Feb 19, 2008


"Hello," said the old man.

It was snowing, and I was freezing. Or, rather, I wasn't freezing. It was that particularly awkward coldness, just above zero centigrade where everything is cold yet still sloshy and wet. My feet were soaked, and rivulets of water and snow chunks ran down my umbrella, I was being jostled by the crowd, and white-clad policemen milled about, looking like yetis or stormtroopers.

"You are lucky," said the old man, "there will be Sumo players." He'd been glancing at me for a while, and perhaps got the nerve, after a bit, to try out his English.

"When?" I asked. He pointed to the twelve on his watch, and traced the figure of a semicircle with with his forefinger, stopping at the six. "Maybe here," he answered. I gathered that the term "one thirty" was beyond his English abilities.

It was Setsubun, an annual holiday that involves demons and the throwing of soybeans. As near as I can tell, it's of Shinto origins, but every year Naritasan, a Buddhist temple, has a massive setsubun celebration. The main bit of the holiday: People toss soybeans out of their houses, all the while saying "Demons out, fortune in!" Occasionally, a member of the family dresses up in a demon mask, and said beans are in fact thrown at them.

At Naritasan, people for some reason only shout "Fortune in!" They do not seem to be about demon expulsion there. Maybe the monks and whatnot have some cryptic pro-demon agenda.

Anyway, I stood there in the rain for some time, wet snow falling on my umbrella. The crowds grew, the police stood there stoically, and the umbrellas of all the other people formed a kind of multicolored chamber. It was like being under a shield turtle made of canvas. All around me people were declaring that it was cold. "Samui!" someone would say. "Samui!" "Samui!" It was like being in human echo chamber. It's a sort of cultural tendency here in Japan to always state the completely obvious ("It's cold!" "It's hot!" "It's raining!" "It's snowing!") but it did begin to grate on me a bit. "Yes," I thought, "it is indeed samui. We've established that. Now can we please, as creatures capable of observing outside stimuli, move on?"


And eventually we did move on. The police barked as one for us to close our umbrellas, and soon we had no choice but to get soaked by the snow. But, with the umbrellas down, I could now effectively see the main steps of Naritasan, and there were, indeed, Sumo players.

Almost as soon as the umbrellas went down and the wrestlers and celebrities came out, the crowd went from a shivering mass commenting on the obviousness of the weather, to an enthusiastic, crushing, screaming mob. The crowd cheered, people crashed against me, and everyone was too busy making noise to comment on how samui it was. The instigators of the enthusiasm, the athletes and actors, were bedecked in day-glo outfits that simultaneously looked stupid and awesome. They were those Japanese robe things that have the big shoulder bits sticking out. Oh, just look at the pictures. You'll know what I mean. It's sort of ridiculous seeing Sumo wrestlers decked out in black and pink, but it's also sort of badass in a rather undefinable way.

In any case, they started throwing beans at us. Also, there were screaming girls.

The celebrities whipped out these wooden boxes filled with plastic packets of beans, and various aides were on hand to hastily refill them. They chucked handfulls at us, the crowd raising up their hands in order to catch them. Meanwhile, the people immediately behind me, a gaggle of Japanese teenage girls, lost all composure and volume control.

"Cho kakoi!" they shouted, "Cho kakoi! Eita! Eita!" They were shouting at a young, green clad male celebrity and exclaiming how cool he was. The girls jostled and pushed, pressing me chest to chest with the cop in front of me, greatly hindering my picture taking and bean catching abilities. "EITA!" My left ear hurt. "EITA!" My left ear hurt some more. Eita himself waved, and threw some more beans. "EITA!" It was like being in the opening scene of A Hard Day's Night, except it was stationary. "EITA!" The cop in front of me shouted at people not to push. This was probably because I was being squashed bodily into him and he didn't like it very much. "EITA!" Beans! Snow! People! "EITA!"

And then, after about ten minutes, it was over. The crowd dispersed, Eita and the rest of the VIPs were whisked away, and the umbrellas started to open again. I was no longer being jostled by the girls or chest to chest with the cop. The sudden absence of contact made the wind seem a little colder, and I walked as fast as I could to the station in order to keep myself warm.

