Thursday, April 29, 2010

Judgment Day, bitches

This morning instead of getting some much-needed sleep or exercise I took my ass to a mini field trip organized by my kimono school. It was quite literally down the street from where I live, at a wholesaler I have passed by many times on my way to loftier times with a Suntory highball. We listened to a very old and small man speak about a dyeing technique that has been around for hundreds of years and is now only used by four people in Japan, all of whom are also getting up there. This has nothing to do with what I'm about to tell you, but I figure a little background information never hurts.

After the lecture while women were swarming around ordering bolts of yukata fabric, I ended up talking to the shacho, who happened to mention seeing a large group of foreigners near the local station with the words "trial day, May 21" on their T-shirts. He had no idea what trial this referred to and thought I might know, because you know, whities stick together. We discussed this several minutes with one of my teachers, murmuring over what this group of whities could be going to trial for.

On our way to lunch later, who should the beau and I spot but one of these trial whities. It also turns out that the shacho can't read Japanese because the lone guy's T-shirt said "judgment day" but I had not clued into this yet so when we walked by and he looked like he might hand us a flier, I asked him what the trial day was on his T-shirt and when he looked confused (in retrospect probably because he doesn't even know what's on his T-shirt), I asked what was going down on May 21. I figured it was a labour dispute or cross-border kidnapping case but the guy looked at me and in all seriousness said, "the end of the world." I must have looked a bit confused and I honestly almost asked him if he was joking, because the next thing out of his mouth is that "it's written in the bible." Well then. My people are only down with the older version of that book. Cue me power-walking away and asking the beau why the fuck I am running into bible thumpers in my small Tokyo neighbourhood.

Thank god for iPhones, as I was able to quickly ascertain that a certain Christian group had sent people to Tokyo for a couple weeks to teach the sinning Asian masses about Judgment Day next year. I'm not a huge fan of proselytizing and even less so when they come to Japan to distribute leaflets. Why not put the money towards people who literally need saving, like those down in Haiti? I'm not sure how many fliers whitie-on-the-corner managed to beg off onto people, but I've a sneaaaking suspicion that Japanese people aren't going to be particularly receptive to a religious salesman. They weren't a couple hundred years ago and I don't think much has changed. Even I was taken completely unawares when I probably would have been more hip to the situation had we been in Canada or the States.

I'm now heading out to see the Azuma Odori geisha dances in Shinbashi, to see how they measure up to those in Kagurazaka, which I have been attending every year. I may be getting judged next year, but at least I am feeling pretty fucking cultured.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Getting purdy

I suppose if it was my own wedding I would have been more careful, but I woke up at 6.30 last Sunday morning with the distinct feeling that someone was sawing a serrated edge of some sort into my skull. I had intended my fake fiance debut to be calm, cool and headache-free but instead I opted for numerous beers, a bottle of white and two glasses of champagne the night before. This was definitely not the way to look radiant and heavenly.

I felt trapped in our 17th floor hotel room with nothing resembling a drugstore in walking distance and open at that hour. It was like being on a roof when someone's stolen the ladder. Plus there was the small matter of the 7.30 am salon appointment I had to make a few floors down. Just as I was descending into a pit of fuuuuuuuuuuuuuccccccccccccckkkkkkk, I thought I remembered catching a glimpse of a lone Advil at the bottom of my make-up bag months ago but a) didn't trust my memory and b) even if it was there I had probably already used it to quash another bout of irresponsibility. I held my breath as I approached the clear bag and would have shrieked in joy upon finding my saving grace would it not have set off another round of throbbing pulses in my head. I brushed off the lint and darkish smears and popped that sucker fast.

