Monday, September 22, 2008

Blazing Cranes....and wedding bands?

Folks, it's official. I am officially at an age where it is appropriate to be married. My God.

I seriously didn't think anyone I knew would get married until I was, at least, thirty. But sometimes, you just can't help how and when you fall in love. You never know when it'll happen to you. All you readers, beware, I say. It could strike at any moment. Don't think just cause you're in your 20s you're immune to this infectious disease. Back home, in New York, people are falling like flies.

I can't tell you how many photo albums of weddings I've seen on Facebook this summer. And this is just including the pictures of people I personally know. In all fairness, most of these people are in their later twenties, usually friends of my brother. It makes sense. I could deal with that.

But now, someone extremely dear to me, someone my age, someone who is essentially kind-of like my sister, is now married. EXCUSE ME? I still act like a five-year-old half the time. No one my age should be getting married.

That's right. Last week, one of my best friends got married. This past spring, in my insanity, caused by my love for my kind-of sister, I decided to purchase a plane ticket to New York and take four of my allotted 5 vacation days off. The decision was solidified after I found out that many of best friends, as well as my parents and brother would be there. Well, hell, if they got to be there, then I wanted to be there too!

On Wednesday night, the 10th of September, I returned home from work at about 10pm. I finished packing my suitcase and went to bed. Thursday morning, I woke up at 5:30, hopped on the train to Shinjuku, then transferred to the Narita Express. I got to Narita Airport at 9:30am. Caught an 11:45am plane to JFK airport. I arrived in New York at 11:30, 15 minutes earlier than I had left Japan. That really did my head in. How could I arrive 15 minutes earlier than I left, on the SAME exact day? Time is an amazing institution.

The first thing I noticed about New York was what a jerk the customs officer was. I walked up to the counter and put my passport and customs form on the desk. Little did I know, I had inexplicably become a ghost at some point while I was in Japan, because the guy didn't seem to have any clue that there was even a cloud of moisture in front of him. He was absorbed in what must have been a very interesting discussion with his buddy, and fellow customs officer, across the way. He waited a full minute before slowly picking up my passport, not bothering to wonder where this little book could have come from or what ghostly apparition might have placed it there, and gave it a careless, lopsided little stamp. He placed it back on the counter. I said in a brassy loud voice, "THANK YOU." I waited... Nothing.

Nothing. There was nothing! He couldn't hear me. Then it dawned on me... I really was invisible! My God! What had happened to me? Had I died and no one had bothered to let me know? I was considerably upset by all this until I walked into the terminal, and beaming unmistakably in my direction were my dewy-eyed parents. A smile broke on my face. I was alive!!! It was nice to see my parents, too.

After dropping off my luggage at the house, I set off on some important errands. I got a haircut, a manicure, and a pedicure, lulled to sleep in the salon chair by Norman the Hairstylist's gentle political rantings about Sarah Palin, the devil. Afterwards, I partook of the best Italian food I've ever eaten, at my family's favorite restaurant, accompanied by my parents and brother. I fell asleep at dinner, my head pressed against the cold, candlelit tile wall.

The next morning my family, a good friend of mine, and I set off in a cramped Subaru station wagon to foggy Martha's Vineyard. We drove 5 hours, ate McDonalds for lunch like good, patriotic Americans sometimes do, rode an American yellow school bus to the ferry port, took a 45 -minute ferry-ride to the island and were promptly picked up by the bride-to-be and her family.

Fast forward to the wedding. I really respect and admire Anne for the way she organized her wedding. Firstly, it was extremely small: mostly family and a small number of very close friends. It was also done very simply, locally, and inexpensively.

Before I tell you more let me just preface this next paragraph with an important bit of information: the bride has three Aunts, meaning her mother has three sisters, as well as a Great Aunt, who lives in Martha's Vineyard. Why am I telling you this? Well, just read for crying out loud!

Here we go. Her wedding dress was made by one of her aunts. All the vegetables were grown in another aunt's backyard. All the food was cooked and prepared by her aunts. All the food was served by her aunt's friends. Another Aunt's friend did all the flowers and wedding bouquets. To top it off, the wedding took place in the front yard of her great aunt's house, with a reception on the back porch, over looking the stunning beach scenery. What else did her aunts do? Well maybe that's about it, but I think that's quite a lot, now don't you?

