Friday, May 30, 2008

Will America Survive the Japanese Game Show?

When I studied in Osaka, it seemed only right that my first ketai (cell phone) mail address would be hamachan.daisuki! At that time, the comedian's popularity was at an all time high, and he was the first Japanese celebrity I actually came to know by name. He's the one who puts his arm around one of the others, resting his head on his friend's shoulder. Why? Why is he so adorable?

When I first decided to study abroad in Japan, I was greeted by a chorus of horrified 'Why?'s. Very few of the people I talked to knew anything about Japan, as evidenced by the many times I had to answer this question: "Do you even speak Chinese?" I actually had to explain, more than once, sadly, that China and Japan were very different countries with very different languages and cultures.

Since then, Japanese culture has exploded in popularity, not only in America, but around the world. First it was sushi, then Spirited Away, Samurai and Sayuri. Gwen Stefani found her muse in Harajuku, and before I knew it, Kanye West was singing Japan's praises, even subtitling his Stronger theme with katakana. And who could forget the Japanese Office skit on SNL?

Now when I mention that I've recently spent over three years living in Japan, I'm greeted by scores of "No Way! That's so freakin' cool! I've always wanted to go there! Oh my god, I so love sushi. And anime, of course." Everywhere I look I see 'new' fashion trends that were commonplace in Japan when I was in university, and almost everyday Yahoo has a Japan-related story in the headlines.

Not suprisingly, Japan continues to weave it's way into mainstream American pop, most recently with ABC's announcement of a brave new reality series: I Survived a Japanese Game Show!

Japanese games shows can be cruel.

Anyone who has had the pleasure (or misfortune) of numbing their brain with the wacky and outrageous phenomenon that is Japanese TV may have an inkling of just what these poor suckers are in for. If not, read this excerpt from the show's website:



“I Survived a Japanese Game Show” has begun shooting in Japan and will premiere TUESDAY, JUNE 24 (9:00-10:00 p.m., ET) on ABC. This unscripted reality/game show takes an eye-opening, behind-the-scenes look at 10 Americans – many of whom have never traveled outside the United States -- who are whisked away to Japan and compete in the ultimate Japanese game show… with hilarious results. The final winner will take home $250,000.

Guiding the American players through their stay in Japan will be host/interpreter Tony Sano (“Touch Wood,” “Beating Vegas”), an American actor fluent in Japanese; a house mother and resident pot-stirrer, Mamasan; and the witty game show host Rome Kanda (“Pink Panther,” “Saturday Night Live”), who leads the contestants through all of the zany challenges.

Some of the games/challenges will include:

WHY IS THIS FOOD SO HARD TO EAT? -- Why? Because the food is attached to the head of a teammate who must run in place on a fast-moving treadmill, while the first teammate leans over a platform and tries to eat from the moving dish.

CRAZY CRANE FINDS FLUFFY BEAR -- This takes the American arcade game to the next level, as blindfolded teammates must operate a moving crane while another teammate precariously dangles trying to collect as many stuffed animals as he/she can.

CHICKEN BUTT SCRAMBLE -- The contestants create their own version of Japanese scrambled eggs as they attempt to smash goo-filled oversized eggs with only their butts… while wearing chicken suits.


This You Tube hit is being brought to America by FOX. Compared to the others, it's actually pretty tame.

And here's one for Abbey's Hurdlingly challenged Kyoto Sensei:

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Shirakawa Hanami: Kotoha and Takahiro

Kyoto Rewind: April 2, 2008

Kotoha, a senior maiko of Gion Kobu, smiles beneath the cherry blossoms lining the Shirakawa stream.

No cultural tour of Kyoto would be complete without a proper maiko sighting, so half-way through our hanami party in Maruyama Park I led my friends down to Gion's Shirakawa district. Shirakawa-Minami-Dori is one of the very few areas of Kyoto where you can really imagine what the old capital must have been like before the twentieth century onslaught of 'modernization'. Lined on one side by magnificent cherry trees and whimsical willows on the other, the carefully paved lane follows the Shirakawa stream through the traditional teahouse district. Across the shallow waters of the Shirakawa, teahouses and restaurants hide behind bamboo blinds, peak through shoji screens, or gaze out through wide glass windows.

Kotoha laughs with Takahiro as she smooths her carefully styled coiffure.

With this timeless, quintessentially Kyoto backdrop, the city's tourism association had invited two maiko (or apprentice geiko), to make a come out and enjoy the cherry blossoms, giving the many tourists that flock to Kyoto in the spring the perfect photo op. Imagine my excitement when the maiko were two of my all-time favorites: Takahiro and Kotoha. \(^o^)/

Takahiro takes a rest beneath the cherry blossoms.