I somehow made it to the salon looking vaguely presentable (clothed with make-up and wild hair), marvelling to myself at the quick-acting Advil. The beau's mom and aunt were also getting their hair did so we sat in a neat row in front of the mirrors, caped in 1960s salon pink. I had numerous conversations with the beau in the week leading up to the Event of the Season and while he wanted me to go with something very grown-up and chic, I was thinking something more along the lines of subdued 109-girl. I refrained from relaying this to my stylist but we briefly discussed what to do with my bangs and that the main theme for the back was volume. This was about all I could handle at that hour and I fervently prayed that despite my lack of instruction, I wouldn't walk out of there with Southern beauty pageant hair.
After getting rollered, the stylist began to craft what I can only describe as a mini-Antoinette do on the crown of my head, with a subtle nod to traditional Japanese hairstyles at the front. I figured with the volume I had happening at the back, I really didn't need any more ornamentation but she talked the beau's mom into buying me a kanzashi (hair pin) to stick in the front part of my nest. Yes, it contained both diamantes and pearls, but was more Breakfast at Tiffany's than princess cosplay so I let it go.

Our next stop was the dressing room, where we all took advantage of their kitsuke (dressing) services. I had planned to do it myself but I knew with an early morning deadline and the sheer pressure of the event, I would start schvitzing just looking at my kimono, so I tacked it on to my salon appointment. There is nothing like getting dressed like a professional - you simply can't get that much torque on your own - and the dresser had me cocooned in a matter of minutes. Going in, I wasn't sure what to do with my obi, as again, the beau and I had conflicting ideas about what was appropriate. He said I should go simple and elegant and just do a double taiko (drum) bow, which is what his mom and aunt would be doing as it is the most formal style. However, since I'm not married and am younger than Baby Mama and Baby Daddy, my kimono teacher said I could also do a more fun and elaborately shaped bow. My dresser and I compromised these two ideas, and she tied a double taiko in the back but with wings coming out of it (um, yeah). If we get to the heart of my feelings on the matter, just because someone didn't use a condom doesn't mean I should sacrifice the eligibility to wear a louder style that my age and single status affords me.

As we left the salon, I felt like I was being sent off to prom by ten Japanese women, and until the elevator doors opened, both my dresser and my stylist hovered around me doing last minute touch-ups. What can I say, it was showtime.

In case it isn't obvious, I am the slightly taller one at 5'6.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Postcard from the Kaisha: Bathroom Edition 2

Although you may call me a liberal for believing that women should have the right to do their bathroom business without the aid of a rushing water sound device, I do have to draw the line somewhere, and that somewhere happens to be gargling. Really ladies, are we doing this outside the house now?

It's bad enough that I must contend with the occasional sound of gargling and the even graver offense of what I can only call horking, when passing by the men's bathroom, but put me next to a Secretary in the ladies' room who has taken the liberty of throwing her head back and having a good old throaty gargle, and you can bet money on the fact that I will turn and give her a dirty look. No she will not see it, but it does make me feel better and not a little smug that despite my Pee Free morals, I will not subject others to the offensive and frankly gross sound of liquid being kept in motion in my throat by a stream of air from my lungs. We are not talking about prissy feminine bubbles in the throat here people, but about a deep watery pleghm sound that could rival those coming from behind the door with an icon of a human in pants.

I realize these women have probably been told that they should gargle to avoid the flu but really, let's keep this shit at home. Or, if we really want to be lady-like about it, start installing sinks in bathroom stalls so that the Sound Princess can do double duty. Yukity yuk.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Learning how to talk nice

This past weekend I went to see the annual geisha dances in Kagurazaka, a yearly ritual I have had since moving here. The beau even decided to escort me this year, despite feeling the same way about Japanese dance as I do his fishing game - meh. When it was finished we went out to a couple places in the area and happened to run into his kimono wholesaler customer, to whom I went for advice when I was purchasing my kimono a few months ago, at a bar. The beau was on a bathroom trip when the Wholesaler arrived, so he greeted him and affirmed that yes, that was his girlfriend sitting across the bar. When he returned, the beau, in true paternal fashion, told me to go and greet the Wholesaler, thanking him for his previously sought advice.

