I’m a con(cert) woman

23 May

ImageMay has been the lucky months of many concerts for me!  S and I were lucky enough to land not one but two sets of tickets to Sexy Zone’s Japan Tour concert in Yokohama Arena, and I also hit for a ticket to Hey! Say! JUMP’s Tokyo Dome show, where Sexy Zone would also be appearing to celebrate the creation of their new fanclub!  We also were lucky enough to win tickets to a Johnny’s Livehouse Ginza in the tiny Crea theatre, seating only 600! That show will be on May 26th, so I have yet to see what it will be like, but I’ve been to the other three now, and after talking about concerts in passing for a while, I figured I’d take this opportunity to explain just what going to a Johnny’s Entertainment concert is like!

ImageThe first confusing thing about Johnny’s concerts is how one comes about these tickets.  Unlike in America or for a concert by a non-idol group in Japan, you can’t just call up a ticket office and purchase a good seat (or a decent seat, or a bad seat).  You can’t use the internet to buy a ticket, either.  Instead, you must be a member of the Johnny’s “Family” Club (fan club) designated for the group whose concert you wish to attend.  A membership costs ~¥5,000 per year, and once you’re a member, you can use Japan Post money orders to ballot for tickets.  In essence, the way tickets are awarded in a lottery; whether or not you get a ticket is random and how good your seat is is also random.  Everyone pays the same amount for tickets, usually between ¥5,000 and ¥7,000, though sometimes stage shows in theaters are more costly.  They mail the tickets to you about a week before the show in order to try to avoid resale; because some concerts have less availability or the group is very popular, resale tickets can go from anywhere from base price to ¥80,000.  On an average scale of $1 = ¥100, that’s around 800 US dollars for one ticker.  So really, that ¥5,000 membership fee isn’t so bad!  

ImageAnd then, at the venue on the day of the show, you can buy goods before the show!  Usually, there is a much wider variety of goods for Johnny’s concerts than one might expect at an American show.  ~4 x 5 inch photos of the idols, plastic folders with photos of the idols on them, uchiwa fans with the idol’s faces printed on them, a pamphlet book with interviews and photos of the idols, and posters are all common goods, along with tote bags, T-shirts, scrunchies to be worn around the wrist or in the hair, and penlights.  The penlight is something I hadn’t heard of before coming to Japan; in America, people seem to use their cell phones, other electronic devices, or glowsticks in concerts, but in Japan, basically battery-powered light sticks like glowsticks replaced actual glowsticks.  Johnny’s took this one step further and makes penlights specific to each group and concert.  Generally, it’s not expected that you buy a new penlight at each concert, but it’s odd to use a penlight from the wrong group at a different group’s concert.  

ImageAside from a penlight, the other item of must-have concert goods is an uchiwa, which I talked about in this post a while back.  Every good fan has at least one (more likely 4 or 5, or even 20) stuffed into her bag, along with her goods and everything else she’s brought along with her.  All this gets looted through at the door the venue, because for some reason, staff are required to check for cameras, even though, at this point, every phone is equipped to audio and video record, as well as take still photos.  But for some reason, the staff still glance inside every concert-goer’s bag and asks politely, “Do you have a camera?”  Once you say “no,” they let you in!  From there, you can usually spot the display that will always be set up to showcase the various flowers the performers receive from magazines, TV stations, producers, and various other related companies and people who had worked with the idols.  In Japan, flowers are a necessity in all sorts of situation (such as a new business opening), and there will almost always be flowers on display before a performance! 

ImageNext it comes time to find your seat, which can be harder than you think!  Obviously seating in every venue is different, and differences in shape (like an arena versus a dome) and size (how many floors, for example), as well as changes in the setup for the concert inside the venue can really change your concert experience.  For example, we were at the very end of the catwalk and in a very close row for our first Sexy Zone show (in the photo it’s a bit hard to tell since I was surreptitiously taking the photo with my technically illegal camera… ) This gave us a great view whenever they did anything at the end of the catwalk, but a really crappy view of the stage (or rather, we could easily see the stage, but the idols on it looked like tiny specks!) However, for our second show, we were right next to the stage– like the people on the far right of this photo– and a little bit farther away.  That made it a little harder to see everything, but we could watch the stage quite easily!  Both of our seats were really not bad, but definitely gave two very different experiences, even in a concert with a typical setup of a round catwalk around the arena, a main stage at one end, a small stage at the other end, and a center stage in the middle.  

