Yokohama Street Performance 2014

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Throughout my time in Tokyo and the surrounding area, I have noticed a large amount of parks and open public spaces. I have mentioned a few of these spaces in previous posts, such as the large sports fields or parks for relaxation and Sakura viewing. Another common use for open, public space in the city is for authorized street performances. These types of acts range from amateur musicians to daredevil stunts involving fire. You never quite know what sort of performance you will see in the middle of a big open space, such as the center of Ueno Park.

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Food trucks lined the sidewalk during this weekend’s performances

While in Minatomirai, Yokohama this past weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing an amazing Daidogei performance outside of the Yokohama Museum of Art, near the Minatomirai Train Station. Daidogei is a large movement, featuring hundreds of performers performing a wide range of activities, from magic to acrobatics. This special event, labeled “Yokohama Street Performance 2014,” was held throughout the weekend at various locations within Yokohama. Advertisements were displayed everywhere, and the events drew large crowds.

The particular performance I saw involved a group of acrobats, led by American magician and ringleader David Ramsay, who spoke Japanese very articulately. The opening act of the hour-long performance consisted of some magic tricks by the ringleader.

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From there, acrobat Daisuke Nakata performed some amazing spinning moves on a large, metal wheel.

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The central attraction of the show seemed to be Takaniiei, a muscular performer who performed quite a few daredevil poses and stunts atop towers of wobbly chairs.

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The performance expanded beyond mere acrobatic tricks. Different songs played in the background throughout to emphasize various emotions in response to the current act. Takaniiei’s struggle to reach the top of the pyramid of chairs, for instance, relied heavily on the assistance of fellow acrobat and muscleman Setoda Eiji. An intense, passionate tune emphasized Takaniiei’s difficult climb. Although these melodramatic performances were rather obviously staged, they made the show that much more entertaining, and encouraged participation and emotional response from the audience.

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Following a lovely performance from the troupe’s pole dancer Ayaka, the ringleader returned to center stage for a silly juggling performance while riding a unicycle. 

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The show concluded with a segment involving two acrobats performing various tricks on a trampoline, such as jumping rope.

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The performance also relied heavily on comedy, with Eiji’s trademark jumprope act purposely tying the performer in knots. In petitioning the audience for donations, the ringleader suggested holding onto a 1000 yen bill and donating your remaining wallet (as opposed to the opposite).

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The use of humor and acting made this Daidogei show the most entertaining performance I have seen to date during my time in Japan. It was so enjoyable that I returned the following day to watch more.

 

Sports in Japan

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Sports play an active role in Japanese society, and their impact can be seen through the prevalence of physical activity and sports media. The most common sports I see promoted are baseball, soccer and sumo wrestling, with others like kendo and tennis receiving substantial attention as well.

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A large field in Hirama, Kawasaki offers space for tennis, soccer and baseball

I have found a number of differences in the way sports are practiced and consumed in Japan, as opposed to the US. The most striking part of sports in Japan is simply how many people play them. Aside from major and minor league play, organized sports play in the US seems to end after college for most athletes. While in Japan, I have seen large numbers of organized teams consisting of adults, anywhere from their 20’s-40’s, playing regularly on weekends in gigantic, open playing fields. It is not uncommon on Sunday afternoons to witness an entire baseball team, with bats and equipment strapped to their backs, riding down the sidewalk on bicycles. 

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Bicycling baseball teams are a common sight on a warm Sunday afternoon

Another large distinction from the US is Japanese sports media. In the US, consumption of sports generally consists of simply watching teams, major, minor or college level, playing. While watching games and rooting for teams is also a large aspect of sports in Japan, sports consumption extends beyond live and televised games. Sports fiction, in the form of movies, television dramas, anime and manga play a big role in Japanese media, with little equivalent to be found in the US.

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“Baby Steps,” a popular tennis comic in Japan

The sport I see promoted and played most often in Japan is baseball. Since making an athletic friend, I have been playing baseball every Sunday at various fields in Yokohama and Kawasaki. The team I train with has just nine members, and I often act as a stand-in for players who miss practice. Many small, amateur teams and leagues exist in Japan. 

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A newfound hobby of mine has been touring Keio University, a massive college campus just behind the Hiyoshi mens’ dorm. On afternoons and weekends, young people of all ages can be found engaging in a variety of sports, including American football and tennis.

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This park in Rokugo-Dote, Kawasaki has 16 baseball fields

One of TUJ’s Office of Student Services activities this semester was the chance to experience the National Sumo Tournament, a widely recognized event tournament in Ryogoku, referred to as Tokyo’s “sumo town.” The rituals performed prior to each individual sumo match build up suspense and anticipation. To those unfamiliar to sumo, the actual matches are surprisingly short, with most resolving in a matter of seconds. Often participants may fall out of the ring, potentially harming judges and the audience. 