Now, I am not a child, and I like to think that despite my potty mouth and otherwise occasional questionable behaviour, I am pretty good in professional settings and around parents. My mouth and manners clean up real nice, so to speak. When it comes to Japanese however, I am constantly thinking about the wording I use with VIPs, and fretting that I'm not being polite enough. I wasn't even sure if the Wholesaler knew who I was, our visit at his office being so brief.

In true Japanese fashion, I wasn't even properly introduced to the Wholesaler when we went to him for advice. The beau had spoken of me to him before and he knew who I was, but there was no Wholesaler, meet G, G, meet Wholesaler. Because of this, I felt like I was in a don't-speak-until-spoken-to relationship with the man, and wasn't going to get up and brazenly interrupt his intimate conversation with his geisha companion just to say Whassup. I figured if he acknowledged me I could then start kotowing. Apparently this is not the case and the beau kept insisting that I get up and go over there. I eventually made him come with me to smooth out my entrance, and I launched into my politest thank you so much for the other day - thanks to you I was able to buy my kimono. A family sale? Why yes, please do me the favour of letting me know about it and I will certainly come by. Tra la la. My lovely friend who was with us also popped up and according to the beau's later assessment, led an excellent segue that landed her an invitation to the family sale too.

Later than evening, I asked the beau if my greeting had been appropriate. He said it was fine but this led us to further discussion on the ins and outs of etiquette here. I explained to him that had we been in Canada, I would have jumped up right away and said hello to the acquaintance, but this being Japan, I was unsure of how to act towards someone I had half-met once and as a result, felt it better to be seen and not heard. Apparently I was way off and should have immediately made my way over to him to pay my respects. I'm not sure what it is that paralyzes me but I think part of it has to do with feeling like my "respects" might be shaky to begin with and not wanting to bother the person, I wait until I'm spoken to. I would call this the "less is more approach." I now see the errors of my ways.

At another point in the evening I was struck completely by surprise when one of the geisha I know who had danced earlier that day, asked me if her performance had been OK. What do you even say to a professional like that? I was a bit dumbfounded and managed to mangle out a response, assuring her that it had been fantastic. Here too, things are a bit murky for me. At the dance she gave me profuse thanks for coming and I thanked her for arranging my ticket and told her that the dances had been great. Beyond this, how much am I to compliment her without sounding like a blithering idiot? This is one of the things I will just have to learn with time but I'm thinking I need to start being a little more vocal when my inner voice is telling me to shut up. For now, I can only dream of the day when my Japanese manners are so flawlessly executed it brings a tear to even the most steely polite Japanese woman.

II. Licensed to ill

In the week leading up to my test I went to my school several times to practice but since I wasn't taking lessons, I could wear my normal clothes. This actually proved to be more of a hindrance than anything, because practicing dressing a mannequin while wearing kimono yourself trains your body to move in a certain way and you become accustomed to the restricted range of motion imposed by the kimono. Wearing my work clothes was a disconcerting feeling - not having long sleeves or the need to kneel with my legs firmly together. Once one of the teachers watching me warned that my movements were changing when I wore Western clothes and to pretend I was wearing kimono.

The morning of the test I went to pick up my kimono, obi and nagajyuban that had been finished literally just in time. This made me a little nervous because I had no time to practice with the kimono and to soften up the obi a little. Everything was folded into tissue paper and then wrapped in paper kimono bags.

I opened them up one by one and was almost afraid to touch each piece, lest I mark it with my mere mortal touch in some way. I do realize that I will have to overcome this in order to get my cost-per-wear down. The end of the fabric bolt of both the kimono and obi were also tucked into the packages, as they contained stamps and seals with the information on where the silk was woven, dyed, embroidered, etc.

And here is a sneak peak of the obi before I took it out. You'll have to wait on the kimono, I will post pictures in my wedding post-mort in a couple weeks.

