The fireworks you can watch between buildings without ruining your appetite

Fireworks is a national obsession in Japan during the summer – every weekend throughout late July and August, hundreds of thousands of kimono’d people gather to watch explosions in the Tokyo night sky.

Not all fireworks exhibitions are organised equally, however.  One that is less equal than others is the Sumida River fireworks show.  Tokyo, you see, has a lot of tall buildings.  Ideally, you’d put on a big fireworks display somewhere away from all the buildings, in a nice spacious area where everyone can see.  According to the Sumida River fireworks organisers, being able to actually see the fireworks at a fireworks show is highly overrated.  Welcome to your prime viewing position:

Yes, those are fireworks, way over there in the distance.

The preparation of the event was possibly done during an organising committee kegger.  There were streets cordoned off as for the audience (standing room only), which could only be entered twenty minutes before the actual event.  Unfortunately, these didn’t run parallel to the river, but leading into it, flanked by buildings on both sides – which means that the viewing angle, if there was one, was quite narrow.  If you couldn’t get in, too bad – you’d have to rough it, scouring the streets for a likely viewing spot.  Unfortunately, since you didn’t know exactly where the fireworks would be launching ahead of time, this proved to be a guessing game.

A guessing game me and the thousand people around me lost.  As the first sound of an bursting firework vibrated through the packed street, we suddenly, collectively realised we couldn’t see a thing.  Picking up our beers and groundsheets en masse, we scurried to nearby streets looking for a better vantage point, fireworks refugees looking for a new place to set up camp.

As it turned out, a lot of people seemed to be quite satisfied with only seeing the rightmost quarter of a fireworks exhibition.  They squatted in the streets and perched on car bumpers, beers in one hand and overpriced pizza from a guy doing the rounds in another, peering in between the buildings.  In spite of my complaining that I was only enjoying a quarter of the display, the angle turned out to be interesting after all.  Being a veteran  of some eight or so Tokyo fireworks shows now, it’s getting very hard to take a new photo of a firework.  At least the Sumida River show provided a new spin on an old theme:

In this photo, you can just see some smug people watching the show unimpeded from the top of their building.  I’m not sure if my half hour of glaring at the back of their heads reduced their enjoyment at all, but we can only hope.

Luckily, the next weekend’s show would see the fireworks in a full widescreen, panoramic view.  More pictures to come – but somewhat slowly.  In a country where even taking a full week off is seen as treason, I’ve taken some extended holidays to remember what the sun looks like and straighten my spine out from a chair-shaped position.  Updates will be a bit sporadic, but I promise all-you-can-see fireworks.

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Bowing Japanese style

If you’re like me and did archery when you were in school, you might have thought it basically wasn’t too hard.  Swagger up, notch an arrow in there, away it goes, then off to geography class.

In Japan, they worked out how to make archery much harder a long time ago, and they called it kyuudou. The Chinese characters that make it up can be translated as “way of the bow”.  There’s something wrong with you if you don’t think that’s awesome.

Archery (Japanese transliteration: aacherii) and kyuudou are two completely separate sports in Japan.  Archery uses modern equipment (composite bows and range finders and whatnot), while kyuudou is very traditional. The thought process is similar to a martial art.  You don’t just loose off arrows willy-nilly: each shot follows a careful, strict procedure, not dissimilar to a karate kata.  You bow when you enter the kyuudou range, precisely pace out the steps to your allotted position, and follow the rigid set of steps for stringing your bow.  Every stage is done with precision and thought (or thoughless-ness, depending on how zen you’d like to get).  It’s not surprising to learn, then, that kyuudou can be performed for meditative reasons too.

The way of doing is very important: my teacher several times remarked on one student or another having “beautiful” form, the arrow hitting the target apparently secondary.  Or, so the philosophy goes, a beautiful form will inevitably hit the target.  So, as in many Japanese activities such as tea ceremony, the manner of doing, rather than just the result, is highly prized.

One the major differences to “regular” archery is that kyudou bows (yumi) are much bigger than regular bows – they stand well above head height when strung.  So, it draw it successfully, you need to lift it above your head, pushing out your front arm first:

Then extend your back arm as you drop it into place beside your cheek.  Your back hand is extended past your shoulder.