I was amazed that literally everything for the wedding was done by someone who knew the family closely. Here are some more examples: The bride didn't have any makeup or hair done professionally. It was all done by one extremely talented bridesmaid... (no, not me, don't be so silly!). Really though, who needs professionals? She looked perfect, like a Gretian goddess. The photographer was also a friend of ours from high school who is currently embarking on a professional photography career. Her photos are amazing. Now, get this. This one I found really amazing. Okay. The bride and her husband were married by her mother's best friend. That's right, her mother's best, best friend just happens to be a minister. I just think that is a really nice thing, to be married by someone you know well, who is really close to your family. The woman is a really sweet lady too, with a good sense of humor. No one minded when she accidentally skipped a part, and started to repeat a part of the ceremony. She actually demanded that they remove the rings from their fingers and do it again. But no one cared. It was cute, it was hilarious. Everyone just laughed, which was a nice respite from all the crying that was going on. Because let me tell you, there was a lot of that. Even from the bride, herself. She was so happy, she could barely say her vows. Since it worked out that I was the bridesmaid standing closest to her during the ceremony, we had formulated a little plan where I would pass her a little lacy hankerchief with which she could dab her water-proof mascara-ed eyes. I can't remember the last time I was in a place so permeated by happiness before.

There's the bride-to-be, waiting to put on
that beautiful dress hanging in the doorway.

Everything was so quirky, so perfect. The wedding cake consisted of strawberry covered cupcakes made by a local Vineyard bakery. Even the insanely bright bridesmaid dresses, that had made everyone so nervous, ended up looking perfect. There were six bridesmaids in all, most of us in different colors. One wore pink, another blue, one green, two yellow, and I wore orange. Sadly, J Crew failed to convey through photographic evidence on their website that the colors of the dresses had obviously been precisely matched to the colors found in a pack of highlighters. All day we were herded around by the call of, "Okay, over here my little highlighters!" But, by the end, everyone agreed that it made the wedding much brighter and livelier. They were also incredibly photogenic. I was also delighted to be told by many that the color of my dress was decidedly less like a highlighter than the others, and was actually a fabulous color on me. Yippee. Perhaps I'll get to wear it again...

See how those tricky little dresses are deceivingly
not like highlighters when captured in photographs?

Anyways, the wedding was beautiful. I had an amazing weekend seeing my parents, brother, and many very important people and friends from my life back home, all who I love very, very much. Too bad I had to return the following Monday, which meant I arrived in Japan on Tuesday and then went back to work on Wednesday. But, I've decided it was totally worth it. The thirty minutes of that ceremony were probably the most intimate, personal, meaningful thirty minutes in earth's history. I'm not kidding.

Here's one of my favorite pictures, of me and my brother.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Blazing Cranes are Dead

So the other reason I've been M.I.A. from this bloggy land is that I was very busy practicing with my band, the Blazing Cranes. We had a live show a few weeks ago at a small bar in Kokubunji, a train stop away from where we live. Since Daniel is leaving Japan (forever) in about a week or so, the band as we know it, is dying. We decided to really give it all we had and a have a gig before he left. So during the months of July and August, we started having practices about two or three times week. A lot of practices were devoted to recording. We tried our darndest to get a good recording of each song so we could make an album to sell at the show. Since none of us are really very technologically or musically knowledgeable, it was quite the struggle. Tensions rose between all of us, and it became harder to play songs with the same kind of passion after playing them over and over again, stopping for even the tiniest little mistakes. But we persevered and were finally able to get recordings that we, at least, felt comfortable burning on CDs and giving to friends.

I bought a crappy used Casio keyboard for 1,000 yen, about $10, so I could practice by myself in my room. We tried doing acoustic practices in the guest house, but eventually we were threatened with eviction after our crotchety old neighbors in the next apartment building over were complaining about us. We took to waking up early and biking to the park to record songs on Daniel's laptop. Children paddled in the river and old men walked their dogs as we sang at the top of our lungs, the boys wailing on their acoustic guitars.

As the the date of the show neared, we got equally busier, more stressed, and more nervous. Our social lives consisted solely of the interactions we had with each other at practices. Daniel was assigned the huge task of mixing the recordings and making the CDs, while I was assigned the task of creating the album covers. We decided on the album title, Blazing Cranes are Burning Hands, which tied-in to one of our songs that was about hands. I didn't want to do an image that was too related to the title, because I tend to find that sort of thing disgustingly cheesy. I settled on using photographs I had taken at aquariums around Tokyo. I made a bunch of protoypes, then let the guys choose their favorite. We decided on a very simple CD case design. Each case was made out of one A4 piece of white cardstock. We folded the sheet around the CD into a square so that the cover image was printed on the front, and then the back flaps were folded back and tucked into themselves. The track list and acknowledgments were printed on the back flaps. I spent a lot of time playing with the design on photoshop, and then finally made the trek to Fedex Kinkos--yes, they have it in Japan--where I printed sixty covers. I bought a ruler and a handy paper scorer and went home to begin a week of meticulous folding. Every night when I came home from work, there was I was, folding, folding, always folding. I was still folding up until the night before the show. In the end, though, I was actually pretty happy with how they turned out. The front side of the final cover looked like this:

The hilarious thing was, at the show the next evening one girl I know asked me why we called ourselves the Blazing Cranes. I told her we just liked the sound of it. Then she asked me why I chose the image I did. I told her I chose it because I liked marine creatures and aquariums a lot, and I didn't want an image too related to the title. I liked how the sea weed in the image looked a little bit like a plume of smoke though, which subtly tied it to the words "blazing" and "burning."