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The TUJ Office also offered tickets to Yokohama Stadium, to watch the Yokohama DeNA Baystars play the Yakult Swallows. Safety was a priority during the game, with loud whistles blown whenever a ball flew into the audience, and multiple police and security personnel rushing to the scene to treat potential injury. I later learned from my athletic friend that Daisuke Miura, the team’s star pitcher, has a hairstyle resembling Elvis’s. 

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I have found sports in Japan to be an engaging experience, with an emphasis on teamwork and participation.

 

Viewing Sakura (cherry blossoms)

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Around this time of year in Japan, cherry blossom trees, known as Sakura, are in full-bloom. Sakura can be found here and there throughout Tokyo, from neighborhood streets to local parks. The largest collections of sakura appear to be in larger, iconic green spaces, like Ueno Park and Yoyogi Park. Sakura inspire a number of recreational activities and responses, from photography to hanami.

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A beautiful afternoon scene in Yoyogi Park

I was surprised to see how many non-tourists I found photographing sakura. Even lone trees in a largely populated area, such as outside of a train station, receive plenty of attention. My first view of sakura was toward the end of March in Yoyogi park. Unfortunately, even approaching the few blossoming trees proved difficult, as dozens of viewers with cameras surrounded them. By this time, the first week in April, blooming sakura appear all over Japan, and have become a common sight.

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A small park in Tsunashima, a town behind Hiyoshi, was decorated with lanterns

Hanami is the traditional activity of picnicking under sakura, and typically involves varying degrees of alcohol consumption. On any given weeknight, groups of businessmen can be found happily drinking in parks together. During noontime I have often seen groups of older women chatting together over lunch under sakura. On sunny weekends especially, I see groups of families spread out on blankets all throughout the park, accompanied by the sounds of children laughing and playing. This is a very happy, celebrated occasion that nearly everybody seems to enjoy and take part in. For some, the excuse to drink and party seems to take priority over the actual sakura.

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A typical scene of Hanami

Living outside of Tokyo, I have had the wonderful opportunity to explore many scenic, suburban  neighborhoods where parks and wooded areas are aplenty. My favorite park for sakura viewing is Tamagawadai Park, located right next to Tamagawa Station, just a few stops away from Hiyoshi. Its winding paths, wooden log fences and stone steps leading up sloped hills provide the area with a very natural, peaceful atmosphere. Despite the park’s length, on weekends in April it becomes so crowding that even walking in certain areas becomes difficult.

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I attended a local Hanami festival in Motosumiyoshi, another town near Hiyoshi. Families sat together near the canal, and nearby food stands offered a variety of traditional Japanese foods.

On the particular Saturday that I wrote this entry, I had assumed that a forecast for likely rain would have deterred sakura enthusiasts. Instead, Tamagawadai Park was as filled as ever, with participants barely reacting to a few bouts of rain that afternoon.

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A bridge over a local street running through Tamagawadai Park

With so many pleasant areas to visit and relax in, I choose to read, complete homework assignments, and write blog entries outdoors in places like Tamagawadai Park, as opposed to sitting cooped up in the dorm on beautiful evenings. Viewing sakura and experiencing Spring in Japanese parks has been one of the highlights of my time abroad. 

 

The Closest Beach Town to Tokyo: Kamakura

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 With my mother and my brother in town for a few days, we decided to go to one of the best locations for a day trip outside Tokyo: Kamakura!

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Kamakura is a very charming place filled with pretty knick knacks and lovely town scenery, not to mention a lovely beach. It is most well known for being a famous location for Buddhist temples and beautiful hiking paths.

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There are dozens of temples around the town, one of which contains an incredible graveyard of monks and notable figures.

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Each grave is individually ornamented with a beautiful stone and lovely fresh flowers.

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There were also some more specialized grave sites, such as this humorous and charming beer and cigarette offering.

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Regardless of the individualization, each grave was kept swept and manicured to emphasize the beauty of the stone statues.

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Each grave is incredibly beautiful and mysterious, thoughtfully incorporated into the surrounding nature.

IMG_7390The bamboo forest was breathtaking, especially with the light breeze. We visited on a perfect spring day.

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The sakura trees were blossoming throughout the entire neighborhood!

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My family and I went through some incredible hiking paths, where we were able to see a view of the Pacific through the trees!

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The main event was certainly the Daibutsu at the kotoku-in temple. Weighing approzximately 93 tons and measuring at almost 14 meters high, this statue is a monumental bronze sculpture of the Amida Buddha.

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It was incredible to behold.

The Prevalence of Books in Japan

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 A large force in Japanese mass media that is worth mentioning is, surprisingly, printed material. In a country associated with convenience and technological advances, it may be hard to imagine that the digital reading devices popular in the US are nowhere to be found in Tokyo. Books, magazines and printed newspapers appear as abundantly as ever. Bookstores small and large can be found nearly anywhere, sometimes even in train stations. Even convenience stores carry books. With the average commute to work being 1-2 hours per way for many, its not surprising that cheap printed reading material has remained a dominant force in Tokyo.