I will never forget what it felt like putting the kimono on for the first time. It fit like a fucking dream and I don't think I would have ever known precisely what that feels like without trying on a made-to-order kimono. It's all very well getting any kimono wrapped around you, but when it is made to fit, the difference is palpable. The silk was heavy and cool to the touch and because there was plenty of length on the sleeves and height, the way it draped was noticeably different from any other kimono I've ever worn. It is this feeling that the kimono belonged on my body that has slowly changed my way of thinking from are these women fucking crazy buying new kimono to maybe they know what they're doing after all.

Dressed in my new finery at the school, my main teacher quickly ran over how the test would go: when our names were called we were to enter the room bearing our props in front of us like we were carrying a tray; we were then to bow and go over to our mannequin, put down the props and wait for the gun to go off; finally, we were to bow once again while saying please look upon me favorably or however you like to translate it, and begin our dressing fervour. The tatami room had been transformed and there were now five stools lined against the wall for the teachers, two mannequin in the middle and a tall folding paper screen behind which we had to wait to be called. There was one other student taking her test that day, and we smiled nervously at each other as we folded and took inventory of all the ties and undergarments we would need to dress our mannequin. My hands wouldn't stop shaking at this point and I couldn't banish the look of terror that had crept across my face. Despite telling myself that I was just there to dress a mannequin in front of five women, I was buzzing with nerves as I waited behind the screen to hear my name. My hand may have even turned purple at this point...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

I. Licensed to ill

Or at least to dress someone in kimono.

It's been a couple weeks since my test but I will be feeling the financial strain of it probably until the fall. I ended up having another jaw-dropping experience shortly after being told that I needed to buy a formal kimono, which entailed me buying an extremely expensive piece of wood. 60,000 yen expensive to be exact.

On the last lesson before my test, my teacher gave me a piece of paper outlining the test day schedule, with instructions to be in formal kimono, with hair and make-up done. And to bring the test fee - 60,000 yen. I just about choked up my tea that they put out at the end of every lesson when I saw that figure. I take my kimono dressing seriously but what on earth could justify a $600 test fee? You can probably take a test to pilot a plane for less than that and with kimono we are only dealing with fabric, not heavy machinery. I stewed on this for a few days, trying to decide whether to push back my test date, or at least let my teacher know that I would have liked to be informed of the fee a bit earlier because surprise! I don't have 6 Gs sitting in the bank, nor does my nonexistent filthy rich husband.

A delicate issue to say the least. Do I just put up and shut up? The real me wanted to call my teacher and ask her to explain the fee, after telling her that I hadn't been expecting such a sum of money and why didn't they tell me sooner?! but the foreigner undercover in Japan wanted to just say shou ga nai (it can't be helped) and pay the damn money. For the first few days I began to harbor a lot of resentment towards my teachers whom I had previously had nothing but the utmost respect for. I felt cornered and uninformed - why had they not told me months before the test that I would need a nice kimono (and 60,000 yen test fee)? Surely they have met with surprise before from students caught kimono-less and unaware, and especially being non-Japanese I don't have any kimono hand-me-downs from female relatives. I love that they treat me like all of the other students, not dumbing down anything or trying to simplify the verbal explanations during my lessons. On the other hand, there was a small part of me that wished they had thought a few steps ahead, which may have raised flags as to whether I a) would actually have a formal kimono (not a far stretch as they have seen my casual off-the-rack kimono) and b) knew about the test fee (not having lived in Japan my whole life, I am not acquainted with how expensive seriously pursuing a stream of learning is here).

So there I was, feeling left in the dark, and wondering whether I would have guessed my fate in advance had I been Japanese. There were tears of frustration shed. I tried to imagine what senpai before me had done when suddenly faced with lifestyle-interrupting expenses. I refuse to believe that not more than a few women were unpleasantly surprised to learn they would need to purchase a kimono for their test. This went on and on for a few days until I finally called my teacher and simply asked. I told her that I hadn't known about the fee and was a bit surprised at how high it was and she explained that it had been written on a piece of paper I'd once been casually handed before even beginning the course. Perhaps in an effort to make me feel better about it, she told me I would be getting a plank of wood with my name on it bearing the national certification. Well if I'm getting a plank of wood out of the deal...

