the time.

One of the fine things about bicycle ownership in Japan is that the bike shop proudly applies its dealer decal onto the back fender of your new conveyance, guaranteeing that forever after, if you need air in the tires, a brake adjustment, or a squirt of lubricant on a recalcitrant lock, all you have to do is show up unannounced at the shop, and the repairman (or occasionally repairwoman) will sort it out for you for free while you wait. On average, I have used the bike for six months of each year, usually the bad weather months, and it has soldiered on without complaint, thanks to the bi-weekly ministrations of the shop staff. It still rolls on its original tires. I have replaced the front brake pads once; that cost me around $10 for  parts and labor, and to the best of my recollection, that is the sum total of what I have spent on the bike in six years and countless kilometers. The basket is rusted through in one corner, but it still holds stuff, so long as the stuff in question is larger than the hole. The back tire is getting a little edgy, though, and there is a clunk in the pedal mechanism when I stand to pedal uphill, so it is just a matter of time until the cost of repairs will exceed the cost of buying a new bike.

I have since changed apartments, and Seo Cycle is no longer close by, so I suppose I will have to find another shop to buy my replacement bike. The prices have gone up a bit; a new mama-chari  will likely set me back 9000 yen, or about $110, thanks in part to inflation, and in part to the erosion of the US dollar. It will look remarkably like last year’s model, and the one from the year before that, apart from the shinier paint and the deeper grooves in the tires. It will probably be made in China, and it will likely have some new name (no less weird, though), perhaps Pendergrade, Road Ansser, Whale Land or Futurity.

If I have discovered one thing in six years of bicycle ownership, it is this: about half the bikes in Japan are silver in hue, which makes it challenging to find one’s silver bike in a parking lot roughly half full of silver bikes. I’m thinking to get a different color this time around, perhaps metallic slime green or dayglo orange, something visible not just from across the parking lot, but from across the galaxy.



December 4, 2012

It is unconscionable how long I have taken to get a new post onto Mysterious Orientations, but I do have a reason, if not an excuse:  as soon as I got to Japan, I had to change apartments. The old place had been sold by my landlord, and I basically had two weeks to get packed up before my lease ran out. I only found out about this shortly before leaving Canada, and it caused a flurry of both anxiety and activity to add to the typical elevated levels associated with leaving one hemisphere to return to another. Because this was not my doing, the landlord graciously agreed to pay for the move, and even gave me a deal on a new apartment not far from the first one. The new place is much more modern, built in this century rather than the last. It is less likely to collapse into a pile of rubble at the first sign of an earthquake, always a good thing in Japan, where there have been several small rumblings since I got back. It is a two-story affair rather than a single-level place like my last one, which is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the living area is all downstairs, so folks can visit without having to see the huge (and thus far largely unpacked) mess upstairs; on the other hand, when nature calls in the middle of the night, I have to navigate the semi-circular staircase to get to the downstairs (and only) bathroom. This minor annoyance is exacerbated by the fact that the staircase was designed for someone with a max altitude of about 5’7”, so the downstairs ceiling can whack the descending six-footer right about eyebrow level, a rude surprise to say the least when one is intent on timely arrival to the bathroom.

The area is quite suburban, even though I have crossed the line back into Tokyo from Saitama. A lovely tree lined street, Keiyaki-dori, leads from Kiyose train station back to my place, about a fifteen-minute walk or a six-minute bike ride. At or near the station are most of life’s little necessities: restaurants; a large department store; a grocery store, etc. I have yet to find a video rental store, but I live in hope. Between my place and the station is a local museum, which displays art and crafts from local residents, many of whom are quite talented. The exhibits change regularly, encouraging repeated visits; I am happy to oblige.

Behind my apartment (2nd from the right in the pic below) is a tiny yard, small enough that if it had a lawn, it could be trimmed with household scissors. This in turn backs up to a large cabbage field, which is just now being harvested by one elderly fellow with a lethal-looking curved scimitar of some sort.

The fruits (or should I say vegetables?) of his labors may be purchased on the honor system at a small stand, where an unlocked money box allows one to take change if paying with a banknote larger than the amount of the purchase. We don’t see that in North America much nowadays. There is another field in front of the apartment, not quite as big, in which grows some plant I have seen many times in Japan, but have never identified. It is green and leafy, which is the sum total of my knowledge about it.

As soon as I got here, I had a BookPage column due, and the re-bonding of several relationships that had been neglected over the summer while I was away; now things seem to have settled down a bit, which will mean more regular updates to Mysterious Orientations. Gomen nasai!