Well, then she really gave it to me. She told me that the moment she saw the cover, she immediately thought of Hiroshima. She said the seaweed looked like an atomic cloud. The "Cranes" in "Blazing Cranes" made her think of origami paper cranes. Paper cranes are a famous symbol of Hiroshima because of a Japanese girl who organized some peace movement that involved folding thousands of paper cranes, but then died of radiation. So basically, we were horrible human beings. I was stunned. All four of us had been oblivious. We had completely failed to notice any of these connections. Why, in God's name, did we have to choose that design out of all the others? I was pretty upset at first, especially after roughly five other people provided similar sentiments about the cover later on. Luckily, none of them were Japanese, they were all foreigners. A few comforting comrades asserted that it was okay, because now it made us seem edgier. Still, I couldn't help wishing we had picked a different design. [See a couple of the other possible designs below. ]

Anyways, on to the show: we were pretty nervous as the show began, but as it progressed we slowly relaxed and got into the music. By the end, I was having a great time. We all made a bunch of mistakes, especially me. However, I'm proud to say we packed the place. Lots of English teachers, and even some Japanese school staff came, as well as a large group from our guest house. After the show, a lot of people told me my voice was "good," "fantastic," "amazing." Always a nice thing to hear, whether or not it's really true. I can't say whether people were sincere in their compliments to us, but I do believe that people in the audience had a lot of fun. They really liked it when we played a song from the video that everyone teaches in our Mini Kids classes. For an idea of what the song might be like, the age range in those classes are 1.5 to 2.5 years old. Anyone who could, sang along and did the corresponding actions that we do in the classes. We played about ten songs at the show. There were also about ten songs on the album, including a secret bonus track. [Ooh, aren't we fancy?] All in all, it's been a good, fun experience. Hopefully when Andy and I play a show with our new band, we won't be quite so nervous.

Here's me singing. Andy on the left, Daniel on the right.

Here's the band after the show, nice n' sweaty.
Daniel, Me, Andy, Leo.
They all look a bit dazed and beat up.

Since Daniel is leaving soon and Leo, the drummer, may be moving to a different part of Tokyo, Andy and I have been brainstorming our next moves. We've decided to recruit my friend Adam, who plays drums and is intensely interested in music, specifically good dance music. That will be a interesting new musical influence. Our other new recruit is Kate Sciandra who apparently plays saxophone, bass guitar, some piano, and can sing. Awesome. So, with the two of them, Andy, and I, we will have a complete group again. Andy and I are excited to incorporate new instruments into the mix and experiment with new music genres. We're thinking of trying something a little more danceable. We'll see where the new lineup takes us.

And now for a bit of traditional culture

My, it's been awhile since I've posted anything. The summer has been ultra busy. I guess it all started in early August when I had a two week summer vacation. My mother and grandmother came to Japan to visit me. I immediately whisked them off to Kyoto, which probably should have involved less whisking and more slowly stirring because it was super hot and my grandmother was super tired. She was a champ though. I felt kind-of bad for dragging them around to see everything, but I think it worked out okay by the end. If my grandmother really needed to rest, she could easily take a taxi back to the hotel.

We stayed for about 4 days, I believe. Our hotel was literally across the street from Nijo castle. We could see it from our hotel room windows. It was an amazing building, really old and wooden with elaborately painted walls, and also elaborately carved walls, too. I'm sure the walls were decorated elaborately in other ways, too, but we weren't allowed to get close to them, so alas I was denied the privilege of noticing. We were allowed to walk through the hallways and peek through the open doorways into the tatami rooms. The fact that they were hauntingly empty severely contrasted with the walls that had been lavishly filled to the brim with decorations. It occurred to me though, that perhaps there was never much in the rooms to begin with. Perhaps, back a long time ago, rooms were never cluttered with furniture and whatnot like they are today. In a traditional Japanese tatami room, you never wear shoes or set anything really heavy on the floor, so as not to damage the tatami mats. Everyone just kneels on the floor on cushions. Perhaps there people used to have small, low tables to eat off of or something. But that may have been about it. I could be wrong, but it occurred to me, what else would they really need to have in there? No one slept on beds either, just futon mattresses on the floor. Or maybe they didn't even have those back then, either. How curious.