ImageEverything was completely different for the Hey! Say! JUMP concert, however.  It was in Tokyo Dome, which, being for baseball, is shaped in a circle, rather than ovular, like arenas.  In the past, I’ve felt that this leads to a better view for everyone, but this time, the setup of the dome was very odd.  The stage was small, and there were seats almost all the way around behind it (I happened to be in one of these unfortunate behind seats.  There was an inner and outer catwalk, and then a center stage, as well as other stages attached to the catwalks.  I’ve never seen a setup like it, and apparently the band members designed it themselves.  I feel like perhaps it was good in theory but less good in execution: I was only on the second level, and yet when the members were on the center stage it was hugely difficult to see them, and because the screens were so far away, it was hard to rely on them.  Overall, not the best seats I’ve had, but in terms of my most recent concerts, it’s hard to compare Tokyo Dome to Yokohama Arena, anyway, considering that Yokohama Arena seats around 15,000 people and Tokyo Dome seats around 45,000!  

So… now you’re all prepared to attend a Johnny’s concert on your own!  I’ll see you there~


Let’s go west~

13 Apr

ImageOver my spring break, along with S and CT, I visited the Kansai region, namely to do some sightseeing in two of most popular tourist destinations in Japan: Osaka and Kyoto.  Being an art history nerd, I was very excited to visit the various temples that can be found around the region, but we also planned to check out Osaka’s famous Kaiyuukan aquarium, a woodblock print museum, and,of course, the shopping scene in Nanba!  I was also personally looking forward to one of my favourite treats, matcha and vanilla swirl soft-serve!  While it’s possible to get it in the Kanto region where I live, it’s way more common in Kansai, and since I love anything matcha or Japanese green tea flavored, I was really looking forward to it!

ImageAfter spending our first night in Osaka shopping, looking around the area, and taking the chance to sing karaoke together, we headed out the next day to Kyoto to see some historical sites.  Our first stop was Kinkakuji, a very famous and popular destination for both Japanese and foreign tourists.  Kinkakuji was originally a villa owned by Muromachi period shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and, after his death, it was converted into a Zen temple, as per his wishes.  Architecturally, the building is interesting and complex because its three floors are each designed in a different style: the first floor is in the old Kyoto court style used to create buildings for the aristocracy in the Heian period, the second floor is built in the style of samurai buildings, and the third floor is built in traditional Chinese Chan (or Zen) Buddhist style.  The garden around the building also contains plenty of visual interest; it contains various illusions to Japanese literature (a common aesthetic choice in Japanese garden design) and as a whole is based on descriptions of the Western Heaven on Zen Buddhism.  Additionally, Kinkakuji is the famous titular temple described in Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which is based on real events that took place when a monk burned down the temple in 1950.  All in all, Kinkakuji is full of visual and historical interest, and though I had been once before, I was happy to go again!

ImageAfter Kinkakuji, our next stop was Maruyama Park, where we planned to do hanami.  While Japanese culture is highly fond of all four seasons and the plants and nature that go along with them, the most celebrate flower of all is the cherry blossom or sakura, which only blooms in Japan for about two weeks.  Because the briefness of the beautiful sakura blossoms echoes the impermanence of life as taught by Buddhism, it’s been the subject of many poems and works of art throughout Japanese history, and even today, hanami is a must-do for many people during the sakura season.  It’s hard to define hanami in just one word, but it’s comprised of the characters for “look” and “flower,” so I guess “flower-watching” is one way to put it.  Typically, doing hanami means going to a park or somewhere with sakura trees in bloom and having a picnic or meal, drinking alcohol, and talking with friends, all the while admiring and enjoying the scenery of cherry blossoms.  Since Kyoto is a scenic and picturesque place, it seemed like a great choice for hanami, and luckily for us, the weather was perfect, and our timing was just right to catch the cherry blossoms in full bloom!

ImageAfter our hanami, we headed to our next temple destination: Kiyomizudera!  Kiyomizudera is a temple comissioned by Tokugawa Iemitsu, one of the important political figures of the Edo period in Japanse history (the period famous for isolationism, samurai, and kabuki).  It is set into a steep hill in Kyoto, and thus is a very popular tourist destination for its great views… however, this also makes it a pain to get to because you have to walk so far uphill!  But it’s well worth it, and seeing it surrounded by cherry blossoms was quite the sight, even if the place was packed with tourist.  Actually, some of the Japanese tourists provided an interesting addition to the temple itself; while I’ve never seen this in Tokyo or Gunma or anywhere else in Japan, there were many Japanese (and some Chinese, actually) tourists dressed in traditional Japanese kimono, and I enjoyed admiring them as well as the scenery.