Then, when you let the arrow (ya) go, it’s apparently important to fully extend your rear arm, though I forgot this on each of my attempts:

Just to make things harder, targets (mato) are only 36 cm in diameter, about half the size of regular archery targets:

Here, the various stages of preparation are neatly presented.  The guys on the right are sizing up their targets and notching their bows:

When it came to my turn to have a go, it was challenging to say the least.  My Japanese has improved a lot in the last two years, but hasn’t extended to words like “the notch in the end of an arrow” (mizo) and the three fingered glove (yugake) you use to draw the bow.  My teacher was an old Japanese lady who apparently decided not to show much mercy to my less-than native comprehension skills.  Still, by pushing and prodding me into place when necessary, I ending up doing something approximately like actual Japanese archery.

After 30 minutes of practice on a straw target only 2 metres away, my teacher decided to give me a shot at the real thing.  It was interesting that while I thought none of the Japanese kyuudou students who were there really paid much attention to me, I heard later that when my back was turned and I was shooting, this foreigner was well and truly the center of attention, everybody wanting to see if a gaikokujin had what it took.  Unfortunately, I don’t think I represented the rest of the world with aplomb.  I had three attempts:

Attempt 1: I make lots and lots of mistakes.  I walk to the wrong place, I move the wrong foot, I drop the arrow at least three or four times.  In kyuudou, you don’t grip the arrow between your fingers; it just sits there on the string by itself.  There’s something very anti-climactic about drawing the bow back, feeling the tension and power running through it, you’re ready to shoot… only to hear the dull thunk of the arrow hitting the ground beneath your feet.  Result: my arrow hits the wall about 20 cm from the target.  Okay, it’s a miss, but as a first attempt I’ll take it.

Attempt 2: I drop the arrow another couple of times.  My teacher comes over and shows me how to grip the arrow again.  I’m getting quite embarrassed.  I shoot, but over-correct for my missed shot last time, and my arrow goes thudding into the wooden barrier above the range designed to stop stray arrows from skewering any kids in the park next door.  My teacher does not look impressed.

Attempt 3: I hit a target!  The only problem being, the target belonged to the person shooting in the next lane, not me.  Still, the feeling of actually hitting something resembling that I was trying to hit is exhilarating.  Perhaps I look a little too happy with myself, because my teacher ends up reminding me three times “…but it wasn’t your target”.

So, hopefully at some point I’ll be able to go back for another go.  Compared to my high school days, the two metre bows used in kyuudou feels frighteningly powerful; that when you release the arrow you’re not sure if the whole bow isn’t going to shatter into splinters on you.

So, now that I’m a kyuudou expert, I think it’s time for me to move on. Maybe it’s time for yabusame – Japanese horseback archery.  Although I don’t even know how to ride a horse, let alone without holding on, how hard can riding a horse while firing a bow be?  Look for the answers in the outpatient report of my local hospital.

No, E. Honda wasn’t there

Last weekend let me cross another big ticket item off my list of things to do: sumo!

A sumo tournament is something I can whole-heartedly recommend attending if you come to Japan. It’s a chance to see the locals let their hair down – barracking for the top-tier matches is passionate, with spectators yelling out the names of the favourite wrestlers. Reportedly, if one of the top-ranked yokozuna is defeated by a lower ranked wrestler, the audience all throw their seat cushions at the wrestlers in the ring, but sadly, the yokozuna won his bout the day I was there.

When it comes to watching man-mountains hurl each other around, it certainly doesn’t disappoint on that front:

Lots more photos and stories of sumo after the jump!

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What is the sound of one stick thwacking? Loud.

Early on a balmy summer Sunday morning, I went to Kamakura with some friends, about one hour south-west of Tokyo by train. Kamakura is a very popular place for Tokyo residents to go and visit. As well as some nice sea-side areas, it harks back to a more traditional time in Japan. One of the things it has in this theme is a rather large Zen temple.

The reason a small group of us were there was for what you’d call the equivalent of Zen Sunday morning mass. It begins with chanting a Zen mantra for fifteen minutes – almost hypnotic in the early morning heat – and then a sermon. I couldn’t understand very much of it, but most of it talked about Obon, a Buddhist festival celebrating the spirits of one’s ancestors. But that wasn’t really why I came. The main course was… Zen meditation.

