Midori Matsuri Sabae Fukui

Japanese Hospitality and Summer Hangovers

Summer in Japan: hot, humid days that turn the act of sandwich building into an Olympic event;  cold noodles with equally chilled dipping sauces; and festivals offering grilled food, live music, and a chance to embarrass yourself on a public karaoke stage.

I have no trouble taking part in the latter two summer experiences alone. Heading to my local festival — or matsuri (お祭り) — alone, however, seemed more daunting. There is a sizable population of foreigners in this part of Fukui prefecture, but most tend to come from socially oppressed parts of Southeast or Central Asia. White faces tend to stick out like the proverbially painful non-finger appendage. Woe is the fate of the white man.

Despite my reservations, I went to the festival armed with a budget of 1200 yen (~10 USD) and the certainty that, at best, I’d be stared at uncertainly as I munched my way around the festival. My meager budget proved more than enough for a wonderful experience, and my assumption about my reception, well, that was more than just a little cynical.  Continue reading →


Through the Lens Thursday: Philosoraptor Lives in Japan

You quickly come to notice just how many characters there are in day to day life in Japan. Pikachu smiles cheerfully from the side of a bus; Anpanman gives the peace sign outside of the local agricultural co-op; Hello Kitty warns you to keep the air clean for everyone and not smoke at the local train station.

Character advertisement is nothing new. Mickey Mouse and his ilk are plastered across the U.S. trying to get people to buy junk, visit the Happiest Place on Earth, and what have you. Here, though, it’s taken to another level. My Japanese teacher put it like this: movies, companies, etc. that have good characters succeed. The rest don’t.”

Which is why you can find the prefecture’s mascot printed on 100-yen shop tissues. It’s why every town you visit offers its own spin on anthropomorphic creatures, ranging from the marine to the avian, the cute to the ridiculous.

Tsuruga, a hub city that connects central Fukui prefecture to the coast, recently upped its character game by installing a riff on the famous “Philosoraptor” at the local JR station. Fukui is quite famous for its important role in dinosaur finds, research, and the like, so the move makes sense.

He or she isn’t called Philosoraptor outright, mind you; might be somebody would have to be compensated for that. Instead, the Hamlet-esque pose is just enough to get those of us who spend too much time on the web thinking.

If you’ve spent some time in Japan, what’s the most interesting or absurd character you’ve come across? Let me know in the comments below! 

Through the Lens Thursday: The First Train Out

Though I didn’t think so when I was growing up, I had a really good childhood. I can’t remember a year when we didn’t take at least one trip. Sometimes it was only as far as Gettysburg, PA, though often we’d make the 20-hour trek to Walt Disney World, some 1,100 miles south of my home in Western New York.

I hated how early we had to get up to make our trips. Getting to Disney meant leaving at three in the morning; that way we could make most of the trip by midnight. Gettysburg, only a five-hour tour in the motorized carriage, still required beating the sun. Especially in my oilier, grumpier teen years, I was not fun to get going, I’d bet.

Now, though, there are few things I like more than getting up early for a trip. The world smells and looks completely different at sunrise. Muggy summer air blowing through the train windows, sweet with hints of flowers and baby crops, makes the perfect companion to processed orange juice at 6 A.M.

Especially here in Japan, where everyone is so close together, it’s hard to find a time in the day when you aren’t hearing what others are up to. Catching the first train, then, is a cure for a few things: nostalgia, the insanity that comes with constant ambient noise, and the need to see the world without it looking back.

Through the Lens Thursday: What Do You Want to Do Now?

I think I’m giving my new friends a mixed impression. At the bar, at the noodle shop, I’m fine just to sit back and let everybody else talk. I drink in the smell of ancient tatami mats and wood that make my grandpa seem like a newborn. So long as the vittles, beer, and conversation are equally plentiful, I’m good with just relaxing.

Once we get outside, though, I’m the boisterous, blathering fool I always was, and likely always will be. Is that a castle nestled in the clouds over there? We need to climb that. Now that we’re at the top of the castle, let’s go play around in that hilly woodland in the distance. No, why are you hopping in the car? Let’s just walk.

I’m terrible to be friends with.

Through the Lens Thursday: Tickled by Wanderlust

Since I was 14, I’d dreamed about coming to Japan for an extended stay. I love it here, but something has changed. When I think of where I’ll be getting my morning coffee next year, I’m not thinking about my favorite coffee and confectionery dealer in Sabae’s Yokoecho. Instead, I’m thinking about taking down the purified forty-weight you can find in Old Montreal. I sometimes think about the alcohol-infused offerings at Boulder Coffee back home in Rochester.

In short, both wanderlust and the want to get home are making my feet extremely itchy. I’m going to do what I can to make my last five months in Japan memorable, but I’ll be glad to bid her salty shores farewell when I go — for a little while, anyway.

Be Back Soon!

Hey everyone,

It’s been really exciting regularly writing for Words from the Road again. There has been a slight gap for new posts of a few weeks recently. This is both good and bad. On the one hand, it’s good, because I’ve been getting a lot of freelance assignments in addition to my teaching job. On the other, well, it means a less interesting, less vibrant space here for us all.

I’m happy to say I have a few posts that are just about ready to go live. They just need that final run through with a red pen.

In other words, WfR will be back soon 🙂

A Run Through the Graveyard of the Fireflies

My headlamp illuminates a hedgerow atop cement foundation, and there are suddenly a pair of eyes fixed on me. Thinking I’ve finally crossed one of the marauding moon bears or boars I’m constantly warned about, I quickly tamp the switch on my headgear. The world goes dark, save the headlights of the rare car that runs through the dirt pathway between the rice paddies. The eyes — like some creature of science fiction that feeds on light, they’ve absorbed the rays of my torch and continue to glow in the darkness.

The bulbs only keep their pose for a moment longer. If this is an animal, its eyes stretch impossibly far apart. As the two specks of bioluminescence dance in the darkness, others join in the revelry. A sentient ember rises from the irrigation ditch; another couple emerge, entwined in something beyond my understanding from a green house. The pulsating population paints pyres across the smooth glass of the surrounding fields. I stumble into the enclave of the firefly.

“See Them While You Can”

Growing up in rural New York, fireflies were fascinating but ultimately mundane parts of my childhood. When a friend offered to take me to a heavily wooded part of Aichi prefecture during my university days — a trip planned with the simple hope of laying eyes on tiny flecks of waltzing flame — I was interested, but I couldn’t understand why the special trip was needed.

Photo courtesy of Flickr's m-louis. Used under a Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Photo courtesy of Flickr’s m-louis. Used under a Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

The archipelago’s most famous firefly species are named after two warring clans from Japanese history and folklore: the Genji and the Heike. Legend holds that following the Battle of Dannomura in 1185, fallen samurai from both sides were reborn as fireflies. I can’t say how much the story is believed, but as a lover of history and someone who thinks the world is a better place with a touch of magic, it’s fun to entertain.

Immortal souls of fallen bushi or not, fireflies — like so many other creatures — are losing the battle against habitat loss and the mass destruction of industrialized agriculture.  Some modern conservation efforts have proven extremely effective, quadrupling local populations of fireflies. Still, as Japan Times writer Rowan Hooper puts it, fireflies are running out of fuel. You’d do best to “see them while you can.

Get more Words from the Road by following the Instagram page!