ImageWalking around Kiyomizudera is quite the undertaking because the path leads around the side of the mountain and back again, but it really does give a beautiful view of the temple and its surroundings, as well as of the city of Kyoto on the horizon.  Especially with all of the sakura in full bloom, I was happy to get a chance to see the sights.  There are a lot of sub-buildings (and even an entire separate temple sort of off to the side) around the grounds, as well, so I was happy for the opportunity to get to check them all out!

ImageAfter Kiyomizudera, we headed back to Osaka for the night, and then, the next morning, we headed out to the Kaiyukan Aquarium!  While it’s nothing that special, it’s a large aquarium with lots of different species and even some aquatic-related mammals, like the recently-popular capybara! After the aquarium, we headed to Shitennouji temple, for which I was quite excited!  One reason, embarrassingly, is that one of the schools featured in the popular manga and anime series Prince of Tennis is based off of Shitennouji, or, to be exact, the attached middle school there.  But mostly, I was excited to see their five-story pagoda!  Many Buddhist temples in Japan have five-story pagodas, but the special feature of Shitennouji’s is that tourists are allowed to ascend to the top!  Most temples only allow tourists in on the entry level or not at all, and so I was excited to go inside.  While what was inside was actually not that interesting (the interior had obviously been redone since it was build, with linoleum floors and all), the view from the top, as well as the basic architectural elements were really beautiful!

ImageAfter Shitennouji, we headed back to the Namba area to check out a woodblock print museum, and then grabbed dinner before catching our train back to Mie.  The past night, we had been too tired for an extravagant dinner, but on our last day, we decided to get a regional specialty,
okonomiyaki!  I had okonomiyaki once in Gunma with my coworkers, but since its origin is in the Kansai region, we had to try some here, too!  It’s often described as “Japanese pizza”… but I don’t really understand why.  It’s usually a cake-type item made of a batter of flour, some sort of potato, cabbage, and egg, as well as whatever meats and vegetables are desired.  In the past, I haven’t liked it very much (it often contains ginger, which I really dislike), but I had to admit, these Kansai okonomiyaki were very delicious!

And with that, we headed back to Mie, full, tired, and happy.  It was a great spring break, and I hope I can do more traveling with CT in the future!

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it… shrine?

5 Apr

ImageWhile the break between school years in Japan– spring break here, rather than summer– is relatively short, I did manage to sneak in a trip southwest to see a friend, CT, who’s a JET in Mie prefecture!  We planned to spend a few days in the Kansai region (best known to Westerners for famous historical cities like Osaka and Kyoto), but first, there was a site I wanted to see Mine: Ise Shrine.  

Ise Shrine is considered the most important and holiest shrine of all in the natively-Japanese Shinto religion.  In short, Shinto worships gods found in nature, and there are any number (hundreds, thousands) of gods or kami in Shinto because any natural item may have a kami spirit in it.  The most important kami is Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and her spirit is said to be enshrined at Ise Shrine.  As such, access to the actual shrine buildings at Ise is highly restricted, and the high priest or priestess, the only person allowed inside the main shrine building itself, must come from the imperial family.  

ImageHowever, the general public is allowed on the grounds and to see other buildings surrounding the main shrine buildings, and is encouraged to pray for happiness at one of the many sub-shrines.  Ise is also a great place to see the typical style and architecture of Shinto buildings, characterized by unpainted wood and thatched roofs, as well as torii gateways at the entries to various sacred areas.  Shinto buildings are usually unornamented in an effort to showcase the natural beauty of the materials used to create the structure; since Shinto kami can be found in nature, in Shinto architecture, the natural state is considered the most beautiful state.  Another common factor in Shinto architecture is the two beams sticking up out of the roof on each end.  The grounds at Ise contain many interesting buildings and a lot of beautiful nature, so even if the main shrine remains secret, it’s a great place to visit even if you’re not someone who studied Japanese art history in college and thinks this stuff is super fascinating like the nerdy person I am.  

ImageOne final really interesting fact about Ise Shrine is that it’s dismantled and rebuilt on an adjacent plot of land every twenty years.  In other words, it moves back and forth between two spots every twenty years, in order to represent destruction and renewal in nature, a central concept to Shinto.  Excitingly, this year is a year in which it’s being reconstructed, and so while it’s difficult to see much of the shrine itself over tall sight-blocking walls, I was able to see older and newer parts of the structure, which was a very interesting experience.  It’s hard not to think of shrines as old and historical buildings, so to see it being rebuilt using modern technology, scaffolding, and shiny new wood was quite the sight!  