My enchantment with Kotoha set off a bit of a debate between my friends and I. I couldn'd help but comment on how stunningly beautiful I thought she was, but they were quick to disagree. To them, Kotoha seemed 'cold'. They were much more drawn to Takahiro's sweet expression and dimpled smile. Only Kachi Sensei, my friend and former colleague, and her 11 year old son agreed with me.

Takahiro has a certain child-like charm, with warm, friendly features and an adorable dimpled grin. With her long, slender neck and graceful limbs, she is an excellent dancer, and to be honest, I couldn't take my eyes off of her during Miyako Odori.

Kotoha, on the other hand, would never be described as child-like. Her features are striking. While Takahiro has "the (Japanese) girl next door" appeal, Kotoha is exotic. Even amongst other geisha, she stands out. Always perfectly poised, she looks noble, dignified, and refined. Her fey expression makes it seem as if she is above the concerns and cares of the ordinary, lost instead in the infinite beauty of the 'flower and willow world'.

As different as they are, the truth is that Takahiro and Kotoha are my favorite of all the Gion Kobu maiko. It's their differences that make them stand out, giving them a unique appeal. They are both beautiful, talented young women, and I look forward to seeing them turn their collar and blossom as full-fledge geiko. Ganbatte, girls! I'm cheering for you!

Notice Kotoha's feet. Perfect.

Takahiro adjust Kotoho's dangling darari obi.

Kotoha stands near the memorial to the poet Yoshii Isamu. Engraved on the rock is one of his most famous verses:

"No matter what they say,
I love Gion.
Even in my sleep
The sound of water
Flows beneath my pillow."

Friday, May 23, 2008

Higashiyama Hanami: Kiyomizu Bound

Kyoto Rewind: April 2, 2008

Sanju-no-to, the three story padgoda of Kyoto's Kiyomizu Temple, pierces a powder blue sky through a veil of cherry blossoms.

Just as the cherry blossoms began to reach their height in Higashiyama, the scenic eastern mountain distict nestled between the historic Gion district and growing waves of verdant hills climbing slowly to the sky, my friend Abbey, my brother and I were joined by the very lucky Londoner who ascended the Ena ALT throne, along with my favorite JLT (Japanese language teacher) and her adorable son for a bit of hanami and a brief Kyoto Cultural Heritage Tour a la me!

Since London P had never been to Kyoto, our first stop, after breaking the fast at Starbucks in Gion, was Kiyomizu-dera, the Temple of Pure Waters. I am a firm believer that it's not the destination, but the journey that matters. Half the fun is getting there! So instead of heading straight for the temple or hopping a bus, I led our little group through Yasaka Shrine to the Ishibei-kouji, or Stone Wall Lane.

The narrow, covered wooden entrance to the Ishibei-kouji is cleverly hidden and hard to find, if you don't know where to look. Most tourists walk right by without giving it a second glance.

A curious couple snuck a peek up the dimly lit alley way, then turned around a left without exploring its well-kept secret.

Emerging from the darkened tunnel, you are greeted by wonderfully aged wooden walls and traditional architecture.

The stone paved path leads through traditional Japanese inns, or ryokan, restaurants and residences. The classic Kyoto atmosphere of the Ishibei-kouji makes it a popular spot for tourists dressed as maiko and geisha to have there photographs taken.

Like elsewhere in Kyoto, traditional and modern co-exist.

The lane leads to Nene no Michi, near Kodaji Temple. This is where the ascent to Kiyomizu begins, along with the hanami.

Holding out his bowl with his eyes humbly lowered, a monk from Kiyomizu begs for alms, chanting silently along the ascent to the temple.

UNESCO World Heritage designated Kiyomizu-dera, the Temple of Pure Waters, is one of Kyoto's most popular tourist destinations.

As the main temple of the Hosso sect of Buddhism, it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times in its twelve centuries of history, most recently in 1633.

Kiyomizudera is said to have been constructed from 778 by Enchin, a buddhist priest, in honor of the Kannon Bosatsu (Bodhisattva of Mercy and Compassion).

According to the legend, Enchin received a vision that said he would find at the source of the Yodo river, a clear source of water. During his search Enchin came across a hermit named Gyoei. Gyoei, an old ascetic priest gave Enchin a piece of wood inhabited by the spirit of Kannon, the lord of compassion and goddess of mercy. Carving it into the likeness of the boddhisatva, Enchin enshired it in a small thatched roofed hut, the humble beginnings of the now impressive temple complex dominating the verdant Eastern hills of Kyoto.