This is definitely a rich woman's pursuit.

Please do it again?!

Changing it up I see, they did a little fliparoo on the yellow/white balance and the wording this month. Creepy's life is one long sob story: first his mistress has a baby and now he has a broken leg. Perhaps the two have a cause and effect relationship. That is all - this month frankly bores me.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

I guess fiance is better than ho on call

The wedding is only a few weeks away, dear readers, and you know what that means. Time to get my hair did, my nails pretty and my face facialized. If any of you are tuning in after some time away, I didn't suddenly get engaged or pregnant, I'm preparing for the wedding of Baby Daddy and Baby Mama (do I have to stop calling them that once it's legal?), which is, I assure you, going to be the event of the season.

I've touched before on some of my qualms about my presence at the wedding and just how the beau's family is going to explain their dirty little secret that is the child-free white girl shacked up in sin with their eldest. As it turns out, I need worry no more, for there was a flurry of phone calls shortly before I went back to Canada between Tokyo and the Great North, during one of which the beau's dad asked slash told him that I would be introduced as his fiance. At Japanese wedding receptions everyone receives a seating plan that includes each guest's name and seat location. I will be sitting at the family table on Baby Daddy's side so you know there will be trouble when some guest's eyes are cruising along the names written in kanji until they fall upon some English name written in our ugly foreign alphabet and someone is going to have some explaining to do. Namely, about just who that mysterious whitie is.

Problem solved. While still rather unorthodox, it is better to have a fiance at the wedding than a girlfriend, especially when we are talking about the chonan, or eldest son. Call me mildly cynical, but I can't help fantasizing that guests' will deem us odd for being together four years and attending the wedding of the younger brother while being unmarried ourselves. God forbid I don't get married right away and start popping out some babies. I have never been a dirty family secret before! Whatevs, if anything untoward is said, I will just point to the bride's stomach, although frankly, it will probably still be concave at that point. And really, who are we kidding - I am practically gagging for something dramatic to happen for your reading pleasure. Unfortunately for you, it is a lunch reception, which means there will probably be less time/alcohol to fuel any outbursts. I'll try my best though, promise.

As amused as I am by my new role as faux undercover fiance, I was touched when the beau related a phone conversation he'd had with his mom some weeks ago. She lamented to him that she had wanted us to get married first, not to keep things in their "natural order" (order of sons that is, not marriage then baby order), but because she's been wanting me to officially join the clan for some time now. At one point in the conversation she told the beau that she would send him money to borrow for an engagement ring, one that he would have had to select and give to me within about five days as she wanted me to have it before I went off to Canada. You see, she is concerned that my parents are concerned that I have had a boyfriend for such a long time with no immediate wedding plans. I think that is the least of my parents' worries, especially given they were together for ten years before marrying and having me. I don't think this is necessarily a cultural difference however, for I'm sure there are some of you out there that have gotten the when are you getting married/having kids pressures from family.

So there you have it. We are T minus two weeks on this joyful event and I still need to find an obiage and obijime for my kimono and a bow tie for the beau. Even if we did get married, custom dictates that wedding invitations here rarely include a plus 1, so this could be our only wedding together in Japan ever. I am determined to enjoy myself. And my ability to drink champagne.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The one about the yakuza and the hotel room

If you had asked me how I ended up in a hotel room with a card-carrying yakuza one recent weekend night, I would have been hard pressed to come up with a short explanation. This is not going to be a tale of an illicit tattooed love affair, so you can put that out of your mind right now.

It wasn't just the yakuza and I. We were joined by a wrist-cutter, a girl woman, one of the beau's baito (part-time worker) and the beau himself. That I found myself on the 6th floor of the Smile Hotel clinking beer cans with a member of organized crime is all the beau's doing, really. He is the one who started fishing in the first place.