Everyday I’m shufflin’

5 Apr

I have to admit that I know next to nothing about what it’s like to be a teacher at public school in America.  While I went to public school and know from experience what sort of things my teachers did and taught, I don’t know anything about the rules and regulations they faced on an everyday basis, or what sort of outlines they followed in order to prepare their lessons and test their students’ knowledge.  But I’m fairly certain of one thing: that the system is different from Japan.  

The end of the school year in Japan is a big deal for Japanese teachers.  The end of the school year (around the end of March) means that not only students will face changes, but the teachers as well, because in the Japanese system, teachers are sometimes– often, even– transferred to different schools at the end of the school year.  In Japan, the break between the end of one year and the beginning of the next is a whopping two weeks (unlike the three months between the end of school in June and the beginning of the new term in September in America), which leaves these teachers with a very brief period to adjust to a new environment, a new school, new coworkers, and new problems and challenges.  

On top of this, I was informed recently by a coworker that in Japan, the license to teach elementary school is the same as that to teach middle school is the same as that to teach special education.  In other words, a first grade teacher could suddenly, over the course of two weeks, be switched to teaching geometry to fifteen year olds, and a middle school music teacher could be forced to quickly become accustomed to teaching every subject to elementary kids with special needs.  I can’t possibly imagine mastering so many subjects to the point that I could teach them at all comprehensively, and the whole system is admittedly rather mind-boggling to me.  

As someone who’s hired outside this system, I stay at the same school for my duration as an ALT.  But the spring shuffle (as we call it) means that every year, I have to learn to team teach with new teachers and develop new relationships with new coworkers.  I’m sure some of the changes this year will be for the better, and that I can put my best foot forward, but since it’s my first year, this sudden change in staff is very disorienting to me.  I guess there’s nothing to do but try my best!  

all good things come to an end

26 Mar

Last Friday was the 84th and final graduation ceremony at one of my elementary schools, Showa Elementary.  Because the population of Japan is decreasing and the population of non-metropolitan cities is decreasing even more steeply, the number of students in the school was dropping (Japanese classes average between 30-40 students in a class, and my first grade class had 12 students) and the decision was made to merge it with another public elementary school in the district.  It’s a little sad for the students, who naturally are fond of their elementary school, but I think it’s more sad for the teachers, who will be scattered to different schools next year.  The teachers at this particular elementary school were really great, kind, and enthusiastic about teaching; they were always invested in creating fun English lessons for the kids (rather than sitting back and just letting me do all the work) and were really helpful and welcoming to me when I was first getting situated in Japan.  This is the school where, when I had culture shock and was afraid everyone might hate me, everyone came together and told me that they loved me.  I’ve gone out to food and drinks with the teachers from this school multiple times, and when I was sick, one of my coworkers there brought me medicine and supplies.  When I gave my leaving speech on my last day, I made the principal cry, and she said that I had brightened everyone’s lives and made the school a better place.  So, needless to say, I was really, really sad to see it closing.

I may have cried through the whole ceremony, but even so, it was interesting to experience a Japanese public school graduation.  I went to public school for elementary school, and while we had an assembly where the leaving class (in my case, 4th grade) were given awards like perfect attendance and straight As, it was definitely not called a graduation, and we weren’t given diplomas or anything of the like.  But in Japan, every level of school from pre-school/kindergarten (in Japan the two are basically the same thing; 幼稚園, yochien, is pre-school day school which has a class for 3, 4, and 5 year olds) to elementary, junior high, high school, college, and on have graduation ceremonies with formal proceedings, suits, ties, lots of singing, and speeches from everyone and their mother (literally– there was a speech from a parent representative thanking the teachers for their hard work at both my elementary and junior high graduation ceremonies).

ImageOne interesting thing about the ceremony was that while in junior high, a graduating student and an underclassman had each given a speech, one reflecting on her junior high school experience and the other thanking the graduating students for their leadership and wishing them well in high school, in elementary school, the interaction between younger students and graduating students was much more performative.  The graduating students and the underclassmen faced on another in groups, and first, the underclassmen wished the graduating students well in a sort of composition where each student said a phrase or a sentence, coming together to create a speech of sorts.  Then, the underclassmen sang a song together.  Afterwards, the graduating students responded in a similar way, as well as reflecting on their elementary school experience, and each student got to speak at least once.  Then, the graduating students also sang.  It was very touching, and needless to say, I cried.

One more interesting point of graduation in my town (if not more places) is that it seems to always be accompanied by cherry blossom tea.  However, from now on, I think I’ll stick to looking at cherry blossoms, rather than drinking them.