Or tried to walk as fast as I could. The road back was packed. I was still with the crowd, and the merchants all had their shops open, hoping to reap the benefits of the festivities. In the street outside, people shouted about how it was quite cold, so they ought to come in and have some ramen. Have some hot sake. Have some hot tea. Merchants sold souvenirs and counted thousand yen notes with fingerless gloves, and the chorus of "samui!" returned.

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Feb 15, 2008

Absinthe Is Not Overrated

So, I'm a bit messed up right now.

Drinking absinthe, watching Prince and Chicks on Speed videos at the bar I was at, talking to some guy about his taiko drum repair business...

Absinthe. That green stuff. That stuff that's unsellable in the States, yet quite legal here in Nihon. I'm a bit fucked on it as I write this. It's definitely different.

It's as if my head has sprouted diminutive wings and is fluttering perhaps eight inches over the rest of my body. Meanwhile, the front of my head seems larger than any other portion of my anatomy, and my hands appear to be moving on their own volition.

At the bar, whoever was in charge of videos was playing both MC Hammer and Chicks on Speed. For some nebulous reason, I appreciated this. When I left, it was cold enough to pickle the testicles of a racehorse, but I didn't seem to mind. My head was eight inches above my body, and my legs were on an amazingly efficient autopilot. Meanwhile, everything seemed shiny.

So, yeah... One of the benefits of being abroad. Legal absinthe.

God I hope I'm sober tomorrow.


In Which I am Forced to Put on Pants and Answer My Door

Jehova's Witnesses just came to my door. They were Japanese this time. Why the hell are there so many Jehova's Witnesses in Narita? One of the biggest Buddhist temples in the country is here, you'd think that the place would be awash with Buddhist monks or something. I guess there are a fair amount of foreigners here, but it's like a bunch of Hindu missionaries decided to set up shop near St. Peter's.

They gave me a pamphlet in English. I've seen it before. Back in Eugene, my ex girlfriend got it and then ironically magneted it to our fridge. It's yellow, and says "Would you like to know more about the Bible?" ("Yes, but mainly from a historical/literary perspective.") This thing was one of the small bits of irony that littered our apartment, and it was just given back to me by an old Japanese woman. Weird.

In any case, this marks the first time ever that I've had to excuse myself from missionaries using a foreign language.

Feb 2, 2008

Dark Materials

I wasn't initially going to blog about this, but after reading Sydney's Blog about it, I decided to throw in my two yen. I recently read His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, and I have a few opinions about it. I know I'm hugely late to the party with this one, but whatever.

I'm just going to say right now that I'm going to throw in lots of spoilers.

First, a bit of background. I grew up loving and hating the Chronicles of Narnia. I loved them because they were fun, well written fantasy stories that featured strange creatures, magic, talking animals, and exploration. My favorite was probably the Voyage of the Dawn Treader- as the ship went farther out, the nature and laws of reality seemed to change, and the scenery became more fantastic and strange.

However, I also hated the series, because I didn't like being preached to. The Lion the Witch, and the Wardrobe isn't really all that bad- sure, there's the big Jesus allegory, and one could argue that it's rather sexist, what with the good guy being a symbol of patriarchy (a lion) and the villain being a symbol of powerful femininity (a witch). But, on the whole, it's tame compared to the rest of the series. Later on Lewis gets his racism on with depictions of the Calormenes, stand-ins for Arabs and Muslims that he uses as enemies of Aslan later on. Their god, Tash, is depicted as tantamount to Satan. In The Last Battle, several people start saying that Tash and Aslan are the same entity. These people are depicted as either deluded, or as false prophets.

This was a major sticking point for me. My devoutly Catholic father made it a point of pride that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same god. Allah, Yaweh, I-Am-Who-Am, the Father, etc.- same thing. The Western monotheisms, he said, were more alike than different, and we should respect each other because of that. Despite my disagreements with my father, I'm still proud of his enthusiasm for religious tolerance and pluralism. So, to see such pluralism explicitly mocked in The Last Battle made me cringe more than a little.