The legend says that the hermit disappeared, and when Enchin later discovered his sandals on top of the mountain, he realized that he had actually been speaking with a manifestation of the Kannon.

A young foreign couple poses for wedding pictures beneath the cherry blossoms.

Hundreds of ancient-looking Jizo statues spring from the lush moss carpeting the slope. One of the most beloved of all Japanese divinities, Jizo intercedes to ease the suffering and shorten the sentence of those serving time in hell. In Japan, Jizo is popularly known as the guardian of unborn, aborted, miscarried, and stillborn babies, as well as patron saint of expectant mothers, children, firemen, travelers, and pilgrims.

Women in kimono snap photos of one another on their ketai (cell phones).

Looking up at the cherry blossoms surrounding the three story pagoda.

Garbage removal the old fashioned way. Sights like this are common elsewhere in Asia, but very rare in Japan.

Nestled in the hills of Higashiyama, Kiyomizu's famous stage offers an excellent view of the city and surrounding green.

Enjoying the cherry-blossom-veiled view.

Visitors often rub icons of the Buddha or other religious figures for good luck or healing powers.

A young monk happily helps a boy get his taste of the Otowa no Taki, Feather Sound Waterfall, the three streams of which are said to promise love, longevity and wisdom. The visitor must choose one.

This author of this enma, or wooden prayer plaque, is hoping for a championship showdown between my hometown Hanshin Tigers and Chunichi Dragons.

I'm wishing that next spring will find me back in Kyoto, surrounded by sakura.

The pagoda peeks over heavy clouds of sakura, dripping with silken petals which flutter to the surface of the reflective pond, blanketing it like freshly fallen snow.

A view of the main stage of Kiyomizu-dera, floating in clouds of sakura ( and supported by 139 timber pillars). The unique Edo period tradition of jumping off the stage in hopes that one's wishes would come true was attempted by 234 people, each documented in the temples records. Surprisingly, 85.4 percent survived! The Japanese equivalent of the English expression, "to take the plunge", is actually "to jump off the stage of Kiyomizu."

I love Kyoto!

They love Kyoto!

Kiyomizu-dera is just one of many reasons why!

Sasuga Gion: さすが祇園!

Kyoto Rewind: April 1, 2008

Mamemchika strolls past the wooden facades of the machiya (traditional wooden townhouses) that line Gion's well-preserved lanes. It's always so exciting to see her again! She's become such a beautiful geiko. I know it's silly, but I can't help but feel a sort of affection for the girls I've seen blossom from maiko to geiko over the past four years, especially the ones I've had the pleasure of meeting.

After attending the opening day performance of Miyako Odori, we couldn't help but stumble over maiko and geiko on the way to their evening engagements as we strolled through Gion, no doubt en route to Starbucks. Sasuga Gion! (Just what you would expect from Gion).

The young maiko Momiju looked pretty in pink as she fluttered through Pontocho.

She's no maiko, but she looked beautiful in her long-sleeved furisode kimono! Kawaii!

Where there are maiko, their are photographers. (Mameteru)


Monday, May 19, 2008

Miyako Odori Kimono and The Art of Gion

Kyoto Rewind: April 1st, 2008

'Uniform' kimono worn by geiko and maiko in the opening prelude, autumn scene, and finale of Gion Kobu's annual spring dance: Miyako Odori.

Before the maiko and geiko of Gion Kobu grace the stage to perform Miyako Odori, the Dance of the Old Capital, overly-anxious guests like me try to curb their enthusiasm by browsing the exhibit of artwork done by the maiko and geiko themselves, including paintings, calligraphy, and flower arrangements. A few of the famous "uniform" kimono the dance is famous for are also on display, highlighting different designs and themes used over the years.

Oil painting of two geiko wearing the Miyako Odori 'uniform' kimono and hanakanzashi (flowered hair ornaments) by the geiko Suzuko.

Kimono design used in the fifth year of Heisei, 1993.

My personal favorite, worn in the fifty-third year of Showa, 1978.

This design must have been the height of kimono chic in Showa's fifty-nineth year, 1984.

I loved this simple silhouette which captures the mystique, innocent playfulness and youthful beauty of a maiko. I wish I knew who painted it!

Another lovely portrait, artist unknown.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

SNL: Japanese Version of The Office (with Translation)

Most of The Office's fans probably already know that the popular American zitcom is actually a remake of a British comedy. In this hillarious digital short from Saturday Night Live, the creator of the original British version, Ricky Gervais, explains how he was inspired by a Japanese TV show.