15 Mar

Wednesday was the day of the graduation ceremony for my junior high school, and let me tell you, it was a Big Deal.  In my experience in America, public junior high school graduations aren’t usually extravagant; mine wasn’t even called a graduation, but a “finale” or something of the like, I guess to signify to our parents that they shouldn’t get too excited; we weren’t going to get a diploma or anything like that.  I’ve heard similar stories from friends; while there was a little something to celebrate the accomplishment of finishing three years of schooling, it wasn’t a formal graduation ceremony.  

However, here, where pretty much everything is formal, junior high school graduation is a very important occasion.  I was told to wear a formal suit, which I dutifully did, wearing my hair and makeup much the same as I do every day.  However I arrived at school to find that everyone had done the same– which is hugely different from normal, when usually I’m the only person in the school who dresses up.  My coworkers, who usually wear track suits or slouchy sweaters and their hair in ponytails or, for the guys, barely having been brushed after waking up, were dressed to the nines in fancy suits with pearls and extravagant updos for the women and clearly styled hair and silk ties for the men.  I was glad I always dress up, since I fit right in with the crowd by and large, but the real surprise was the one female third-year (the graduating class) teacher, who was dressed in a full formal graduation kimono.  

The kids, who are usually allowed to wear school-issue sweatsuits to class (presumably to allow them to study more comfortably) were also dressed up in their formal uniforms, and the third year students all had flowers for their lapels in their class colour.  They filed into the gym to classical music, did sharp military turns at every corner, and all stood and sat in unison.  They were required to stand, bow, sit, and then immediately stand up again multiple times throughout the ceremony, and did so as if they had been trained by a drill sergeant– no wonder they had been practicing for graduation for the past few weeks, I realized!  

The ceremony was long and included each student having her or his name called before receiving her or his diploma, a speech from the principal, speeches from various PTA and school board people, a speech from a representative from the parents of the graduating students, a speech from a second year (remaining student) and a speech from a third year (graduating student).  There was a bunch of ceremonial walking around and receiving and giving of gifts, and at the end, the first and second year remaining students and the third years both sang songs.  It was much like an American graduation in that it was long and boring, but it all was made worse by the fact that we were sitting stiff as boards in the freezing school gymnasium.  

Probably the most exciting part of the ceremony was the fact that three students fainted over the course of the morning.  I was very alarmed at the time when students started suddenly falling out of their chairs, but I learned later from other friends in the area that this is in fact normal.  I’ve heard it theorized that it’s because of how rigidly the students are forced to sit during class, but whatever the reason, in my town, it’s common for students to simply faint in the middle of graduation.  Who would have guessed.  

This year’s graduation wasn’t so sad for me… because of entrance exams and because my third years have behavioral issues, I didn’t teach them this year.  But next year, when this year’s second years graduate, I’m sure I’ll be very sad… I guess I’ll just have to enjoy my last year with them to the fullest!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

14 Feb

ImageIt’s Valentine’s Day in Japan!  Unlike in America, where boys are expected to get flowers/make date plans/buy gifts for their girlfriends (in the most heteronormative, gender-stereotyped version of the tradition, anyway), this means that all the girls in my school are going crazy with the thought of giving out chocolates to the boys they like.  That’s right, in Japan, on Valentine’s day, only girls are expected to make gestures of appreciation or affection to boys, usually through giving them expensive or homemade chocolate.  

ImageOr rather, there are two varieties of chocolate: “giri choco” (literally “obligation chocolate) and “honmei choco” (literally “true feeling chocolate”).  Girls and women give giri choco, usually inexpensive chocolate often bought in bulk, to their casual male acquaintances, coworkers, and friends as a gesture of appreciation for their help/friendship/etc.  However, they give honmei choco as a romantic gesture to their significant other, or to the boy for whom they have feelings.  The media has a field day with Valentine’s Day, and often advertises it as a chance for one to confess one’s true feelings for someone… of course, by buying the right expensive brand of chocolate or a variety of ingredients to make the perfect gift.  Yes, despite cultural differences, Valentine’s Day is by and large a consumer holiday in Japan, too.  

ImageBut, you might be thinking, it’s totally unfair that the girls have to do all this with no reward.  Luckily, in Japan, there’s White Day, one month after Valentine’s Day.  On March 14th, men give women cookies, other sweets, or small gifts to repay them for the chocolate they received on Valentine’s Day.  

As for me, however, I was not getting mixed up in all of that chocolate-giving without any idea what is or isn’t appropriate for my work setting and what have you.  However, I really wanted to make chocolate, so I decided to throw a little party for my close (female) friends, instead.  I’m sure a rulebreaker, I know.  However, I got to make the cutest chocolates ever thanks to everything in Japan being absolutely adorable, and my friends seemed to enjoy them, so that’s what matters, right?