Anyway, we saw lots of amazing beautiful temples. We saw most of the sights the day after we arrived because we had signed up for a day tour. It was a bit long, and a bit hot waiting to enter some of the places all lined up in the sun. My grandma went home after lunch, before the second half of the tour started again.

While I enjoyed Kyoto, and saw many old, beautiful, traditional Japanese places and things, I have to say I was surprised by how ordinary and modern most of Kyoto was. The actual city itself was rather bland and slightly unattractive, in fact. However, on the outskirts, in the mountains, and occasionally within the actual city, there were many isolated, but stunningly beautiful spots. My favorites were Kinkakuji, which was a small temple in the middle of a lake, covered in Gold leaf. Very shiny. Very pretty. My other favorites were the above-mentioned Nijo castle and Kiyomizu temple. Kiyomizu was at the top of a hill, leading into the mountains, and not only had impressive architecture but also had an impressive view of the city.

Kyoto was very strange, because I felt like it was clinging to old traditions for the sake of tourism. We went to Gion, the place that was a big entertainment district and famous for being the home of the Geishas, but during the day it was quite empty and felt a bit contrived. It was still interesting enough for me to become obsessed with taking pictures of it. Though, perhaps that is not a difficult thing to achieve.

When we returned to Tokyo, the following day we went for an adventure around Tokyo itself, guided by my boyfriend's mother. He came along too, of course. But the mother was the one who had planned most of the day for us. What a sweetie. She took us to the Edo-Tokyo museum, then for a boat ride down the Sumida river to Odaiba, a man-made island. It was a very strange place. It had a huge shopping mall and that seemed to be about it, as far as I could tell. Then we went to Roppongi Hills to climb the observation tower and watch the sun set over the extensive views provided of Tokyo. We got to climb up to the roof of the building where there was a helicopter landind strip. It was very strange, but beautiful.

It was a wonderful day, but the most memorable part seems to be the Edo-Tokyo Museum. [Tokyo used to be called Edo back in ancient times.] I barely got to see the exhibits because soon after entering, I happened upon a traditional dance performance inside the museum. I was totally enthralled by it for a number of simple reasons: 1) the costumes were pretty, 2) the music had a nice beat, 3) the dances were exotic and interesting and 4) there was one dance they kept returning to over and over again. It was the same dance that everyone had performed earlier this summer in the dance festival in Musashi Koganei, where I live.

That festival was such a great experience, because I was amazed by the large numbers of people that had come out of the woodwork to fill up the major street leading up to Musashi Koganei station. I've never seen so many people in our neighborhood before. There were tons of aged folk, families, teenagers, couples, small children daring to run and dance into the street every time there was a break in the line of parading festival dancers. It was amazing, there were all sorts of types of people dancing in the parade, too. I got the feeling the schools must have been involved in organizing and encouraging groups of children to participate because there were many large groups of children, all sorted roughly by age and size. Some of the children were so tiny they could barely dance, while some of the older ones were obviously very talented dancers. Others had probably never danced before in their lives, but that didn't stop them-- they certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves.

I just remembered being touched by this highly attended event that really conveyed people's sense of pride in, and love for their community. I imagined being one of those heavily painted, beautifully dressed, dancing children and the only thing I could compare it to was being in the high schools plays. Yet, somehow it just wasn't the same. I was quite jealous of those children. I wished my community had had something similar for me to participate in as a youth. It was also amazing how such a long parade of people could do the same dance over and over again, and chant the same songs over and over again, and beat the same drum beats over and over again and not tire of it. Everyone performed with such vigour and passion, it was utterly enchanting. There was a bit of a carnival air to everything, with food stalls selling yaki soba noodles, chicken on skewers, and lots and lots of cold beer. It was also hilarious because as I was standing on the side of the road with a small group of fellow foreign English teachers a really old toothless man with long gray hair and a long gray beard suddenly appeared in front of us. As he danced he started at us with an intensely ambivalent stare. After a while of us feeling a bit uncomfortable, he finally took the hand of one girl and began teaching her how to do the dance. It was pretty hilarious watching this very white girl doing this funky dance with an old man down the street along the edge of the parade. She actually got quite far down the street before she felt ready to turn back and rejoin our little group of outsiders.

Anyways, this was a very exciting, memorable experience for me. So when I saw this same dance being performed again at the museum, I literally fell into a trance. I watched them dance for about an hour. By the time I was done, it was almost time to leave and I had barely seen anything else. I was just so excited to see this dance again, to recognize it and be familiar with it. I was also glad to see that this dance wasn't just something that people did in museums, to give people a taste of what traditional Japan was once like. I knew, from my own personal experience, that this was a dance that people still did in suburban areas in the outskirts of Tokyo. It was totally still a part of the culture. It was finally something real, found in real, everyday life. And yet, it was very exotic, different from home. And I loved it.