Pam: Hello. Dunder Mifflin. This is Pam.

Micheal: Pamo Pamo Pamo Pamoooooooo-san.

Pam: Micheal. What is it?

Micheal: Just being original.


Micheal: I am the funniest boss in Japan. (Coffee cup reads: Funniest boss in the world).

Jim: (calling Dwight) Where's the stapler?

Dwight: (Finding the stapler in a blob of Jello) Fool!

Micheal: What's going on?

Dwight, Jim, Pam: (Bowing to Micheal) Please excuse me. Please excuse me. Please excuse me. Please, excuse me.

(Princess Tampon commercial)

Micheal: I am the regional manager.

Dwight: I am the assistant regional manager.

Micheal: The regional manager's assistant! Why are you up here? Ok! Let's exercise!

Pam: Everyone really loves when Micheal messes up!

Micheal: Well, it was a good day. We did a good job. What do you think (to the bobble head)? Yes, yes, yes!


Dwight: Cheers!

(Produced by Souya Sara and Souya Hana)

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Kenniji: Where the Hanamikoji Ends

Kyoto Rewind: April 1, 2008

Raijin, God of Lightening and Thunder, a detail of the "Wind Thunder Gods" folding screen on display at Kenniji.

The Hanami-koji, or "Flower-viewing Lane", is for many, the heart of Gion. Marked by the brilliant bengara walls of the Ichiriki Teahouse which sits conspicuously on the corner of the intersection with Shijo, it is lined with ochaya (teahouses, places where geisha entertain), okiya (like boarding houses where geisha and maiko live), traditional restaurants and shops. Tourists flock to the Hanami-kouji hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive geisha, but at the far end of this bustling traditional entertainment district and tourist hotspot are the sprawling grounds and majestic temple buildings of Kenniji, Kyoto's oldest Zen temple.

A man in a moment of silence in the garden of Kyoto's oldest Zen temple, Kenni-ji. Founded in 1202 by the priest Eisai, it was patterned after Bai-zhang-shan, China's first Zen monastary, in accordance with the Song dynasty style of architecture.

The garden is done in the "dry mountains and water style" often
found in Zen temples. It seeks to achieve the effect of an ocean or lake dotted with mountains without the actual use of water (represented by the raked stones). It also uses the "borrowed scenery" technique, borrowing the large hall behind the garden to enhance the overall view.

"Wind and Thunder Gods" folding screen by Sotatsu Tawaraya, a national treasure of Japan.

This painting commemorated the 800th anniversary of Kenni-ji's founding in 2002. It measures 11.4 meters by 15.7 meters (the size of 108 tatami mats- a common unit of measure in Japan) and is drawn with the finest quality ink on thick traditional Japanese paper. It was created in the gymnasium of an elementary school in Hokkaido and took just under 2 years to complete.

Paintings of dragons are often found on the ceilings of Zen temples, as dragons are believed to be protectors of the Buddhist teachings. They are also considered to be gods of water, sending nourishing rain of the teachings of Buddhism down onto its followers.

This painting offers a unique and profound alternative to the customary portrayal of a single dragon emerging from a large circle representing the universe .

Cho On Tei, "the garden of the sound of the tide", a simple garden nestled between two main buildings and surrounded by raised, wooden walkways and corridors. It's san-zon-seki, the central set of three stones representing the Buddha and two Zen monks, are surrounded by zazen-seki, stones used for seated meditation, and maple trees, creating relaxing, beautiful scenes from every direction.

Two main halls embrace the inner garden with covered wooden corridors of smooth, polished wood. The repetitive, symmetrical use of simple, geometrical shapes and lines in the temple's architecture stands in stark contrast to the lush, seemingly chaotic landscape of the garden.

Even on a gray day, I always enjoy the reverent tranquility and meditative atmosphere of Kenniji. It's so much fun to wander through the dimly lit buildings, slipperlessly sliding slowly down the corridors, feeling every plank and imperfection in the wooden floor boards through my socks, smelling the incense all around me, pretending I've traveled back in time. Sitting in the spacious, open tatami rooms, gazing out onto the inner garden, the brilliant red ribbon of carpet complimenting the garden's verdancy and silvertone stones. I always feel invigorated and refreshed, with just a tinge of sadness, when I leave.

Lucky for me, I step outside and find myself in Kyoto! Not just Kyoto, but Gion, the heart of the Old Capital's cultural traditions. My saddness disappears like dew in the sunshine, no matter how dreary the day.