(Then there's the whole bit about Susan- once a woman gets old enough to fuck it's out of the story for her. But, I didn't understand that bit until adulthood.)

I still love the Chronicle of Narnia, in a way. I'll doubtless read them again, and I'd doubtless read them again, even though I also sort of hate them.

But, I'm not here to rant about Lewis- I'm here to rant about Pullman. I loved His Dark Materials, and I also hated it, for reasons very akin to why I love and hate the Chronicles of Narnia. The central vexation that I have with His Dark Materials is that I hate being preached to, but I love being agreed with. Particularly in The Amber Spyglass, Pullman does both.

The first two books are fairly un-preachy, and quite good as fantasy/adventure stories. Pullman leaves the best bits implied- it's damn obvious that Dust is sin, experience, sexuality, knowledge and everything else that Eve got out of that apple. The message- that loss of innocence is a sign of growth, not a tragedy, and after we're done with the first apple we should reach for another -is left nicely shaded. In the first two books, Pullman's ideas are oblique and cleverly presented, his thesis an argument for adulthood delivered through his child protagonist.

But, in The Amber Spyglass, he abandons implication and dusts off the soapbox. One of his characters- a likable old ex-nun turned physicist- is basically his mouthpiece. The kids sit at her knee, and she regales them with all of the reasons why religion is bad. I found the moralizing to be sort of painful to read in a work of fiction, but the problem that I had with it was that I agreed with pretty much everything Pullman's defrocked scientist had to say. "Shut up and get to the plot!" said one part of my brain, "Hell yeah!" said another.

Part of my annoyance is that all of this preaching served as a sort of surrogate climax to the series. There's tons of buildup to the final battle, and when it happens it's a disappointment. There's very little in the way of drama or intensity, and I yearned to see all of the war machines, angels, bears, soldiers, and fantastical creatures that Pullman had been describing kick the shit out of each other. I wanted a dramatic final showdown with God or at least his second in command, Metatron. But the death of God is over in a blink, and the defeat of Metatron seemed bloodless and predictable, even though it did entail the noble self-sacrifice of two characters.

(Incidentally, where was Satan in all of that mess? How can you write a book about killing God that prominently features rebel angels, and not once mention the Morningstar? Maybe Pullman was a bit too squeamish to bring Anton Le Vay's buddy into it.)

Anyway, the book goes on for some time after the battle, wherein the physicist preaches on for several pages, and then two eleven year olds somehow save the world by shagging and proclaiming their love for each other. For a series that's all about how great maturity and experience are, I found Lyra and Will's expressions of affection to be somewhat naive. They did have the presence of mind to realize that they cannot, after all, be together, but nevertheless I found their "I love you"s to bee rather grating. Maybe I was just in a cynical mood at the time.

Also, eleven is a bit young, don't you think? Sixteen at the least.

I realized why I was reading The Amber Spyglass, that if I were not a nonbeliever, I would have hated it. If I were a Christian, I would have thrown it against the wall while spewing blood from my eyelids. And that's a problem that I sort of have with it- Pullman isn't going to make any converts with his work. It might jazz up the (un)faithful, but it's not going to be persuasive to the religious. That's an edge that C. S. Lewis has on him- Lewis at least wraps his Christianity in something palatable to those who disagree.

Pullman's sort of like Christopher Hitchens, actually. I find Hitchens immensely fun to read (mostly because he's batshit insane) but I don't pretend that he's going to persuade anyone who doesn't already agree with him.

But in the end, I loved His Dark Materials far more than I hated it. I'm mostly ragging on it here, but there were lots of things that kicked royal ass about the series: Armored bears, trans-dimensional travel, gyrocopters, flying machines that run on pure will, the daemons, specters, and cowboy aeronauts with bunny sidekicks. All that stuff was awesome. And, the sheer fact that someone's written a children's fantasy series championing rejection of religion makes me happy.

Perhaps someone else will improve upon Pullman's effort. Maybe, inspired by His Dark Materials, someone other writers will more properly weave secular values into their stories. Here's hoping, at some future point, for a proper nonbeliever's riposte to Narnia.