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A typical scene at any given convenience store, on any given evening

On any given train, you can easily determine what day of the week it is by which magazine riders are reading. Weekly Shonen Jump is released Monday, Shonen Magazine and Shonen Sunday release Wednesday, and Shonen Champion and Young Jump hit newsstands Thursday, to name a few of the more popular publications. Each phonebook-sized magazine packs roughly 250-500 pages, with monthly publications often reaching as many as 800 or more pages. Biweekly and seasonal magazines exist too, making it difficult to keep track of all the different material being regularly circulated. 

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A wide variety of magazines can be found at convenience stores, at newsstands and in bookstore

Newspapers remain big in Japan too. Sports are so popular that they receive their own papers, with a large variety of sports newspapers for different areas within Japan.

A popular bookstore in Shinjuku, and possibly the largest book retailer I have ever seen, is the massive nine-floor Kinokuniya. Each level carries different categories of books, with one level for foreign material.

Another big service in Japan thats remains relatively small in the US is the secondhand book market. Book-Off, a massive retailer found in most areas of Tokyo, sells cheap preowned books, many of which cost just 100 yen (around $1.00). Visit a Book-off on any given day and right at the front counter will be stacks of unsorted books bought from customers. While I wouldn’t expect to receive much more than a few cents per book, recent publications can be sold for a little extra, as indicated on flyers I often see stuffed in my bag as I leave. This speaks volumes of readership in Japan, where consumers buy lots of books, read them quickly, and then get rid of them in order to buy more books. Many Book-Off’s also carry used video games, CDs and DVDs. Smaller, local secondhand bookstores are fairly common in Japan as well. 

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A large Book-Off Super Bazaar that also sells used clothing, in addition to books

More books also means that the average person has a lot more paper waste, as evident by the enormous amount of recyclable paper found outside many neighborhood homes. Sorting trash in Japan is a huge deal, and reading material generally falls into one burnable category. Newspapers, magazines and old books stacked and tied up neatly on the curb is a typical sight in residential neighborhoods. Periodicals are often discarded en masse, with eight-or-so week’s worth of magazines commonly found tied up on the sidewalk.

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An entire year’s worth of Weekly Shonen Jump out for the trash

If you find yourself purchasing books or printed material in Japan, be careful- shipping them home can be expensive!

 

Hanami: Flower Viewing

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We are so unbelievably lucky to be in Japan during the spring. This is arguably the most beautiful location to experience the changing of the seasons!

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This is the view from my window! All of a sudden our neighborhood is filled with huge, blossoming cherry trees.

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The early morning is my favorite time to take walks on the edges of the canal by the Kitazono Dormitory. There are sakura (cherry blossom) trees lining both sides as far as the eye can see.

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 It feels like a dream to find such unbelievable flowers at every corner.

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It’s amazing how beautiful the city contrasts with the flowers. Tokyo is the largest metropolis on Earth, but there are blossoms everywhere!

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 This was the view from the train track as I stepped onto Naka-Meguro station. This neighborhood is known for it’s great blossoms and delicious street food.

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There were so many people celebrating the hanami (flower viewing) season!

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As the wind blows, the blossoms drift down into the streets and the canals. After a few days, the ground will be filled with petals.

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These lanterns lined the edges of the canal, enhancing the pinkness of the blossoms as night fell.

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Carolyn and I had such a lovely time enjoying the sakura trees; it was truly a once in a lifetime experience.

Traditional Arts Workshop

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Yet again, the Office of Student Services at Temple University Japan organized another excellent event for students.

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The traditional arts workshop offered an array of Japanese customs. To begin, the lovely woman pictured below gave us a demonstration of ikebana, the art of Japanese flower arrangement.

 

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Ikebana is a very philosophical tradition, emphasizing the beauty of the asymmetric and the changing of the seasons.

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The Japanese-style home we visited also offered an amazing set of painted screens. They were lovely!

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 Next, we were given a marvelous performance on the koto, a Japanese string instrument.

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The practice of the koto is truly unique. The performer presses on the strings to alternate between tones, creating an eerie and beautiful sound.

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All of a sudden, we were wearing kimonos! It was an adorable process as the sweet women picked out the colors of our arrangement and tied the obi.

 

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After being dressed, we practiced our calligraphy with traditional brushes and black ink. It’s harder than it looks!

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 Luckily, she was very patient and helped us write our names.

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 To conclude our lovely afternoon, we were shown the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. This is matcha, or powdered green tea that has been whisked with a bamboo tool in hot water. The frothiness was amazing.

 

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To accompany our tea, we were given traditional Japanese sweets for the spring season! They were all so delicious and sweet with the bitterness of the thick matcha.