The beau, bless his analog heart, is not a technology man. He didn't use a computer growing up and so has missed out on what used to be the novel idea of "online community." Missing out on chatroom socialization ("14 y/o blond with green eyes looking for fun"), he hasn't had the experience of connecting with people he doesn't know via the Internet. Until the fishing game. God knows what compelled him to start, but he is now playing a fishing game on his cellphone with hundreds of thousands of people around Japan. And by extension, learning what it is like to have online friends, a concept most of us have long since first experienced. Do you remember what it was like first talking to people over the Internet? I do. I was on my island in the South Pacific and felt liberated to be able to talk to people online, and boys in particular, given I went to an all girls' school. Let's not go there though.

So this particular weekend several of the beau's fishing buddies descended upon Tokyo from distant locales: Y-san the Kansai yakuza, Wrist-cutter (so named because she has made public her habit and the beau takes calls from her at all hours to talk about her problems) and Girlwoman, a smoking and drinking dynamo who looks about ten when she pulls her sweatshirt over her folded knees and sits on the bed like a dumpling. It was so cute watching the beau get ready for his first Internet meet-up, I felt like I was sending him off to his first day of school. And would you know it, I couldn't resist sneaking in a little "don't tell anyone where you live" spiel as he was stepping into the elevator.

I hadn't intended to join this meeting of fishing minds at all and had a date with a dark bar in Asakusa that evening, but on the last train home I get a call from the beau telling me to come to the Smile Hotel. How could I resist? The chance to meet a real live yakuza doesn't come along very often in my life as a salarygirl.

The hotel door opened and there was the baito, urging me to come in to the capsule-sized room. As I shook hands with Wrist-cutter and Girlwoman, they both looked at my hand clasping theirs as if it was the hand of god on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. And I'm not even being narcissistic here, promise. These girls were from the boonies but come on, there are foreigners they can touch in the boonies too, am I right?! I'll admit it was kind of cute, I haven't encountered any foreigner-deprived Japanese in a while and they are always extremely eager for any morsel of foreign strangeness thrown their way. As I shook hands with Y-san, he remarked that I looked like a doll. I like him immediately.

I perched on the bed, keeping up my doll-like facade, and the drinking commenced. Y-san cracked open an Asahi Superdry for me and we clanked to the fishing gods. It was funny to see how this group of previous strangers was now acting, having spent the evening at dinner and karaoke before retiring to the hotel room. They were still calling each other by their screen names but after a couple slip-ups by the beau and his baito, everyone rattled off their full names, seemingly relieved to give up the pretense. Wrist-cutter even started crying at one point when the beau started waxing on about how great it was that this group of people from all over Japan (and the token Canadian) could get together and socialize like this. He made it sound like an invention akin to sliced bread.

As for Y-san, what a sweetheart. And he had all his fingers too. He kept extending an invitation for us to meet him in Osaka and never having been there, we are definitely going to take him up on the offer, for what better way to explore Osaka than with someone "in the business." Don't even ask about when he took his shirt off and pulled down his pants. Swoon. I am not a fan of tattooed men in general, but this mostly has to do with the tattoos chosen - ugly, tasteless junk. Maori men and Japanese yakuza however, I make an exception for. Y-san had a full back tattoo of a gorgeous koi (carp) that covered his butt and finished behind his knees. He even let me touch it. I get a little tired of the repetitiveness of the word kakkoii in Japanese to mean cool, but shit this man embodied it.

At one point in the evening the beau told me this would be an excellent chance for a Q&A session in case I had any yakuza-related questions burning to be asked. I wish I had known earlier and I would have brought a list! We talked about the tattoo thing and the cutting off of fingers (he hasn't fucked up that bad yet) but had I known I would be in the presence of such a man, I would have gone prepared. Y-san was extremely sweet but upon request gave us his "work eyes," which are pretty frightening to behold. I couldn't believe how easily he could just switch off and I'm sure for him, that night afforded him a rare opportunity to be fisherman Y-san instead of yakuza Y-san.