Now, you might be familiar with basic breathing meditation – sitting tranquilly, closing one’s eyes, focusing on only the breath and emptying the mind. A few of the little details in Zen mediation are slightly different. The first difference is that you keep your eyes open, though staring at nothing in particular. This makes things a little more difficult, particularly when you’re in a very interesting-looking temple, with about one hundred other people.

The second difference is that there’s a monk quietly patrolling through the meditators with a five-foot long lump of timber. Every minute or so, he uses it to give a meditator a solid hiding.

True. Meditators who are looking a little drowsy or losing focus are favoured with a stern paddling. In this case, though, contrary to what I’ve heard elsewhere, you actually had to ask for your paddling. This isn’t like your headmaster rapping you across the knuckles at school, though.

As the patrolling monk passes, you put your hands together to petition him. He bows to you. You bow to him. You lean forward, crossing your arms and exposing your back. He assumes the paddling position. He lightly places the paddle across your back to target it. And then…

I was expecting this to be something like a symbolic love tap. In reality, it’s a fairly full-blooded hit – two staccato blows in rapid succession – that echoes around every corner of the temple. Two on the left side, two on the right. The hit-ee then thanks the monk with a polite bow. Problem solved – now they have something to think about.

I had believed that Zen meditation was designed to empty the mind of trivial matters. It did this to some extent, in that my trivial matters were now replaced with a recurring thought of “Holy ****, how hard did he just hit that guy?”.

So, did I get the full Zen shellacking experience? Happily or unhappily, no. It turned out that I passed on the one opportunity I would end up having. My friend volunteered though, I was sitting next to him. As the paddle comes down, the sound is wince-inducing, like you just belly-flopped a particularly thick side of beef onto hot concrete from five stories up. Of course, the paddle is fairly flat, so it’s also engineered to make a particularly meaty thwack against one’s back without permanent damage.

Amazingly, not one of the meditators made a sound after this happened. Although I was assured that it was painful enough, my friend said the residual effects were gone in about 36 hours.

I wish I had photos I could show you, but see, there was this guy walking around with a big lump of wood that he wasn’t shy about using. Actually, the monk seemed like a friendly enough guy, and I guess he was well qualified to deliver some very direct focus, no doubt being the frequent recipient of the same.

So, I haven’t really had the full Zen experience. It really does take some practice – just sitting there motionless and cross-legged for the forty minutes is painful enough. Now if only they perhaps had some way to get my mind off my circulatory-deprived legs…

I get a refund if I’m doomed, right?

Last Saturday, before the hanabi began, a group of us went to the massive Asauksa Kannon Temple . It’s one of the most famous temples in Tokyo, and attracts hordes of people on weekends and holidays. Here it is (debuting some HDR imaging here for the first time, too):

One thing you can often find at Japanese temples are omikuji, or written fortunes. For a small donation of 100 yen (AUD $1) to the temple, you get pick a random fortune, lucky dip style. They come in set levels, from really good to terrible calamity. Here’s my fortune, conveniently translated into English:

English translation:

“We wonder why so many barriers are on our way, repeatedly. Intimate people are getting off one by one. Being pushed under the heavy wheel, we are forced to stay its under with hard trouble. Gold, treasure and wealth are burred underground, the chance doesn’t come to us yet.

* Request will not be granted. * The patient will not be cured. * The lost article will not be found. * The person you wait for will not come. * Building a new house and removal are both bad. * You should stop to start a trip. * Both marriage and employment are bad.”

Yep, no pussy-footing around like those horoscopes in the paper. My doom appears to be assured. Though that bit about intimate people is kind of interesting. The optimal choice is apparently a daily regime of wallowing in my own filth, nursing cheap whisky in a brown paper sack.

But wait! It turns out there’s an out! To make your fortune come true, you have to tie it up. So, if you don’t tie it up, or tie it up in the special place for bad fortunes, it’s negated. Another temple I visited had a series of woven ropes to do just this, and you can see that many people had been there before:

It’s funny – at the temple above, I got another bad fortune too. I was getting a bit worried about this trend, but as one of the guys reminded me:

“So, how are things going for you at the moment?”

“Well, pretty well, actually.”

“So there you go. This is your rock bottom. Things can only get better from here.”

Maybe I get promoted to Jebus soon. Thank you, terrible fortune!